Placing my bets: 2014 Academy Awards

Chiwetel Ejiofor, center, in a scene from the film, "12 Years A Slave." Corruption tale “American Hustle,” digital love story “Her” and historic saga “12 Years a Slave” are among the motion picture nominees for the Producers Guild of America announced Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Jaap Buitendijk)

Chiwetel Ejiofor, center, in a scene from the film, “12 Years A Slave,” which is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best picture. © AP/Fox Searchlight photo by Jaap Buitendijk.

I’ve been in Kentucky almost 16 years now, and one thing I can tell you is I am a heckuva a lot better picking Oscar winners than picking Derby winners. I have only cashed a few tickets on the first Saturday in May. But usually, I can say I got most of the categories right the Monday morning after Oscar night.

Which brings us to this year, and how lightly my fingers will dance across the keyboard when I say what will win best picture. Most years, there is a lock. The last real surprise, despite what a story on LexGo says, was 1998 when Saving Private Ryan was beaten by Shakespeare in Love. 

But this year, we have a real three-way tangle for best picture between 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Gravity. All have picked up some precursor awards and all have good arguments in their favor.

I’ll throw one out now: American Hustle. It, like most of David O. Russell’s films, is the type of movie that wins acting Oscars — ask Jennifer Lawrence. Great storytelling, great acting, but it doesn’t feel like a best picture, a concept that seems to be borne out by most analysis, predictions and “shhh” interviews with voters I’ve seen.

That leaves a dramatic space film with a substantial Oscar pedigree and a historical drama widely regarded as a very, very important movie.

Oscar is getting into the habit of splitting the best director and best picture votes, and that’s what will probably happen this year.

Gravity was a film that managed to be both a technical spectacle and deeply human, moving film. If it wasn’t up against 12 Years a Slave, it could probably take space movies where they have never gone before: to the best picture winner’s circle. On a Kentucky note, it would be the second year in a row Gravity co-star George Clooney was involved with a best picture, as he was a producer of last year’s winner, Argo.

But 12 Years a Slave has so much history and conscience behind it. It is widely regarded as a not-perfect but certainly the most honest portrayal of slavery on screen, forcing all who dare to watch to confront the brutal history of slavery in America, a reality of our not-so-distant past. It would frankly be somewhat surprising if Oscar passed on honoring this movie, and if it did, it would rile up a lot of anger over the Academy’s racial history of snubs and blind spots.

Best picture: 12 Years a Slave

But, like last year when Ang Lee won for The Life of Pi, the technical marvel will win best director.

Best director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Here are quick glances at the rest of the major categories:

Best actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Three of the acting categories are pretty much locks, led by this one. McConaughey is in the midst of a perception transformation from rom-com lightweight to serious film actor, and Dallas Buyers Club exemplified that as he navigated tough-to-love Ron Woodroof into a character to pull for. BTW, did you hear about McConaughey’s dad playing football for UK?

Best actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Entertainment Weekly always does this cool feature where they talk to a few actors, a producer, director, writer and editor, on conditions of anonymity, and get their thoughts on the race. That almost made me move off of Blanchett, because there was no consensus for her Blanche DuBois-like role in Jasmine in that story. But where would you go, except maybe Sandra Bullock for Gravity? And despite those few dissenting views, she’s been rolling up all the pre-Oscar honors.

Best supporting actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Leto is the comeback story of the year, making his first film in five years as the transgender woman who brings bigoted Ron around in the drama about the early days of the AIDS crisis. Like McConaughey and Blanchett, Leto has been rolling up the pre-Oscar honors. It is worth noting that there are voices in the LGBT community not happy about Dallas Buyers Club and the honors coming to McConaughey and Leto’s performances.

Best supporting actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Given that this race involves our Kentucky star Jennifer Lawrence and it is perceived as the closest race, I wrote about it in a separate post.

Best editing: Gravity

Another best picture precursor, but the voters will lean toward the technical brilliance of Gravity.

Best original screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Though it isn’t getting much love elsewhere, people have been captivated by this modern romance between a man and his phone. Jonze will be rewarded for writing it.

Best adapted screenplay: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

The very idea of bringing Solomon Northup’s memoir to the screen has been widely praised, and Ridley will be honored for his craftsmanship.

So we’ll see how this goes, Sunday night. But seriously, don’t ask me who will win the Derby. That’s Alicia’s job.

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