Heres a prediction: You will lose money in your Oscar office pool.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
At least thats the case if you listen to the Hollywood pundits who predict a bunch of locks in this years categories.
The best-picture nominees for the 86th annual Academy Awards make up the strongest field in years, a mix of devastating historical dramas, stylish character clashes and visionary technical marvels. It doesnt matter who is hosting or what fashions will be displayed at the live show. It doesnt matter how tacky the production numbers are or who got left out of the In Memoriam tribute segment. This year the movies themselves are all that matters. The drama is built in.
Director Martin Scorsese (nominated for his 12th this year) once said, You dont make pictures for Oscars.
Perhaps. But Oscars have a way of ensuring those pictures remain immortalized.
Everybody adores Cate Blanchett. Shes gifted, classy and has geek credibility because of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unfortunately, not everyone is so enamored with Woody Allen especially during this last month when allegations of abuse resurfaced.
Therein lies the trickiness for predicting the best actress category. She appears to be a slam dunk in Allens Blue Jasmine for her portrayal of a Madoff-esque wife whose life of luxury in New York gets a dose of San Francisco reality. Shes won all the high-profile awards: SAG, BAFTA, Critics Choice and Golden Globe. (Although using the Globes to predict the Oscars is like relying on the Winter Olympics to predict the Stanley Cup.) Backlash against Allen appears to be the lone obstacle in her path.
Fellow nominees Judi Dench (for the surprisingly good Philomena) and Meryl Streep (for the surprisingly bad August: Osage County) are just there to fill out the category. Sandra Bullock (Gravity) has an outside shot, but she won recently for 2009s The Blind Side in a performance that has not aged well.
Blanchetts only true competition comes from Amy Adams as the swindler with a soul in American Hustle. Adams has received an astounding five Oscar nominations since 2006 and gone home empty-handed each year. Can she pull off the upset? Might be closer than everyone thinks.
Best actress: (60 percent certain) Blanchett
When Matthew McConaughey debuted as a sleazy hipster in 1993s Dazed and Confused, few predicted an Oscar-winning career. But credit goes to the Texas Adonis, who has admirably abandoned the frothy Kate Hudson vehicles that typified his 30s for hard-hitting character roles in his 40s.
Somehow McConaughey has emerged in this crazy-competitive category as the one to beat. Sure, hes got a lot of the requisite traits the academy likes to reward. Not the least of which is he lost dozens of pounds to play an AIDS patient who hustles his way around the system to help others afflicted with the disease in Dallas Buyers Club.
Aside from fellow scam artist Christian Bale (American Hustle), who doesnt have a chance of winning, three others could end up earning the statuette. Bruce Dern falls into the career-capper class with his subtle work as a deluded coot in Nebraska. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives arguably the best performance of the bunch as the free man forced into servitude in 12 Years a Slave. But the one to watch out for is Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Hes an incredibly popular star whos already notched three previous acting nominations without winning. He also gives his all-time best performance as the real-life Wall Street stock broker whose descent into decadence rivals a Roman emperor. DiCaprio is a force of nature in the film and proves more adept at comedy than anyone guessed.
Yet the wave of condemnation against Wolf for its borderline X-rated content and lack of moral justification makes it risky to bank on the star.
Of all the categories, this one is the most difficult to call.
Best actor: (40 percent certain) McConaughey
Its hard not to visualize Bill Murrays smarmy Hollywood correspondent running down Oscar predictions on Saturday Night Live. Hed hold up a board listing the nominees. When hed get to the supporting categories, hed wipe it clean while remarking, Who really cares?
Yet these categories are where the juiciest upsets traditionally occur.
Sally Hawkins is too forgettable in Blue Jasmine. June Squibb is too over-the-top in Nebraska. Julia Roberts is too one-dimensional in August: Osage County, and the talented Jennifer Lawrence is simply miscast in American Hustle. Deep down, did you believe the 23-year-old was convincing as the character she played? A burned-out, 30-something Long Islander whose lingering marriage is so unhappy she will do anything to escape? Its much easier to picture her killing off teenagers with a bow and arrow.
That leaves newcomer Lupita Nyongo in a performance that is simply astonishing in 12 Years a Slave. As the slave who is the masters favorite (and thus his wifes least favorite), she is asked to delve into dark recesses none of these performances can touch. She will win because she represents the years finest acting. And for Slave to earn best picture, it needs to win an additional major category.
Best supporting actress: (90 percent certain) Nyongo
Supporting categories almost never find both front-runners winning. Since Nyongo looks to be a shoe-in, that leaves this category ripest to frustrate pundits. Odd, considering most assume this is the easiest race to predict.
Its Jared Leto.
Or perhaps not.
In Dallas Buyers Club, Leto portrays a transgender patient who at first repulses then eventually wins over the good old boy played by McConaughey. He does a nice job with this fictional character in a nonfictional film. But that also illustrates the downside. This role seems awfully familiar, straight from the Hollywood been-there-done-that playbook. As much as the academy members love to reward performers who gain/lose weight, they also get smitten by anyone who dresses like a member of the opposite sex.
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle are intriguing inclusions but dont factor into the race. Jonah Hill as the drugged-up corporate dweeb in The Wolf of Wall Street makes an interesting alternative. He could sneak into the winners circle, even though most voters think of him more as a comedian than actor.
The upset pick to watch for is Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave. He plays a passive-aggressive plantation owner, a man of hard countenance whose alcoholism intensifies his unfathomable cruelty. Its the best villain of the year. Fassbender also has legions of supporters, from those who enjoy his blockbuster work (X-Men: First Class) to those who feel he was ripped off three years ago for not getting a nomination in Shame, his previous outing with Slave director Steve McQueen.
Best supporting actor: (45 percent certain) Fassbender
Orson Welles famously said, Movie directing is the perfect refuge for the mediocre.
Well, theres nothing mediocre about this field of nominees: Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), David O. Russell (American Hustle) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street). Many will argue these represent the best films of their career (except for the more prolific Scorsese). Who to pick?
Traditionally, whoever wins the Directors Guild of America Award also takes home the Oscar (its matched up 58 times during the 65-year history). That makes this category a tad easier to call, since Cuarón earned the DGA honor for his game-changing astronaut thriller. Each of these nominated movies seems enormously challenging in its own right. But theres the sense nobody on earth or in space could have created Gravity except Cuarón.
Much has been written about the legitimate shot McQueen has to become the first African-American to win best director. But something else to consider: Cuarón would become the first Hispanic to win.
Best director: (80 percent certain) Cuarón
Since the academy expanded the amount of best picture nominees in 2010 to a number ranging between five and 10, its gotten dicier to predict this category. But some things are always consistent when it comes to the academy: habit.
Only three films have a real shot of nabbing best picture: American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The reward for the rest of the field Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street is the nomination itself.
However, theres only one of these three entries that fulfills all the academys unwritten requirements:
• Its a drama.
• Its a period piece.
• It features important subject matter.
• Its based on a true story (not sure how to judge American Hustle in that respect, other than to cite the films cheeky title card: Some of this actually happened.).
• Its got a male protagonist (like nine of the last 10 winners Crash was an ensemble).
• Its over two hours (like eight of the last 10 winners).
• Its R-rated (like 15 of the 23 winners since 1990).
• The underlying theme is survival.
That pretty much sums up 12 Years a Slave. And a good thing, too. In a year of exceptional films, its the most genuinely memorable one. The most emotionally devastating. The most thematically unrelenting. The most cant believe a studio greenlighted this production. The most best.
Best picture: (75 percent certain) 12 Years a Slave