Weighing in on Oscar race

Will Gravity pull down and crush everything in its path? Or will 12 Years A Slave once again show that Oscar voters are suckers for films about grave historical injustices with an uplifting message? Or could an outsider such as American Hustle break up the cosy two-horse race?

The 86th Academy Awards, to be held on Sunday in the United States (Monday morning Singapore time), will feature one of the closest races ever for Best Picture, the most important prize of the night.

The other tight contest is in the Best Original Screenplay category, where the philosophical science-fiction work Her will go up against conman caper American Hustle.

BEST PICTURE

THE NOMINEES:12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf Of Wall Street

American pundits say that the smart money is on the period drama 12 Years A Slave, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a black man from the North kidnapped and sold into the slave-owning South in 1841.

Directed by British film-maker Steve McQueen, it has the ingredients that Oscar voters love: It is a fact-based work concerned with a wrenching period in a world history, it ends on a note so wildly upbeat, audiences are likely to break into applause, and it is handsomely mounted, while boasting a large cast that mixes A-list veterans with newcomers. This recipe has worked for past Best Picture winners Argo (2012), The King's Speech (2010) and Schindler's List (1993).

12 Years A Slave also won an important precursor contest last month, the award from the Producers Guild Of America, which has voters who also belong in the Academy's voting body. From last year (Argo) going back to 2007 (No Country For Old Men), the Producers Guild and Best Picture winners have been one and the same.

There is an important caveat: 12 Years A Slave did not grab a clear victory at the Producers Guild awards. It tied with sci-fi thriller Gravity, therefore making this one of the closest runs in the history of the Oscars for its top prize. Since the creation of the Producers Guild awards in 1989, this is the first-ever tie.

12 Years A Slave has nine nominations, while Gravity, helmed by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, has 10. American Hustle ties with Gravity for the most nominations. David O. Russell's story of con artists running the scam of their lives was a frontrunner when the Oscar nods were announced, but following the Producers Guild awards, it dropped to the status of dark horse.

Likely to win: 12 Years A Slave

Deserves to win: My own bias is for Gravity. 12 Years A Slave is an almost perfect film, one that takes a huge risk by tackling a topic of deep racial significance and succeeds in making it smart, human and relevant to our time.

But Gravity took a potentially silly idea - spacewalkers lost in space - and turned it into a visual and emotional tour de force.

BEST DIRECTOR

THE NOMINEES: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), Martin Scorsese (The Wolf Of Wall Street)

No contest - Cuaron will bag the statuette come Oscar night. He snagged the all-important precursor prize, the Directors Guild Of America Award earlier this year.

Except for an anomaly last year, when Directors Guild winner Ben Affleck (Argo, 2012) was not even nominated for the Oscars, giving Lee Ang (Life Of Pi, 2012) the win, the Directors Guild awards have almost always predicted the winner in this category.

Cuaron also has under his belt the Best Director Golden Globe, as well as a raft of wins from critics' associations and festivals.

Trailing some distance is McQueen and Russell, and even further back is Scorsese.

Of the nominees, Scorsese has the longest career, the most nominations (eight) and one win (for The Departed, 2006). That his newest picture has given him a nod but no chance of winning is just par for the course for the film- maker, who has a reputation for films about flawed men (Raging Bull, 1980; Goodfellas, 1990; The Aviator, 2004) that fail to earn him the top prize in directing, but which grow in stature to become American classics.

Likely to win: Cuaron

Deserves to win: My preference is McQueen for 12 Years A Slave. He took a topic ripe for reverence and myth-making and made it real and human, exerting precise and masterful director's control over the tone.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

THE NOMINEES: 12 Years A Slave (John Ridley), Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke), Captain Phillips (Billy Ray), Philomena (Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope), The Wolf Of Wall Street (Terence Winter)

The pundits are solidly behind 12 Years A Slave for the same reasons it might win an Oscar for Best Picture: It carries historical heft, it is upbeat and it is also a writerly piece filled with large swathes of sharp, period-perfect dialogue.

It looks like a shoo-in for its screenwriter Ridley, whose writing resume includes story credit for David O. Russell's dark comedy Three Kings (1999) and spells on television works such as cop drama Third Watch (1999-2004) and comedy The Wanda Sykes Show (2009-2010).

While the winner of the Writers Guild Of America Awards, the high-seas rescue drama Captain Phillips (2013), should be expected to win on Oscar night, the win does not stand for much this year.

The scripts for strong contenders 12 Years A Slave and the drama of forced adoption Philomena were ineligible for the Writers Guild awards on technicalities.

Likely to win: 12 Years A Slave

Deserves to win: My vote is also for Slave, for its deep sense of place carried in the speech patterns of its characters and how it brings to life the rhythms of plantation life in the Deep South.

BEST ACTOR

THE NOMINEES: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf Of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)

The consensus is behind Dallas Buyers Club's McConaughey, an actor who in recent years has moved away from playing shirtless scoundrels in disposable romcoms. Murmurs of critical acclaim began with his part as a showboating lawyer in black comedy Bernie (2011), grew in volume for crime thriller Killer Joe (2011) and reached a peak in the dramas Mud and Magic Mike in 2012. His renaissance has even been given a name: the McConaissance.

The 44-year-old, known for his suave Southern drawl, did indeed starve himself to play the part of Aids activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, but he also turned in a performance that elevated the film from televisual to properly cinematic. For this, he took home the all-important Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor, as well as a slew of other accolades.

This is his first Oscar nod and it means that if he wins the Best Actor prize, he will belong to that elite club of actors with wins in populist grassroots contests (for example, The People's Choice Awards, in which he won Favourite Male Action Star in 2006) and in contests determined by critics and peers.

Likely to win: McConaughey

Deserves to win: McConaughey is excellent in Dallas Buyers Club, but it is the safe choice. My choice would be Joaquin Phoenix (not nomincated) in Her. The film's premise of a man falling in love with a piece of software on his smartphone would have been unintentionally comic if the wrong actor had been cast.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

THE NOMINEES: Her (Spike Jonze), American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen), Nebraska (Bob Nelson), Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack)

The field here is split evenly between the low-key science-fiction think piece Her, about a man (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and American Hustle, the rock music-driven story of grifters roped in to entrap a crooked politician.

Her, written by Jonze, scored an upset win at the recent Writers Guild Of America Awards, an event that American Hustle was widely tipped to win. Academy voters can now either see Her in a new light and vote for it, or swing the other way to give support to the underdog, American Hustle, leaving the field open for either of them to win on Oscar night.

In addition, Russell has previously been denied a screenwriting Oscar, for Silver Linings Playbook (2012), while this is Jonze's first Oscar nod for writing, so voters might choose to reward Russell for his body of work.

Likely to win: American Hustle or Her

Deserves to win: I hope Her wins it for its careful and subtle balance of emotion and intellect. If American Hustle wins, it will be a case of Hollywood voting for loudness and flash, and not for the first time.

BEST ACTRESS

THE NOMINEES: Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), Judi Dench (Philomena), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

The critical consensus here is even more rock-solid than the one for Matthew McConaughey in the Best Actor category.

Blanchett is miles ahead of anyone else in this category. Her titular role in Woody Allen's bleak comedy Blue Jasmine ticks all the right boxes: The part is big (the whole film is a character study of Jasmine, a disgraced trader's former wife - nothing can top that in size) and the part lets her run the gamut of emotions.

The 44-year-old Australian actress, like McConaughey, has already walked away with a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild. While the Golden Globe is not a strong indicator of Oscar success, the Screen Actors Guild accolade is - wins in both contests make an Oscar win all but guaranteed.

Unlike McConaughey, this is not Blanchett's first Oscar nod, it is her fifth, which includes a win for Best Supporting Actress in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004).

Likely to win: Blanchett

Deserves to win: Dench ought to win the prize for her titular part in Philomena. She has a Best Supporting Actress win for Shakespeare In Love (1998). Her turn as a working-class woman steeped in faith, doing all she can to reconcile the pain it has caused her with its highest ideals of love and charity, is both subtle and powerful.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

THE NOMINEES: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave), Jonah Hill (The Wolf Of Wall Street)

Leto, who in the last decade put the brakes on acting to focus on being the frontman in thriving rock band 30 Second To Mars, is the clear leader.

Like his Dallas Buyers Club castmate Matthew McConaughey, he has Best Supporting Actor wins in both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, putting the kibosh on the hopes of other contenders in this category.

Rayon, the transgendered man and Aids patient who softens and humanises the homophobic Ron Woodroof, played by McConaughey, could have been another bland composite character in a biopic that does not lack for them. But Leto's wan, dignified performance gives the film its heart.

He starved himself to make Rayon authentically gaunt, as McConaughey did to play Woodroof. It was not Leto's first go at actorly boniness: He went on an extreme diet to play the part of heroin addict Harry Goldfarb in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream (2000).

Likely to win: Leto

Deserves to win: Leto is my choice as well. Some might say it is because he lacks real competition, as his rivals' parts lacked both range and scope. That would be doing a disservice to his contribution to Dallas Buyers Club. Without Rayon's low-key eccentricities, the film would have plodded.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

THE NOMINEES: Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), June Squibb (Nebraska), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)

It is another sealed deal here as Kenyan actress Nyong'o was handed the key indicator prize of a Screen Actors Guild award for Best Supporting Actress for playing plantation hand Patsey in 12 Years A Slave.

The 30-year-old daughter of a Kenyan politician was nominated for a Golden Globe in the same category, but lost to Lawrence (American Hustle). Lawrence is again a rival in the same category at the Oscars, but the 23-year-old American has only an outside chance of winning.

Nyong'o, who studied acting in the United States, at Hampshire College and the Yale School of Drama, delivered a searing performance as Patsey, a slave who is loved, beaten and sexually assaulted by her owner Epps, played by Michael Fassbender.

Her part was sizable, memorable and heartbreaking, all important qualities in the Oscar race. None of her rivals had parts that matched hers in size or range.

Likely to win: Nyong'o

Deserves to win: Nyong'o is also my favourite in this category, with the qualification that the competition in this category is rather light. Still, her Patsey, tragic and doomed, is a portrayal that lingers in the mind long after the film has ended.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

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