Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, top, star in 'American Hustle,' and Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in '12 Years a Slave.' Both are up for best picture Oscars. (Detroit News photo illustration)
Some years, the winner of the best picture Oscar is a given. There was no serious competition against “The Artist” in 2011.
Some years, it’s a clear face-off. Think of the tough, little-seen Iraq War film “The Hurt Locker” in 2009 up against the most successful film ever, the special-effects driven “Avatar.” David toppled Goliath in the end.
And some years, it’s all-out chaos. Welcome to 2014.
Not that all nine best picture nominees have an equal chance. Not by a long shot. But there are at least three films considered strong contenders this year, with a couple of other dark horses that might sneak into the winner’s circle if the lead contenders cancel one another out.
In predicting a winner, I’m going with the conventional wisdom that, with enough things equal, the Academy will drift toward that which makes the Academy feel good about itself. All these films are strong; the best among them are spectacular. What it likely will come down to is gravitas or “Gravity.”
Breaking it down
“Dallas Buyers Club”: This film about the early years of the AIDS epidemic certainly has the gravitas. But it doesn’t have the grand emotional wallop at the end that Oscar adores. Chances are high that it will win best actor for Matthew McConaughey and best supporting actor for Jared Leto, which will be plenty of gold.
“Her”: This offbeat jewel of a film about a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) who basically falls in love with his phone is wonderfully weird and endearing, but it doesn’t really have the emotional heft Oscar likes to see in best picture winners. It also may not appeal to the Academy’s many older members who aren’t quite as attached to their operating systems.
“Nebraska”: With a box office haul of fewer than $20 million, this is the year’s least-seen nominee. But it’s directed by seven-time nominee, two-time winner (for screenplays) Alexander Payne and features strong turns by best actor nominee Bruce Dern, 77, and supporting actress nominee June Squibb, 84, so it may have the support of all those seniors confused by “Her.” Still ... unlikely.
“Philomena”: There’s something of an unwritten rule that at least one British film needs to be nominated per year. But this film, which features Judi Dench playing wonderfully against type, may be at once too subtle in its humor and too controversial in its revelations about Catholic church adoptions. It’s a fine movie, but it doesn’t feel like a best picture winner.
“Captain Phillips”: The fact that neither star Tom Hanks nor director Paul Greengrass received nominations for this topical sea hijacking film probably means it doesn’t have the broad support it needs to win. Which is odd, because it’s such an Oscar film — filled with political and emotional heft and sparked by supporting actor nominee Barkhad Abdi’s startling performance, as well as Hanks’.
“The Wolf of Wall Street”: OK, here’s where things get interesting. A lot of people were surprised that “Wolf” scored five nominations, including Martin Scorsese for director, Leonardo DiCaprio for actor and Jonah Hill for supporting actor. But Scorsese is beloved, this is Hill’s second nomination and Leo’s fourth as an actor. It’s a long-shot still, but if the voting is scrambled enough, “Wolf” could sneak by.
“American Hustle”: There’s a lot going on here. This is director-writer David O. Russell’s third best picture nomination (with no wins) in four years. The movie has an actor in each of the acting categories, a rare feat. With its box office of $144 million and rising it’s the second-most popular best picture nominee. And it manages to combine politics, crime, romance, ambition and excess in a period piece based on actual events. It could end up sweeping the Oscars. Or it could win nothing. But it’s a definite contender.
“Gravity”: Also a major contender. The Academy rarely rewards fantasy, true, and the film is mostly a one-woman show. On the other hand, that woman is Sandra Bullock and this film was far and away the biggest moneymaker — more than $700 million worldwide — among the best picture nominees. It was also a major technical achievement, and it came out in October, so most voters had the chance to see it in a theater. Simply put, this and “Hustle” are likely the most enjoyed films among the nominees.
“12 Years a Slave”: This is not a movie you enjoy. This is a movie you admire, a movie that beats you down, a movie that forces you to face hard historical fact and gross abuse. It is the most brutally frank film about slavery in America that’s ever been made. Honoring it would be a way for the Academy to denounce an American shame. It has all the political and emotional gravitas anyone could ask for — and more than some might want to bear. It may or may not be a great movie, but it certainly feels like an important movie. And with almost $50 million at the domestic box office, it’s in the middle of the financial pack. Oscar likes to feel like he’s important. He likes to feel like he’s done the right thing.
Should win: “American Hustle”
Will win: “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: “American Hustle”
Will win: “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity”
Will win: Cuaron
Should win: Amy Adams for “American Hustle”
Will win: Cate Blanchett for “Blue Jasmine”
Should win: Matthew McConaughey for “Dallas Buyers Club”
Will win: McConaughey
Should win: Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyers Club”
Will win: Leto
Should win: Jennifer Lawrence for “American Hustle”
Will win: Lupita Nyong’o for “12 Years a Slave”
The 86th Annual Academy Awards
8:30 p.m. Sunday
Domestic box office for best picture nominees
$269 million: “Gravity”
$144 million: “American Hustle”
$113 million: “The Wolf of Wall Street”
$107 million: “Captain Phillips”
$49 million: “12 Years a Slave”
$33 million: “Philomena”
$25 million: “Dallas Buyers Club”
$24 million: “Her”
$16.5 million: “Nebraska”