Why are people talking about Oscar upsets this year? Because this intensely competitive race --prolonged by the Olympics--could yield some surprises on March 2. (See my picks below.)
But there's a difference between a movie that shocks audiences on Oscar night, that did not rack up wins along the way and was not expected to win, and a field of contenders that spreads a smattering of winners across many categories. This year is unlikely to yield a crazy stealth candidate like "Driving Miss Daisy" or "Chariots of Fire," that won in years when so many popular movies were duking it out with voters that a surprise candidate snuck through the middle.
That said, frontrunners "Gravity" (ten nominations) and "12 Years a Slave" (nine nominations) are duking it out, while "American Hustle" (ten nominations) is still in the game, with actors in a David O. Russell movie nominated in all four acting categories for the second year in a row, and three BAFTA wins. Jennifer Lawrence might win that second Oscar after all. It shows strength with the Academy's dominant actors branch. Leading the pack does not guarantee a Best Picture win, as Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" demonstrated last year. But momentum does follow perceived winners.
There are some anomalies operating this year. First, the most popular movie, the one that is winning the most awards in the rampup to the Oscarcast as well as global box office dollars, is "Gravity." But much like 2010, when James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar" went into the Oscar race with nine nominations, any sci-fi epic, no matter how artful, is at a disadvantage. That's because snobby Academy members are obsessed with prestige. That year low-budget indie "The Hurt Locker" took home six Oscars including Best Picture and Director while "Avatar" won only three tech statues. "Gravity"'s strength lies in the technical categories.
There was also the Kathryn Bigelow factor; the Academy was inspired to award the first woman a Best Director Oscar. This year both Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron would mark firsts if they won, for a black or Latino filmmaker. Black directors John Singleton and Lee Daniels were nominated for "Boyz 'n the Hood" and "Precious," respectively; if "12 Years a Slave" wins Best Picture, McQueen will be the first black producer to accept the award-- after five nominations. Two Latin American films have won the foreign Oscar, while Brazilian directors Héctor Babenco ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") and Fernando Meirelles ("City of God") and Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel") were nominated for Best Director.
This year too the Academy will likely go with the smaller more artful socially-conscious movie that they admire for Best Picture--even if they don't actually like it--over the popular sci-fi tech-driven entertainment. There's a reason the filmmakers behind "Gravity" keep repeating that the "heart" of the movie is Sandra Bullock. They want to remind voters that more than VFX went into making this movie work. As much as I admire "Blue Jasmine" anointed winner Cate Blanchett (who has artfully dodged the now fading Woody Allen controversy) I don't think any other actress could have pulled off Bullock's precise athletic dramatic feat.
But "Gravity"'s vulnerability is revealed by its lack of an Original Screenplay nomination. Oscar night will likely follow a similar pattern to the Critics' Choice and Golden Globes (which split drama and comedy) and the BAFTA Awards. "Gravity" will rack up many wins (including Cinematography, VFX, Score, Sound Mixing and Editing, and Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron), while "12 Years a Slave" will not. Adapted Screenplay is the most likely win for "12 Years a Slave"--- and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o are still in the running--along with Best Picture.
The reason that "12 Years a Slave" may prevail over all countervailing trends is that the Academy thinks about how they want to be represented to the world. It's not just what movie they like best. It's what movie they want to like best.
The annual Oscar nominations are always full of surprises and this round was no exception. It was not a good day for Tom Hanks, who was a no-show in two acting categories. "Captain Phillips," with six nominations, was revealed as a weaker Best Picture candidate, as it missed not only DGA-nominee Paul Greengrass (although last year's director snub, Ben Affleck, went on to win Best Picture with "Argo") but Best Actor Hanks, a shocking omission. Earning nominations were supporting actor Barkhad Abdi, writer Billy Ray and editor Christopher Rouse, usually a sign of Best Picture strength. Oddly, Ray and Rouse are strong contenders in their categories.
"Dallas Buyers Club," with strong actor support, also scored six nominations including adapted screenplay and editing. It should win three: Best Actor Matthew McConaughey, Supporting Actor Jared Leto, and Hair and Makeup.
Weinstein Co. could breathe a sigh of relief as not only did "August: Osage County," U2's Globe-winning song "Ordinary Day" from "Mandela: The Long Walk Home," and Wong Kar-wai's "The Grandmaster" earn nominations, but popular "Philomena" scored four, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Judi Dench), adapted screenplay (Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope) and score (Alexandre Desplat). But the "Philomena" team may have to settle for the BAFTA screenplay win.
Arguably "Philomena" stole the thunder from Disney's Brit entry missing from the Best Picture list of nine, "Saving Mr. Banks," which clearly didn't land enough first place votes. Also among the missing were Best Actress Emma Thompson and supporting actor Hanks. The film had to settle for a nomination for score for perennial Thomas Newman, who has yet to win after ten nominations. While Disney's Frozen" should handily win the animated feature category, Pixar did not land a nomination for sequel "Monsters University," an unusual slight.
Distributor Paramount has pushed effectively not only for its home-grown Best Picture contender "Nebraska" (which scored six nominations, including a director's nod for Alexander Payne, presumably supplanting Greengrass, Best Actor and Supporting Actress for Bruce Dern and June Squibb, respectively, and original screenplay Bob Nelson) but late entry "The Wolf of Wall Street" landed five nods for Best Picture, Director (Martin Scorsese), actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), supporting actor (Jonah Hill) and writer (Terence Winter). Paramount slammed those nominations in over the Christmas holiday, but may not wind up winning anything.
In the documentary race, frontrunners "Act of Killing," "20 Feet from Stardom" and "The Square" are facing off against "Dirty Wars" and "Cutie and the Boxer"; surprisingly, left off were Sarah Polley's family memoir "Stories We Tell" (the doc branch still frowns on reenactments) and CNN hit "Blackfish."
And the foreign race is also close, as frontrunners and box office leaders "The Great Beauty" and "The Hunt" will be voted on for the first time by the entire Academy, from the mainstream branches to the crafts. Will they see all five or vote for what they've seen? That is the question.
The full list of nominees is below, in order of their likelihood to win the Oscar.