The race for the Best Picture Oscar boils down to this:
Classic tradition or cutting-edge innovation?
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The 86th Academy AwardsOfficial Oscar coverage begins at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 2, on ABC. The ceremony will be hosted by Ellen Degeneres for the second time. As she says in a program promo, "You know what they say -- the third time's the charm."
Will voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences go for Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," a classically constructed, historically based prestige drama of the sort traditionally selected for Best Picture?
Or will Academy voters go rogue and choose Alfonso Cuaron's groundbreaking, out-of-this-world survival tale "Gravity" that expands the aural and visual boundaries of cinematic storytelling?
Or will "12 Years" and "Gravity" split the vote and allow David Russell's extremely popular comedy "American Hustle" to con its way to the Oscar?
Any one of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture could take the statuette and honestly deserve it. Yes, these movies are that good. And that important, too:
• "Dallas Buyers Club" -- You're sick? You're poor? You're in America? You're on your own. Deal.
• "Philomena" -- See what happens when you surrender personal autonomy to institutions and their traditions?
• "Captain Phillips" -- A cautionary metaphor for America's vanishing middle class in which the Haves (a rich U.S. ship) must deal with the Have-nots (poor Somali pirates) who have nothing left to lose.
• "Gravity" -- A thrilling ode to the importance of reading instruction manuals.
• "American Hustle" -- Half-truth, injustice and the real American Way.
• "Her" -- The impossibility and absurdity of establishing meaningful relationships with communications devices.
• "The Wolf of Wall Street" -- A seductive, horrifying assessment of the high price of greed and selfishness.
• "Nebraska" -- Life's promises are just as good as those sweepstakes winnings that Bruce Dern will never collect.
• "12 Years a Slave" -- America's propensity for rationalizing evil.
So, who will win?
Oscar voters love "Gravity." They appreciate Cuaron's breakthroughs in cinematography, animation, sound and score.
But they also love prestige pictures with social importance and vague snob appeal.
If voters have been veering toward "Gravity" lately, I think the recent Best Picture win for "12 Years" at the British Academy Awards reminds them of how important the "importance" of a Best Picture can be.
Despite a massive media push in Hollywood trades for "Gravity," I say prestige, the image of the Academy and "12 Years a Slave" will win out.
In a just and perfect world, the Oscar would go to Leonardo DiCaprio for turning in the year's riskiest, most challenging and dangerous performance as a soulless, hedonistic capitalist who owns everything but has nothing.
But Academy voters love actors who suffer for their art by putting on massive weight, dropping massive weight or making themselves ugly.
Given this rule of thumb, Matthew McConaughey will win a justly deserved Oscar for his homophobic, hedonistic, AIDS-stricken Texan who turns his disease into a profitable capitalistic enterprise. (How utterly American.)
McConaughey's Ron Woodroof experiences a large dramatic arc that his closest rival -- Chiwetel Ejiofor's galvanizing performance as a free citizen kidnapped to be "12 Years a Slave" -- does not.
Ejiofor wins the popular empathy vote in this category, but all signs (especially the Screen Actors Guild award) point to McConaughey.
"Blue Jasmine" star Cate Blanchett had this one in the bag after recycling her Broadway performance as Blanche Dubois into a self-delusional trophy wife.
Then came the renewed spotlight on the old child molestation charges against writer/director Woody Allen, and those sank the chances of "Blue Jasmine" winning the Original Screenplay Oscar.
Will Blanchett be more collateral damage and lose out to Sandra Bullock's marooned astronaut in "Gravity"?
That would be extremely unfair and unwarranted. Bullock's performance in a survival story was a physically demanding one for sure, but her character didn't require the nuance, the fine texturing and layers of complexity that Blanchett so elegantly and effortlessly brings to Jasmine.
Blanchett deserves this Oscar.
A slam-dunk for Jared Leto as the transgender AIDS victim in "Dallas Buyers Club." A touching, achingly vulnerable performance by Leto, who shows the humanity dwelling within all people, regardless of race, creed and all that other surface stuff.
Keep in mind that anyone in this category could win and be deserving. They're all that good. Really.
A three-way brawl here. Julia Roberts could win as the messed-up daughter in "August: Osage County" just because she's a lead role in the supporting category, therefore giving her an unfair advantage. (Remember lead actor Timothy Hutton winning a supporting actor Oscar for "Ordinary People"?)
Or it could go to last year's best actress winner Jennifer Lawrence for her ditsy blonde in "American Hustle" because Oscar voters love her madly.
I'm predicting Lupita Nyong'o's soul-searing performance in "12 Years a Slave" will win. She doesn't just win our hearts. She rips them out of our chests, beats them up with moral outrage and tenderly replaces them.
Alfonso Cuaron wanted to be an astronaut when he was a kid. Instead, he directed "Gravity" and made space movies go where they have never gone before.
During any other year, Steve McQueen would have been the obvious winner of this Oscar. But the avalanche of recognition Cuaron has received (SAG, the editors guild, the cinematographers guild, BAFTA, Golden Globes, etc.) makes him a golden boy who can't be denied.
It's been a good year for animated movies, but not a great one. (You know that when a Pixar project, "Monsters University," doesn't even make the nominations.)
Master moviemaker Hayao Miyazaki's "The Wind Rises" looks beautiful, but falls short of inspirational. That's the only serious threat to Walt Disney's bouncy pop musical "Frozen," which should win. (It should also win "Best Promotion for an Upcoming Broadway Production.")
"Gravity" cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was inspired to create a "Cube of Light" device by the stage design at a Peter Gabriel concert. He folded a box of LED video screens around the actors, then used images projected on those screens to light Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, right down to the reflections in their eyes.
Both "Dallas Buyers Club" and "American Hustle" were edited to highlight their comic moments. "12 Years" adopted a classic approach to editing while "Captain Phillips" went aggressively modern with sharp, quick cuts. But the courageously long takes in "Gravity" will claim the Oscar.
"Gravity" composer Steven Price created his near-ambient music by recording breathing, singing and a musician playing wineglasses, then putting the sounds through an electronic processor. He wins.
"Let It Go" from "Frozen," by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who gave us the Tony Award-winning musical "Avenue Q" and "The Book of Mormon."
Original Screenplay: "American Hustle"
Adapted Screenplay: "12 Years a Slave"
Production Design: "Gravity"
Visual Effects: "Gravity"
Documentary: "The Act of Killing"
Costume Design: "The Great Gatsby"
Foreign Language Film: "The Great Beauty"
Makeup/Hairstyling: "Dallas Buyers Club"
2014 Oscar nominees
"Dallas Buyers Club"
"12 Years a Slave"
"The Wolf of Wall Street"
Actor in a Leading Role
Christian Bale, "American Hustle"
Bruce Dern, "Nebraska"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Chiwetel Ejiofor, "12 Years a Slave"
Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Actress in a Leading Role
Amy Adams, "American Hustle"
Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine"
Sandra Bullock, "Gravity"
Judi Dench, "Philomena"
Meryl Streep, "August: Osage County"
Actor in a Supporting Role
Barkhad Abdi, "Captain Phillips"
Bradley Cooper, "American Hustle"
Michael Fassbender, "12 Years a Slave"
Jonah Hill, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Hawkins, "Blue Jasmine"
Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle"
Lupita Nyong'o, "12 Years a Slave"
Julia Roberts, "August: Osage County"
June Squibb, "Nebraska"
Animated Feature Film
"Despicable Me 2"
"Ernest & Celestine"
"The Wind Rises"
"The Grandmaster," Philippe Le Sourd
"Gravity," Emmanuel Lubezki
"Inside Llewyn Davis," Bruno Delbonnel
"Nebraska," Phedon Papamichael
"Prisoners," Roger A. Deakins
"American Hustle," Michael Wilkinson
"The Grandmaster," William Chang Suk Ping
"The Great Gatsby," Catherine Martin
"The Invisible Woman," Michael O'Connor
"12 Years a Slave," Patricia Norris
"American Hustle," David O. Russell
"Gravity," Alfonso Cuarón
"Nebraska," Alexander Payne
"12 Years a Slave," Steve McQueen
"The Wolf of Wall Street," Martin Scorsese
"The Act of Killing"
"Cutie and the Boxer"
"20 Feet From Stardom"
Documentary Short Subject
"Karama Has No Walls"
"The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life"
"Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall"
"American Hustle," Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten
"Captain Phillips," Christopher Rouse
"Dallas Buyers Club," John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa
"Gravity," Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger
"12 Years a Slave," Joe Walker
Foreign Language Film
"The Broken Circle Breakdown," Belgium
"The Great Beauty," Italy
"The Hunt," Denmark
"The Missing Picture," Cambodia
Makeup and Hairstyling
"Dallas Buyers Club," Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews
"Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa," Stephen Prouty
"The Lone Ranger," Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua-Casny
Music Original Score
"The Book Thief," John Williams
"Gravity," Steven Price
"Her," William Butler and Owen Pallett
"Philomena," Alexandre Desplat
"Saving Mr. Banks," Thomas Newman
Music Original Song
"Happy" from "Despicable Me 2," music and lyric by Pharrell Williams
"Let It Go" from "Frozen," music and lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
"The Moon Song" from "Her," music by Karen O; lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze
"Ordinary Love" from "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen; lyric by Paul Hewson
"American Hustle," Judy Becker (Production Design); Heather Loeffler (Set Decoration)
"Gravity," Andy Nicholson (Production Design); Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard (Set Decoration)
"The Great Gatsby," Catherine Martin (Production Design); Beverley Dunn (Set Decoration)
"Her," K.K. Barrett (Production Design); Gene Serdena (Set Decoration)
"12 Years a Slave," Adam Stockhausen (Production Design); Alice Baker (Set Decoration)
Short Film -- Animated
"Get a Horse!"
"Room on the Broom"
Short Film -- Live Action
"Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me)"
"Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)"
"Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)"
"The Voorman Problem"
"All is Lost," Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns
"Captain Phillips," Oliver Tarney
"Gravity," Glenn Freemantle
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," Brent Burge and Chris Ward
"Lone Survivor," Wylie Stateman
"Captain Phillips," Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro
"Gravity," Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick and Tony Johnson
"Inside Llewyn Davis," Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland
"Lone Survivor," Andy Koyama, Beau Borders and David Brownlow
"Gravity," Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk and Neil Corbould
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds
"Iron Man 3," Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick
"The Lone Ranger," Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier
"Star Trek Into Darkness," Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann and Burt Dalton
Writing -- Adapted Screenplay
"Before Midnight," written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
"Captain Phillips," screenplay by Billy Ray
"Philomena," screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
"12 Years a Slave," screenplay by John Ridley
"The Wolf of Wall Street," screenplay by Terence Winter
Writing -- Original Screenplay
"American Hustle," written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
"Blue Jasmine," written by Woody Allen
"Dallas Buyers Club," written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
"Her," written by Spike Jonze
"Nebraska," written by Bob Nelson