This could go one of a few ways, and whichever way it goes will determine exactly what kind of meltdown will occur on Twitter on Thursday morning. So let's get the easy stuff out of the way. It would be hugely surprising if 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity, or Nebraska missed out on a Best Picture nomination. In the old days, that would mean we only needed to slot in one more wild card. Now, we have up to six more slots to fill. While not a stone-cold lock, it seems very likely that Captain Phillips—broadly popular, made a good amount of money, a likely favorite among the actors and craftspeople in the Academy— will see a nomination as well.
Which leaves us with a decision. And it's a decision of philosophy. Which way will the Academy lean. Most people would tell you that critical favorites Her and The Wolf of Wall Street have the inside track, and that Inside Llewyn Davis is a maybe/maybe-not hopeful. That seems awfully optimistic of an Academy that went hard for The Blind Side and The King's Speech and The Artist. Are there indications that Academy voters might expand their fuddy-duddy tastes for these two movies? Sure. Historically, they like Spike Jonze (a Best Director for 1999's Being John Malkovich) and they really like Martin Scorsese. I just question how close of an affinity they'll have for a gleeful celebration of debauchery or a sweet love story about a man and his operating system.
So what are the more Academy-friendly, "safer" options? It'll make critics' and movie bloggers' heads explode, but you can look to movies like Saving Mr. Banks (Producers Guild nominee), Lee Daniels' The Butler (SAG nominee for Best Ensemble), Dallas Buyers Club (Producers Guild and Writers Guild nominee), or Blue Jasmine (Producers Guild and Writers Guild nominee). There's been a lot of talk about how Harvey Weinstein is looking to come up empty-handed in the Best Picture race. I wouldn't be so sure. He's pulled his feet out of the fire before (remember how out-of-left-field that Best Picture nomination for The Reader was?), and he's got one true crowd-pleaser (Philomena) and two giant actors' favorites (The Butler and August: Osage County). Her and Wolf are certainly the cool picks. I'm just not so sure that the Oscars are determined by the cool voters.
Predicted Nominees (assuming nine nominees): 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniels' The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Saving Mr. Banks
First Alternate: Her
Second Alternate: Philomena
The directors are usually a smidge more adventurous than the Best Picture nominees. After last year's Ben Affleck omission, there are no more guarantees, but that doesn't mean it's suddenly smart to start betting against the frontrunners. So expect nominations for Alfonso Cuaron, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, and Alexander Payne. As for the fifth slot, you're obviously looking among the other likely Best Picture nominees, and from that pool, the names that float to the surface are former nominees like Paul Greengrass, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Jonze. Again, if The Weinstein Company proves better at this game than we're giving them credit for, don't say I didn't warn you about a possible Lee Daniels nomination.
The other interesting wrinkle here is that before the Best Picture category expanded in 2009, the fun parlor game in Best Director was to guess who the "lone director" nominee(s) would be. That would be the director who got nominated without a corresponding Best Picture nomination. These directors were often more exciting picks from edgier movies. In fact, Greegrass (for United 93), Scorsese (for The Last Temptation of Christ), and Jonze (for Being John Malkovich) are all former "lone director" nominees. In the days of up-to-ten Best Picture nominees, the phenomenon of the lone director seems to have died out. How likely would it be that a top-five vote-getter in Best Director wouldn't even be able to muster placement among the top 8/9/10 movies of the year? This year, I wonder if maybe that's not a possibility. If the Academy at large isn't able to relate to the modern concerns of Her, the directors will certainly recognize the virtuosity on display. Could get interesting.
Predicted Nominees: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave; David O. Russell, American Hustle; Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity; Alexander Payne, Nebraska; Spike Jonze, Her
Alternates (in order): Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips; Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street; Lee Daniels, The Butler
The most competitive and most interesting category on the ballot is Best Actor. With seven major contenders and no fewer than four other actors who could draw some serious votes as well, there's almost no way to say any nomination is safe. Golden Globe-winner Matthew McConaughey maybe. It's just that weird things happen when vote totals thin out among multiple contenders. I kept waiting for this awards season to turn into a battle between grizzled vets Bruce Dern and Robert Redford, but that hasn't happened yet. Everybody keeps saying how much Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves the prize, but he keeps not winning awards. It seems crazy to think any one of them could get left off, but there's not room enough on this raft for everybody.
I think in Leonardo DiCaprio (SAG-snubbed; Globe-winner) and Forest Whitaker (SAG nominee; Globe-snubbed), you have a microcosm of the Best Picture debate, and once again, I'd be wary of writing off The Butler just because it's not the critics' fave. DiCaprio does seem to be having something of a moment, though.
Predicted Nominees: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club; Bruce Dern, Nebraska; Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips; Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Alternates (in order): Robert Redford, All Is Lost; Forest Whitaker, The Butler; Christian Bale, American Hustle; Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
All season, it's been the same five names in this category. All formidable veterans. All former Oscar winners. Younger upstarts like Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color) and Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) and Brie Larson (Short Term 12) announced their presence but ultimately faded in the face of the star power of women like Streep and Dench and Blanchett. There's been some complaint that this field is boring, especially considering that films like Philomena and Saving Mr. Banks and August: Osage County are no one's idea of groundbreaking cinema. But how great is it to see such an all-star team of veteran acting talent in a category that all too often reflects the dearth of roles not only for women but for women over 40?
Enter Amy Adams. A wild card in this category in almost every respect. No one seems to be able to agree on who gave the best (and worst) performances in American Hustle. Adams, operating within an ensemble in her film, is up against actresses who, Streep aside, are the unquestioned focal points of their films. But only Gravity's Sandra Bullock has the kind of broad support for her film that Adams enjoys for American Hustle. It's going to be a major player in several categories. Maybe that Golden Globe win was an indication that Adams's performance is more loved than we thought. If anyone among the Big Five will fall, expect it to be Streep, whose win for The Iron Lady a couple years ago introduced an element of Streep Fatigue into the conversation.
Predicted Nominees: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks; Judi Dench, Philomena; Amy Adams, American Hustle
Alternate: Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Best Supporting Actor
Consensus certainly seems to have formed around four contenders here: odds-on favorite to win Jared Leto, plus Michael Fassbender, Barkhad Abdi, and Daniel Bruhl. The fifth slot is up for grabs from among the following: Golden Globe nominee Bradley Cooper, SAG nominee James Gandolfini, Indie Spirit nominee Will Forte, and President of Hollywood Tom Hanks. I suppose there's always James Franco for Spring Breakers, if the previous four men all split each other's votes. Cooper and Hanks enjoy the advantage of star power, the late Gandolfini will certainly be a sentimental favorite (not to mention that he gave the best performance of the contenders), but I'm thinking things could get crazy. Not Franco-crazy, necessarily, but …
Predicted Nominees: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club; Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave; Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips; Daniel Bruhl, Rush; Will Forte, Nebraska
Alternates (in order): Bradley Cooper, American Hustle; James Gandolfini, Enough Said; Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks; James Franco, Spring Breakers
Best Supporting Actress
Another category with four fairly solid options—Jennifer Lawrence, Lupita Nyong'o, June Squibb, and Julia Roberts (though I wouldn't be blown away if Julia is left off in a fit in Osage apathy)—and a grab bag of contenders for the last slot. You've got SAG nominee Oprah Winfrey and Globe nominee Sally Hawkins and Spirit nominee Octavia Spencer and the true wild-card that is Scarlett Johansson's vocal performance in Her. Just this once, I'm choosing not to over-complicate things.
Predicted Nominees: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle; Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave; June Squibb, Nebraska; Julia Roberts, August: Osage County; Oprah Winfrey, The Butler
Alternates (in order): Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine; Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station; Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Adapted Screenplay
Lone Survivor got a nomination at the Writers Guild, but 12 Years a Slave wasn't eligible there. It is here.
Predicted Nominees: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave; Billy Ray, Captain Phillips; Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight; Steve Coogan, Bill Pope, Philomena; Terrence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
Alternate: Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
Best Original Screenplay
This category is usually pretty friendly to movies that wouldn't really have much of a shot in the bigger categories, which means that the competition beyond the heavy favorites (American Hustle, Nebraska, Her) is pretty interesting. Here's where, if you're a fan of Enough Said or Frances Ha or Mud, you can get your hopes up, only to see them cruelly dashed on Thursday morning.
Predicted Nominees: Eric Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle; Bob Nelson, Nebraska; Spike Jonze, Her; Craig Borten, Melissa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club; Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Alternates: Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine; Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said; Danny Strong, The Butler; Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron, Gravity; Jeff Nichols, Mud; Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha; Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
There's a bit of a battle in this category between veterans who have historically been popular with the cinematographers in the Academy (Emmanuel Lubezki, Bruno Delbonnel, Roger Deakins) and movies with less entrenched cinematographers but whose movies have the kind of showy elements (black-and-white; long takes of men at sea) that also attract votes.
Predicted Nominees: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity; Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis; Sean Bobbitt, 12 Years a Slave; Barry Ackroyd, Captain Phillips; Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska
Alternates (in order): Roger Deakins, Prisoners; Anthony Dod Mantle, Rush; Phillippe Le Sourd, The Grandmaster; Frank G. DeMarco, All Is Lost; Dariusz Wolski, The Counselor
Best Costume Design
Perhaps more than any other category, "most" often equals "best" when it comes to costumes. Which means great news for American Hustle and The Great Gatsby and The Butler.
Predicted Nominees: 12 Years a Slave, The Great Gatsby, American Hustle, The Butler, The Invisible Woman
Alternates: Saving Mr. Banks, Inside Llewyn Davis
Best Film Editing
Unless there's a hugely respected action film like the Paul Greengrass Bourne movies, this category generally sticks to the Best Picture nominees.
Predicted Nominees: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Rush
Alternates: Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street
Again, "most makeup" appears to be the watchword here. I already begged the Academy to spare me from Bad Grandpa, but they have always loved to nominate old-age makeup, even when found in movies they'd never think to nominate anywhere else, like that Adam Sandler movie Click that you in no way saw.
Predicted Nominees: American Hustle, The Lone Ranger, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
Alternates: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Great Gatsby, Dallas Buyers Club, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Best Original Score
The rule here is to play things very very very safe. The "cool" scores usually don't get nominated unless they've somehow been penned by a composer who's in the "club" of perennial nominees. That's how the Beasts of the Southern Wild and Cloud Atlas scores missed out last year, despite being among the decade's best. What that means this year is don't get your hopes up too high for Arcade Fire (Her) or M83 (Oblivion). Even Golden Globe-winner Alex Ebert (All Is Lost) is in danger of missing the cut.
Predicted Nominees: Steven Price, Gravity; Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks; Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave; John Williams, The Book Thief; Alexander Desplat, Philomena.
Alternates: Alex Ebert, All Is Lost; Hans Zimmer, Rush; Henry Jackman, Captain Phillips; Arcade Fire, Her
Best Original Song
Oh, who the hell knows? This is a category that served up only two nominees a couple years ago, and one of them was a song called "Real In Rio" from a movie called Rio, and I'm pretty sure neither one of those things ever existed. Let's just lay out the most likely nominees and watch them fail spectacularly. One flyer I am taking is on "So You Know What It's Like" from Short Term 12, both because I like it, because it's one of the highlight scenes of the movie, and because this category has been drifting more and more to songs that are integrated within the stories of their films.
Predicted Nominees: “Let It Go,” Frozen; “Ordinary Love,” Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; “Amen,” All Is Lost; “Sweeter Than Fiction,” One Chance; “So You Know What It’s Like,” Short Term 12.
Alternates: “Young and Beautiful,” The Great Gatsby; “Atlas,” The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; “Stay Alive,” The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; “You and I Ain’t Nothin No More,” The Butler
Best Production Design
Her is the cool nomination that I’m hoping for but don’t really expect. And to a lesser extent Inside Llewyn Davis. The design in Her is showier but still not as packed with the kind of stuff that usually commands attention from the voters. The Academy likes their production design to have a lot of stuff, which is why I’m predicting Gravity, with all its free-floating stuff (remember those weird semi-racist ping-pong paddles and Buddha statue in the Chinese space station?) to get a nod here.
Predicted Nominees: American Hustle, The Great Gatsby, 12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Gravity
Alternates: The Butler, Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr. Banks
Best Sound Editing / Best Sound Mixing / Best Visual Effects
Best as I can tell, the Sound categories like the following: water, music (mixing), battles (editing), action. These are the categories where I’m foolishly hoping for a nomination for my favorite summer blockbuster, Fast and Furious 6. Meanwhile, the VisFX award is Gravity’s to lose, and it’ll be joined by a pair of lesser blockbuster-type movies. I expect the dragon to be accomplishment enough to nudge The Hobbit along. After that, it’s a toss-up between zombies and robots and runaway trains. How wild would it be if World War Z made the cut after the effects looked so terrible in those early trailers?
Predicted Nominees, Sound Editing: Gravity, Captain Phillips, All Is Lost, Rush, Pacific Rim
Predicted Nominees, Sound Mixing: Gravity, Captain Phillips, Rush, Inside Llewyn Davis, World War Z
Predicted Nominees, Best Visual Effects: Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Pacific Rim, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger
Best Animated Feature
The populist choice is Frozen. The snooty choice is The Wind Rises. They'll be joined by whatever other three animated movies the voters can cobble together. It'll be some combination of sequels that did well financially but were mostly ignored critically (Monsters University, Despicable Me 2, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2), original animated work that was well-received but failed to become the sensations that Frozen did (The Croods, Epic), or the wild-card GKids movies that never seem to get any attention outside of awards talk (Ernest & Celestine; A Letter to Momo).
Predicted Nominees: Frozen; The Wind Rises; The Croods; Ernest & Celestine; Monsters University
Alternates: Despicable Me 2; A Letter to Momo
Best Documentary Feature
It's been a fantastic year for docs, and it's left us with an incredibly competitive category. I'd be very surprised if we didn't see nominations for 20 Feet from Stardom and Blackfish, but beyond that, voters will be faced with a choice between groundbreaking (Stories We Tell), dangerous (The Act of Killing), show-offy (Tim's Vermeer), immediate (The Square), topical (Dirty Wars; God Loves Uganda), and personality-driven (Cutie and the Boxer; The Armstrong Lie). No pressure or anything, voters! Just decide the direction you want documentary film to go in!
Predicted Nominees: 20 Feet From Stardom, Blackfish, The Square, The Act of Killing, Stories We Tell
Alternates: Tim’s Vermeer, Cutie and the Boxer, God Loves Uganda
Best Foreign Language Film
The nine finalists have been announced, pitting six European films against one film each from Hong Kong, Palestine, and Cambodia. Expect a Europe-dominated (but not exclusive) final nomination tally.
Predicted Nominees: The Hunt (Denmark), The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Notebook (Hungary), The Grandmaster (Hong Kong)
Alternates: Omar (Palestine), Two Lives (Germany), The Missing Picture (Cambodia), An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Bosnia and Herzegovina)