Way back in 1932 filmmaker Josef von Sternberg resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, noting it had "nothing to do with art and even less to do with science." While it's likely this was the result of constantly losing to lesser talents, it was not without its truth. And every year the Academy reinforces von Sternberg's statement by holding the Oscar awards — something that most of us approach with a strange mixture of apathy and addiction. We don't take them seriously really — especially now that every half-assed, semi-credible organization has awards — but we seem to be compelled to watch them through some kind of Pavlovian effect.
The question remains as to why we're addicted. The theory has always been that since the Oscars are chosen by people "in" the movie industry, they're more important. There are all sorts of flaws with this — starting with personal politics and loyalties that don't come into play with civilians — but the kicker is the Academy is rife with members who haven't actually been "in the business" for 50 years. The average reader of Entertainment Weekly probably knows more about what's going on than some of them.
Part of the problem is that there has come to be an almost complete lack of surprise about the nominations. While there may be some notable omissions about this year's crop, there's really nothing surprising about them. There've been some rhubarb mumblings over the fact that Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is up for an Oscar for makeup and hair, but so was Eddie Murphy's fat suit in Norbit a few years ago, so it's really just business as usual. The idea that this might result in some kind of image-tarnishing embarrassment that would make all this more entertaining is wishful thinking. Anyway, let's look at the major award choices and see what to make of them.
12 Years a Slave For a long time, this seemed to be considered a shoo-in — as did its lead actor and director, with its supporting actor and actress being strong possibilities. The film itself still has the edge — at least slightly. It's also developed something of a backlash. The reasons being the perception that the film is excessive in its portrayal of the horrors of slavery. (Some folks just don't want to give up the Gone with the Wind model because it's more comfortable.) But there's also the fact that director Steve McQueen seems uninterested in playing the promotions game. Will it win Best Picture? Probable, but it's no longer a lock.
American Hustle David O. Russell's playfully amoral comedy is definitely the crowd-pleaser here. It's probably the second most likely winner. But the fact that it's not exactly a "serious" film will work against it, since the Academy likes to think of itself as serious-minded — and whatever American Hustle is, it's not serious-minded.
Captain Phillips This is the nomination aimed most to please the old guard. It's also one of the four films nominated that appears to have directed itself. (They really ought to expand the number of director slots to match the number of movies.) Despite the dose of shaky-cam from director Paul Greengrass, this is old-fashioned stuff with a shameless (and failed) Oscar-bait performance from Tom Hanks. Chances of winning? Pretty slim. And that's how it should be as far as I'm concerned.
Dallas Buyers Club I wouldn't count it out as a possible surprise win. It's certainly a good film. I wouldn't call it Best Picture material, but I'm not going to throw anything at the TV if it gets the statue.
Gravity I have to admit that Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity pretty much went in one eye and out the other for me. It's good. It's technically impressive. It's involving as drama while it's on the screen. But, for me, there's no resonance. Nothing about the film lingers — and that's coming from someone who considers Cuaron one of our greatest filmmakers. It winning is a long shot and I don't want it to win.
Her Here we have the Academy out to prove that it's all hip and edgy — even if it didn't nominate director Spike Jonze. Whether it does any such thing is up to you. I don't see it winning. I don't think it should win either. (How is this on the list and Inside Llewyn Davis isn't?) This is more critic-bait and hipster-bait than Oscar-bait.
Nebraska Another dark horse, but not a bad choice from an artistic standpoint. From a popular standpoint ... well, that's another matter. But it is a film that lingers. And it's a film that improves on subsequent viewings. I doubt it will win, but it certainly wouldn't be an embarrassment.
Philomena The idea that this fine film from Stephen Frears directed itself is probably the Academy's most offensive move. Philomena — like nearly every film Frears has made for 30 years — is beautifully and sensitively crafted from a directorial standpoint. It's a very good — maybe close to great — movie, too. Again, I'd be surprised, but not appalled if it upset the Oscar cart.
The Wolf of Wall Street This is here strictly because it's Scorese. As filmmaking for its own sake, it's easily my pick. But let's be honest, it's not all that popular from a critical standpoint or the audience's. It's a very long, long shot, but, oh my, there'd be a huge outcry if it did, which would be kind of amusing.
Alfonso Cuaron A great filmmaker, but whether Gravity is a great film is another matter. He might win, but he shouldn't.
Steve McQueen McQueen was the obvious choice — for a while. I have problems with him personally. His movies all keep me at arm's length, and 12 Years a Slave is no different. I want to love this film, but I can only admire it as a powerful but strangely distant work.
Alexander Payne Possible, not probable. Neither he, nor Nebraska are really in the public consciousness.
David O. Russell Russell is my guess for the winner in this category. I can name two Russell films I like better than American Hustle. But he's a solidly safe choice here.
Martin Scorsese Sure, why not? Well, the why-not is that The Wolf of Wall Street frightened the horses.
Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi The longest long shot, even if he did bring more depth to his role in Captain Phillips than was on the page.
Bradley Cooper Cooper's role in American Hustle is at least close to being co-lead, so the category seems a pragmatic one. Worthy? Perhaps, but he's easily third on the list.
Michael Fassbender Fassbender's fascinating and terrifying turn in 12 Years a Slave would be a certain win — most years, but probably not this one.
Jonah Hill Much as I like The Wolf of Wall Street, no.
Jared Leto If Leto doesn't win for the sweet, tormented, self-destructive, Marc Bolan-loving Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, there is no justice in this naughty world.
Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins I have nothing against Hawkins, but this nomination for Blue Jasmine seems almost frivolous.
Jennifer Lawrence Yeah, Lawrence was entertaining as Christian Bale's wife in American Hustle, but Oscar-worthy? Ehh.
Lupita Nyong'o Ms. Nyong'o stands a pretty good chance for her role in 12 Years a Slave. Not my first choice but certainly a valid one.
Julia Roberts Whatever you think about Julia Roberts, it's not just anyone who can steal a movie from Meryl Streep, but Roberts did just that in August: Osage County. Will she win? Probably not.
June Squibb The little-known June Squibb may well be one of the evening's surprises for her performance in Nebraska — and that wouldn't be a bad thing at all.
Christian Bale Though Bale's performance in American Hustle is probably my favorite thing he's done, I think this is a long shot — and it's certainly not the best performance of the year.
Bruce Dern Dern actually stands a shot at this — as much for his whole career as for Nebraska itself.
Leonardo DiCaprio In all honesty, I'd be more inclined to go with DiCaprio for The Great Gatsby than for The Wolf of Wall Street, but having voiced that unpopular opinion, I have nothing against this choice. But I doubt it will happen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor Ejiofor is my first choice. However I feel about 12 Years a Slave, I have no reservations about his performance as a thing of tragic beauty. Yes, the fact that I've been singing his praises for 10 years enters into this.
Matthew McConaughey Any other year, I'd be in McConaughey's corner for Dallas Buyers Club, but not this year. It doesn't matter, he's almost certain to win.
Amy Adams Chances are Adams won't be taking home the golden man. My first thought was it was an absurd choice. Two more viewings of American Hustle changed my mind, but I still don't see her winning.
Cate Blanchett Despite efforts to dredge up moral outrage over Woody Allen yet again, Blanchett's performance in his Blue Jasmine is as close as you're going to come to a sure thing in this category. And that's fine with me.
Sandra Bullock OK, I like Sandra Bullock. I'd have been happy to see her get Best Actress in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). I'd have been over the moon to see her get Best Supporting Actress for Infamous (2006). I think she should have gotten a special hand-washing award for Premonition (2007), if it comes to that. She's fine in Gravity, but Best Actress? No, probably not.
Judi Dench Judi Dench stands a slim chance for Philomena, and that'd be fine. It's certainly the best liked performance here, but that may work against it.
Meryl Streep I'm not saying that Her Royal Streepness won't win, I'm saying she's not the best choice and that, however entertaining her performance in August: Osage County is, it's not one of her best.