- Deciding on Oscar nominations a game of chance
- "12 Years a Slave," "American Hustle" and "Gravity" expected to lead
- Golden Globe wins help Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett
- Expect some surprises -- and snubs
There are a lot of factors to take into account when trying to determine the Oscar nominations.
Take, for example, diet. Did the star gain or lose much weight to better perform the role? It worked for Robert De Niro ("Raging Bull"), Tom Hanks ("Philadelphia") and Charlize Theron ("Monster").
Or is there a sense of being overdue for recognition -- the "lifetime achievement" factor? Welcome to the club, Don Ameche ("Cocoon") and Geraldine Page ("The Trip to Bountiful")!
Maybe you're on the cusp of stardom. That helps -- especially if you're an actress, because the Academy always wants to be au courant with the kids. Just look at the best actress winners of the last 20 years, a list that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Hilary Swank, Reese Witherspoon, Marion Cotillard, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence.
And you can't ignore publicity campaigns -- Harvey Weinstein is particularly good at this -- and box office, because nothing says success like success.
What, you thought it was all about quality and talent?
Those play a role as well, of course, but you can't forget about the rest -- which sometimes makes predicting Oscar nominees into a game of 11-dimensional chess. (We're not even going to talk about the voting system.)
With all that in mind, here are some educated guesses -- or, if you prefer, random dartboard throws -- as to who will earn the Academy's blessing on Thursday morning:
Best supporting actor
Jared Leto, who portrays a transgender woman with AIDS in "Dallas Buyers Club," has earned raves for his performance and has already received a Golden Globe for his work. He's a shoo-in. Close to a lock is Barkhad Abdi, the former Minnesota limo driver who plays a Somali pirate in "Captain Phillips." He received nods from both the Globes and the SAG Awards, and his exotic story -- he's a Somali immigrant -- doesn't hurt.
After that, things get a little hazier. The late James Gandolfini received praise for his performance as a softhearted librarian in "Enough Said," and that -- plus some good feelings about Gandolfini the man -- may help him nab a posthumous nomination, a rarity. Bradley Cooper was terrific in "American Hustle" and should get a second straight nomination, following his best actor nod last year for "Silver Linings Playbook." And Jonah Hill, who's all schlubby id in "The Wolf of Wall Street," could get the fifth slot.
Wild cards: Michael Fassbender was brutal as a slave owner in "12 Years a Slave," but will the Academy be willing to nominate such an unredeeming character? (Of course they have before, but not everybody is Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds.") Matthew McConaughey has a small but key role in "Wolf," and he's been so good in all his films this year he may pick up two nominations (he's a certainty for best actor in "Dallas Buyers Club"). And with all the larger-than-life con artists in "American Hustle," someone should save a prayer for Jeremy Renner, who plays a good-guy New Jersey mayor caught up in all the mess. Oh, and maybe Steve Coogan ("Philomena") can find a place here?
Best supporting actress
Oprah, Oprah, Oprah. She's powerful, well-liked and -- not least -- great in "Lee Daniels' The Butler," willing to show a slovenly side as a long-suffering butler's wife. Jennifer Lawrence, last year's best actress winner, is the Oscar It Girl of the moment, and her performance in "American Hustle" does nothing to change her status. Julia Roberts was a previous Oscar It Girl, and gets to show more range in "August: Osage County" than usual.
After that, I'm going with two relative unknowns. June Squibb was terrific in "Nebraska" as a no-nonsense wife to Bruce Dern's dementia-afflicted curmudgeon; after years of TV guest spots and small movie roles, the 84-year-old actress is having her moment. And Lupita Nyong'o, fresh out of Yale's drama school, has won a zillion awards for her performance as the much-abused slave in "12 Years a Slave."
Wild cards: Though Sally Hawkins' part (and performance) in "Blue Jasmine" are much less showy than Cate Blanchett's, she could nudge into the running. Jennifer Garner, as a doctor who eventually befriends McConaughey's HIV-positive patient in "Dallas Buyers Club," could pick up her first Oscar nomination.
In a bit of a shock, Matthew McConaughey won a Golden Globe for best dramatic actor for his performance in "Dallas Buyers Club." An Oscar nomination seems a sure bet; at this point, he may be the front-runner for the prize itself. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads "12 Years a Slave's" strong cast and gives a moving, restrained performance -- especially given the subject matter. Tom Hanks, always an Oscar favorite, is great as the title character in "Captain Phillips." Given his strong year -- he plays Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks" -- some kind of recognition is expected.
The remaining slots, I believe, will go to the "old guys." Robert Redford, 77, has just one Oscar acting nomination in his career, for 1973's "The Sting." (Yep, he was overlooked for "Downhill Racer," "The Candidate" and "All the President's Men.") In "All is Lost," his grim sailor says few words but conveys many. And Bruce Dern, also 77, is brilliantly understated in "Nebraska," a character that's the opposite of the egocentric crazies he played in such '70s films as "The King of Marvin Gardens" and "Black Sunday." With just one previous nomination -- for 1978's "Coming Home" -- he's overdue.
Wild cards: Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" has inspired both love and hate, and Leonardo DiCaprio's over-the-top performance has engendered the same. He might end up on the outside looking in. Christian Bale's hair deserves its own nomination, but the "American Hustle" performer might not get one otherwise. Oscar Isaac had the thankless task of making the unlikable folksinger Llewyn Davis sympathetic in the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis." He gave the movie a surprising amount of heart, though his character keeps his own -- damaged by the suicide of his singing partner -- well hidden. At least cats would cheer a nomination.
Cate Blanchett, who plays a delusional (and newly broke) socialite in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," won the Globe and has been considered the front-runner for months, according to handicapping site Goldderby.com. She's a shoo-in, as is "American Hustle's" Amy Adams -- who plays a slinkily dressed, ice-sharp con artist -- and "Saving Mr. Banks'" Emma Thompson, as "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers.
Judi Dench, a former Oscar winner and regular collector of Oscar nominations, should pick up another one for her performance in "Philomena," about a woman pursuing a son given up for adoption long ago. And Sandra Bullock puts "Gravity" on her shoulders and gives humanity to a film that easily could have turned into a cardboard thriller.
Wild cards: What? No Meryl Streep? Maybe not this year. "August: Osage County" has divided critics and Streep, who plays the pill-popping, cancer-afflicted matriarch of a feuding clan, could end up on the sidelines despite her amazing, much-honored career. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has the opposite problem. She stars in a low-key independent movie, "Enough Said," and may not be taken seriously by some voters. They could look at her and think "TV."
The three strongest best picture possibilities are "12 Years a Slave," "American Hustle" and "Gravity," and all three of those films' directors -- respectively, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell and Alfonso Cuaron -- should also get directing nods. McQueen, a firm hand, helps make "12 Years" almost unbearable to watch. (With its subject matter, that's a good thing.) Russell's shambling style fits "Hustle's" crisscrossing characters, and Cuaron practically willed "Gravity" into being. A nomination for each would be well deserved.
After that? "Nebraska's" Alexander Payne is probably the best actors' director working today; "Nebraska" manages to walk a fine line between bleak and sweet, and it's Payne's grasp of tone that keeps it from falling in one direction or another. Finally, however you feel about "The Wolf of Wall Street," you can't ignore Martin Scorsese's sheer bravura. It's something to see (and, a critic might say, see and see and see and see). With his reputation, he could get a nomination even if DiCaprio does not.
Wild cards: Paul Greengrass' documentary-style shooting is a perfect complement to "Captain Phillips." He could take Payne's spot. And the Academy occasionally likes to recognize an up-and-comer. In this category, that might be "Fruitvale Station's" Ryan Coogler.
Up to 10 movies may be nominated for best picture, so there's no sense in designating fewer than that. "12 Years a Slave," "American Hustle" and "Gravity" are sure things. "Captain Phillips" is a very strong possibility. "Dallas Buyers Club," thanks to its performances and Oscar-friendly subject (the AIDS crisis), will probably get in as well. "The Wolf of Wall Street," as noted previously, seems impossible to ignore.
Then it gets hard. "Lee Daniels' The Butler" was a box-office success, features fine performances and also has an Oscar-friendly subject (history and race), so we'll pencil that in. "Inside Llewyn Davis" has the Coen brothers, which should help despite its dark touches. "Nebraska" is finely wrought and beautifully acted (and photographed). And for the 10th spot I'll go with Spike Jonze's "Her," a heartbreaking and delicate story of a near-future romance between a man and an operating system.
Yes, that leaves out "Saving Mr. Banks," which has Disney behind it. And "August: Osage County," which has Harvey Weinstein. And "Before Midnight," which will probably end up where good small films do -- with a screenplay nomination. But you have to stop somewhere.
Wild cards: If there's a spot for a comic-book blockbuster, perhaps "Iron Man 3" can find a way in. And the much talked about "Blue Is the Warmest Color" could take the slot that foreign-language films occasionally receive.
One thing's for sure: 2013 was a terrific year for movies, and there are lots of possibilities.