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Nov 30th
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The Story of O

oscar-statueStill room for surprises in this year's Oscar race

Don't look now, but it's time for the "O" word—and I do mean Oscars. The Academy Awards will be a little late this year, postponed to this Sunday, March 2, so as not to, er, compete with the Olympics, giving oddsmakers, Oscar party revelers, and other prognosticators a little extra time to try to predict the winners.

This isn't nearly as precarious, or as much fun, as it used to be. These days, by the time the Oscars roll around, the other showbiz organizations—Golden Globes, BAFTAs, the industry craft guilds, the Pampered Pooch Hollywood Dogwalkers Association (OK, I made up that last one)—have already handed out their awards, so there are already clear front-runners in several categories. Still, you can always count on the Academy for a few weirdsmobile selections, just to prove how unpredictable its voters are.

So while I take my annual stab at second-guessing Academy voters, and standing up for my personal faves, let's also spare a little ink for a few names overlooked in this year's balloting.

BEST PICTURE 12 Years A Slave Not only the most PC movie of the year, this uncompromising look at slavery in the pre-Civil War American South reminds us how deeply ingrained racism is in our culture. (For proof, how many people of color are represented in this year's four acting categories? Now, how many who are not nominated for 12 Years A Slave?) The Academy spreads the love by nominating nine Best Picture contenders, but the only five that really count are those whose directors are also nominated. In addition to Slave, this year, they are Gravity (my favorite of the lot, and Slave's biggest rival), American Hustle, Nebraska, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Generally, Best Picture and Best Director go hand in hand, but not always: see below. Also-rans in this category are Captain Phillips, Her, Philomena, and Dallas Buyers Club.

BEST DIRECTOR Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity While the Academy wants to honor the message of Slave, Gravity is by far the more accomplished feat of moviemaking, not only in its propulsive plotting, but in sheer, gorgeous technique; it looks like it was filmed in space. It's thanks to the director's sure touch that we're sucked into the movie, not watching the effects. The Producers Guild split its award for best producer between front-runners Gravity and Slave. Oscar isn't likely to split its Best Picture award, but this might be the way to even things out. Runners-up are Steve McQueen (Slave), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Martin Scorsese (Wolf of Wall Street) and Alexander Payne (Nebraska).

BEST ACTOR Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club Oscar loves an actor who radically alters his appearance onscreen and/or plays someone with a terminal illness. But McConaughey is also terrific here as the AIDS patient and advocate literally fighting for his life. (Although I thought his best performance of the year was in Mud.) McConaughey has already won every other award on Planet Earth in this category, so there's no reason to suppose the Academy will buck the trend. Too bad for Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave), Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), and Leonardo Di Caprio (Wolf of Wall Street). MIA: Tom Hanks, overlooked for his extraordinarily nuanced performance as the stoic captain of a freighter boarded by Somali pirates in Captain Phillips. And Robert Redford in All Is Lost; maybe not an Oscar-winning performance, but for sheer stamina and the presence to command the screen all by himself (not to mention all he's done for the movies), he should at least have been nominated.

BEST ACTRESS Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine Another one that seems to be in the bag, by virtue of all the pre-game awards she's already collected for this role. Blanchett is amazing here, as a brittle woman of privilege self-destructing before our eyes. I also liked Judi Dench's tough-minded turn in Philomena, helping to make what seemed like a treacly premise into something vital and heartfelt. Amy Adams (American Hustle), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) don't quite make the cut. Overlooked was Emma Thompson, despite her deliciously prickly and caustic P. L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club For all the same reasons as Matthew McConaughey, above, plus, Leto wears a dress. (Hey, it worked for William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman.) Seriously, Leto is touching and tough in the role that has already earned him mucho awards. But I was also pretty knocked out by Barkhad Abdi, a non-actor recruited from a Somalian refugee community in Minneapolis for his chilling performance as the pirate leader in Captain Phillips. If not for the Leto factor, Michael Fassbender would be in contention for his psycho slaveowner in Slave. Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) round out the category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave Who doesn't love Jennifer Lawrence, especially as the goofball bombshell she plays in American Hustle? She's edged out Nyong'o for most of the pre-Oscar awards in this category (but not all; Nyong'o won the SAG Award, whose members also vote for Oscars). But I'm betting this will be the Academy's best chance to put its politics where its mouth is with an official nod to Nyong'o's fine performance as a brutalized but proud and enduring slave woman. I'd vote for her, if anybody asked me. June Squibb (bone-dry as the caustic mom in Nebraska), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), and Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) finish off the list.

MISCELLANEOUS I expect Spike Jonze to take Best Original Screenplay kudos for the high concept that was Her. The prize for Best Adapted Screenplay is most likely to go to John Ridley for 12 Years A Slave. And it seems like Gravity has the inside track for Cinematography and Production Design, as well as Visual Effects awards, while The Great Gatsby should win for Best Costume. And I'll be thrilled when my second-favorite movie of the year—20 Feet From Stardom—boogies off with the prize for Best Documentary Feature! 

The Academy Awards will be broadcast at 5 p.m. Sunday, March 2, on ABC

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