By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 14, 2014 at 5:21AM
The Oscar voting period closed January 8th with one movie surging ahead with momentum: David O. Russell's 70s Abscam comedy "American Hustle," which got a huge boost after scoring three wins including best picture from the New York Film Critics Circle and went on to sweep all the Guild group nominations except for Cinematography. Playing catch-up was Martin Scorsese's late entry, the controversial greed-is-good comedy "The Wolf of Wall Street." Both landed in the Producers Guild ten feature nominations and Directors Guild top five, along with "Gravity," "Captain Phillips" and "12 Years a Slave." With critics groups and the Guilds spreading the wealth among a wide number of disparate films, the race is wide open.
Steady as they go with with critics and Guilds alike since Cannes is Alexander Payne's rib-tickling black-and-white American road saga "Nebraska" (Paramount), starring Bruce Dern, who won Best Actor from Cannes and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Fall festival Telluride, to the disgruntlement of its rivals, offered up Warner Bros. crowdpleaser "Gravity," as well as Fox Searchlight's hard-hitting historic tragedy "12 Years a Slave," which went on to earn more raves in Toronto and New York and has sustained strong box office and word-of-mouth as it slowly widens from limited release.
Alfonso Cuaron's 3-D "Gravity" was universally embraced, from critics and the Academy to the public ($670 million worldwide and counting). The record-breaking fall smash could occupy the "Life of Pi" slot this year, as an accessible big-budget art film that wows global audiences with innovative visuals and also touches the heart.
For most of the fall season, both "Gravity" and Steve McQueen's immersive "12 Years a Slave," starring Best Actor frontrunner Chiwetel Ejiofor with support from Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, led the Oscar pack. The film scored SAG ensemble and nominations for all three actors, and McQueen, Ejiofor and Nyong'o have picked up various other critic group wins and mentions including the Golden Globes (the film's only win was Drama). "Gravity" wound up sharing LAFCA's Best Picture award with Spike Jonze's "Her." Jonze was runner up for both screenplay ("Before Midnight") and director (Cuaron). "Her" took Best Picture from the National Board of Review. And when the NYFCC gave "American Hustle" both screenplay and best feature, it gained serious momentum. All three films landed on the telling PGA nominations list. "Hustle" won Globes for Comedy, Actress (Amy Adams) and Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).
What did not land at the PGA were Weinstein TIFF titles "Mandela: The Long Walk Home," "Philomena," "August: Osage County" and "Fruitvale Station." Of this group "Philomena" stars Judi Dench and writer Steve Coogan have the most steam. Never count out Meryl Streep.
Paul Greengrass's gripping true story "Captain Phillips" launched out of its opening berth at the New York Film Festival, anchored by a moving performance by Tom Hanks, who will go up against Ejiofor for Best Actor, with a strong supporting contender in newcomer Barhad Abdi.
Also well-received at the NYFF was closer "Her," an unusual tech romance from writer-director Spike Jonze, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams. Another Best Picture contender is John Lee Hancock's "Mary Poppins" backstory "Saving Mr. Banks," starring Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, which closed the London Film Festival and opened AFI FEST. Emma Thompson landed Globe and SAG nominations and won the National Board of Review. The Academy has responded enthusiastically to this true story about melting a damaged writer's heart with Hollywood magic, and having original composer Richard Sherman on the stump for singalongs didn't hurt. It landed in the PGA Top Ten.
We're starting to see a pattern of wins across critics' voting: "Act of Killing" and "Stories We Tell" keep winning documentary, Emmanuel Lubezki is nabbing cinematography for "Gravity" (a likely Oscar win), and Hayao Miyazaki's 2-D historic drama "The Wind Rises" is racking up animation wins. Sundance hit "Fruitvale Station" keeps landing first-time filmmaker awards, and landed on the AFI's Top Ten list, but failed to land a PGA nod; "The Help" Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer may have a shot at supporting actress.
This year's indie contenders include Woody Allen's summer hit "Blue Jasmine," which landed a PGA nomination and whose star Cate Blanchett leads the Best Actress Oscar pack (winning the New York Film Critics Circle and nabbing a SAG nom and Globes win); Focus Features' "Dallas Buyers Club," which tellingly scored a SAG ensemble slot as well as WGA and PGA noms and Globes wins for both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto; writer-director Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" (SPC), co-written with and starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who shared a screenplay nomination with Linklater for "Before Sunset"), who won the Los Angeles Film Critics screenplay award and may grab an adapted screenplay Oscar nomination; and well-reviewed fall relationship comedy "Enough Said" (Searchlight), writer-director Nicole Holofcener's sharply observant middle-aged romance starring ace actors Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late James Gandolfini, who is gaining momentum as a supporting actor. The question is whether Holofcener's film and cast can gain enough gravitas to overcome the Academy's anti-comedy bias. Holofcener may have to settle for an original screenplay nod--although she was overlooked by the Writers Guild.
The other Cannes film starring a 77-year-old, "All is Lost" (Roadside Attractions) is failing to gain traction and lagging at the box office. J.C. Chandor's silent ocean survival adventure nabbed Best Actor at the NYFCC and a drama Globe nom for Robert Redford but no SAG or PGA mention. Stumbling is the Coens' critically hailed dark portrait of a 60s folk singer, "Inside Llewyn Davis" (CBS Films), which stars actor-musician Oscar Isaac and behind-the-scenes music supervisor T-Bone Burnett--the film keeps collecting more music than acting prizes and failed to land SAG, PGA, DGA or most telling, a WGA nomination. It may have to settle for a cinematography nod.
Destin Daniel Cretton's SXSW entry "Short Term 12" (Cinedigm) won a Gotham for breakout star Brie Larson, who remains a long-shot for a Best Actress nomination, along with Cannes Palme d'Or co-winner Adele Exarchopoulos, who has earned raves and shared the LAFCA win with frontrunner Blanchett.
My nomination predictions for the 86th Academy Awards are listed below. All categories are listed in alphabetical order.