The historical drama about American slavery, the rollicking caper-comedy or the effects-driven sci-fi flick?
That's pretty much what the race looks like, with "12 Years a Slave" vs. "American Hustle" vs. "Gravity," going into Sunday night's 86th Academy Awards. As always, the winners and losers may tell us more than just what Oscar voters were thinking. They may also reveal a little something about the national mood.
Of the nine best picture nominees, nearly all are based in fact. From "12 Years a Slave," about a free black man sold into slavery in 1841, to "Dallas Buyers Club," about a homophobic Texan diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, many of them tackle challenging and uncomfortable topics. "The Wolf of Wall Street" addresses America's recent financial collapse, "Captain Phillips" asks us to empathize with desperately poor Somali pirates and "Philomena" explores another shameful chapter for the Catholic Church.
Yet take a look at two movies gaining momentum in the Oscar race. According to conventional wisdom, "Gravity," a deep-space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is likely to emerge as the biggest winner, nabbing not only many technical awards (effects, sound and such) but best directing for Alfonso Cuarón and, quite possibly, best picture. "American Hustle," a crowd-pleaser inspired by the FBI's Abscam operation, seems sure to win for supporting actress (for Jennifer Lawrence) and for original screenplay; it, too, has a shot at best picture. "12 Years a Slave," which initially looked like across-the-board Oscar material, no longer seems a sure bet in any category.
In the end, academy voters will probably spread the honors around, rewarding reality-based dramas and escapist fare alike. After all, isn't that what most of us moviegoers do?
"Dallas Buyers Club"
"12 Years a Slave"
"The Wolf of Wall Street"
SHOULD WIN "12 Years a Slave." In terms of artistry, this historical drama had no equal. Then again, the Producers Guild, which almost always predicts this Oscar, split its award between "Slave" and "Gravity," an unprecedented tie.
WILL WIN "12 Years a Slave," if only by a hair.
Christian Bale, "American Hustle"
Bruce Dern, "Nebraska"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Chiwetel Ejiofor, "12 Years a Slave"
"Dallas Buyers Club"
SHOULD WIN McConaughey. His physical and mental transformation into an AIDS victim is one of the most astounding performances you'll see on a screen.
WILL WIN McConaughey.
Amy Adams, "American Hustle"
Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine"
Sandra Bullock, "Gravity"
Judi Dench, "Philomena"
Meryl Streep, "August: Osage County"
SHOULD WIN Blanchett. However you feel about this movie -- and about its re-scandalized director, Woody Allen -- there's no arguing with her fierce and funny performance as an unbalanced socialite.
WILL WIN Blanchett.
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"
SHOULD WIN Leto. It's no mean feat to shine next to McConaughey in this film, but Leto does it -- and he does it in heels as a transgender woman.
WILL WIN Leto.
Sally Hawkins, "Blue Jasmine"
Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle"
Lupita Nyong'o, "12 Years a Slave"
Julia Roberts, "August: Osage County"
June Squibb, "Nebraska"
SHOULD WIN Nyong'o. As the ill-treated slave Patsy, she's a fresh face playing an old soul.
WILL WIN Lawrence, for her turn as a wacky Long Island housewife in David O. Russell's freewheeling crime comedy.
David O. Russell, "American Hustle"
Alfonso Cuarón, "Gravity"
Alexander Payne, "Nebraska"
Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave"
Martin Scorsese, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
SHOULD WIN McQueen, who gives the entire film the aesthetic discipline of an 18th century canvas. Directors don't direct like this anymore.
WILL WIN Cuarón, for his eye-popping work on "Gravity." His recent win at the Directors Guild Awards seems to spell Oscar gold.
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
"Happy," by Pharrell Williams, from "Despicable Me 2"
"Let It Go," by Idina Menzel, from "Frozen"
"The Moon Song," by Karen O, from "Her"
"Ordinary Love," by U2, from "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"
SHOULD WIN "Happy," a sophisticated mix of vintage R&B and super-processed pop that sounds exactly like its title. Too bad it's attached to such an irritating kiddie film.
WILL WIN "Let It Go," a Broadway-ready hit sung by Syosset's Menzel and written by Brooklyn spouses Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
WHERE TO WATCH:
THE OSCARS (8:30 p.m., ABC/7) — Ellen DeGeneres hosts from the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. Performances by U2, Pharrell Williams, Idina Menzel, Karen O and Bette Midler.
BEFORE THE SHOW:
COUNTDOWN TO THE RED CARPET (1:30 p.m., E!)
ON THE RED CARPET AT THE OSCARS (5-6 p.m.; 6:30-7 p.m., ABC/7)
LIVE FROM THE RED CARPET: THE 2014 ACADEMY AWARDS (5:30 p.m., E!) — Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic host.
LIVE FROM THE OSCARS (6 p.m., WPIX/11) — Sam Rubin and Jessica Holmes host.
OSCARS RED CARPET LIVE! (7 p.m., ABC/7) — Robin Roberts, Lara Spencer, Jess Cagle and Tyson Beckford host.
AFTER THE SHOW:
E! AFTER PARTY (11:30 p.m., E!)
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE: AFTER THE OSCARS (12:05 a.m., ABC/7)