Here’s something about Sunday night’s 86th Academy Awards broadcast you can’t say every year: This is going to be suspenseful.
Coming at the tail end of the awards season, after all the critics groups and guilds have anointed their winners, the Oscars often feel redundant because we already have a strong sense of which films will be taking home the prize.
But things are different this year. Awards have been spread all over the place — members of the L.A. Film Critics Association, for example, couldn’t even make up their minds for Best Film and went with a tie ( Gravity and Her).
Although some of the acting categories are easy to call, others are not. The technical categories — editing, cinematography, art direction — are just as exciting as Best Director. And the biggest prize of all, Best Picture, is still up for grabs, with the battle between the two leading contenders — the thrill-ride Gravity and the punishing historical drama 12 Years a Slave — too close to call.
Despite the growing chasm between big-budget tent pole movies designed to kickstart franchises and smaller, more intimate movies about characters who don’t drive fast or have superpowers, the diversity of this batch of nominees proves there’s still plenty of room in Hollywood for mature entertainment as well as popcorn fare.
Here are the Miami Herald’s predictions in the six big categories. Check the ballot on Page 4M for more picks.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Michael Fassbender’s performance as a sadistic plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave was a brutal piece of acting that found shades of humanity in an unredeemable monster. Much like he did in Moneyball (for which he was also nominated), Jonah Hill served as the perfect foil for the leading man of The Wolf of Wall Street. Bradley Cooper was fine in American Hustle, but his was the least memorable performance from that large ensemble cast. And Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi turned what could have been a cartoon — a pirate — into a tragic, almost sympathetic figure.
But none of them will beat out Jared Leto, whose performance as an AIDS-afflicted transsexual brought gentle humor and pathos to the otherwise grim Dallas Buyers Club. Leto was practically unrecognizable in the role, the biggest compliment you could pay an actor.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Forget Blue Jasmine’s Sally Hawkins, Nebraska’s June Squibb and August: Osage County’s Julia Roberts. All their performances were fine — especially that of 84-year-old Squibb, who nearly ran away with the picture — but none was memorable enough for Oscar. This race comes down to American Hustle’s Jennifer Lawrence, whose performance as a loose-cannon wife gave the movie electricity and fire, and 12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o, whose performance as a young slave was nothing short of heartbreaking. The Academy loves Lawrence — she already has one Oscar, for Silver Linings Playbook — but it is Nyong’o you remember most from 12 Years — and the one whose pain you really feel.
In almost any other year, Leonardo DiCaprio’s unexpectedly funny, loose performance as a corrupt investment banker in The Wolf of Wall Street would be the one to beat: DiCaprio is long overdue to win, and he holds this manic three-hour movie together with an astounding energy. But Wolf is probably too crude and vulgar for the Academy’s conservative tastes. The same fate awaits Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played the role of a man kidnapped into slavery with grace and stoicism. But that movie is probably too harsh and violent for Academy members, who prefer their entertainment to be genteel. American Hustle’s Christian Bale and his comb-over deserve a special Oscar of their own, but his performance was low-key and subtle. And although 77-year-old Bruce Dern (who has never won an Oscar) will earn some sympathy votes for his role as a man slowly descending into dementia in Nebraska, the stark black-and-white movie doesn’t have enough supporters for a win.
That leaves Matthew McConaughey, who has revived his career from rom-com star to serious actor ( Mud, Bernie, Magic Mike). His performance as the homophobic cowboy diagnosed with AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club is flinty and often unlikable, keeping the movie from sinking into corny melodrama. The fact that he is currently killing it on the HBO miniseries, which started airing before Oscar ballots were due, can’t hurt.
This race was settled the week Blue Jasmine hit theaters this summers. Cate Blanchett’s performance as a fallen high-society doyenne who loses everything and is forced to move in with her sister was a high-wire act of controlled mania. The actress went full-tilt with the part, running the risk of coming off as ridiculous, but instead making her brittle, pill-popping heroine understandable. Against her, August: Osage County’s Meryl Streep, American Hustle’s Amy Adams and Philomena’s Judi Dench don’t stand a chance. The only nominee with the potential to steal this one is Sandra Bullock, who was the only actor on the screen for much of Gravity. If the Academy’s love for the movie extends beyond its technical achievements, watch out.
In a perfect world, this one would end in a five-way tie. Martin Scorsese reawakened his wild-and-crazy side with the raucous The Wolf of Wall Street. Alexander Payne delivered one from the heart with Nebraska. Steve McQueen confronted the horrors of American slavery head-on in 12 Years a Slave. And David O. Russell took an ensemble cast and a story loosely based on fact and came up with American Hustle, the year’s most entertaining and pleasurable caper.
But none of them can top Alfonso Cuarón, whose revolutionary Gravity was so immersive and convincing, it looked like it was shot in outer space. Cuarón spent five years working on the movie, helping to invent technology that would allow him to pull off the effects he needed. Tonight, he’ll be rewarded for his efforts.
Could the Academy’s love for Dallas Buyers Club extend to a Best Picture Oscar? Will the intoxicating fun of American Hustle woo voters? Could Scorsese’s mad-man antics cause the Academy to relax and go with a wild, popular hit?
The answer to all those is maybe. But this one probably comes down to Gravity, which is a monumental achievement that needed to be seen in the theater, and 12 Years a Slave, which is as artful and restrained as it is harrowing. Oscar voters usually sway toward historical movies, and the cultural importance of 12 Years cannot be denied. But Gravity is the kind of movie that comes along once in a decade, and if the darkness of McQueen’s film turns viewers off, this one could easily sneak in. Nail-biting time.