Who will win at the Oscars

Film critic Brian D. Johnson on who will win, who should win, and the potential for surprise upsets

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12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

The votes are in. The envelopes are sealed, or about to be. And by midnight Sunday, it will all be over. By the time the Oscars are finally upon us, it seems like they’ve been going on forever. This year at least, we had the Olympics to distract us. But after Cannes and TIFF, and the avalanche of critics’ awards, Golden Globes and guild prizes, I feel written-out on the films competing for Oscar gold.  All that’s left is to look at the odds and make some predictions, while wondering if host Ellen DeGeneres will save us from boredom.

For those filling out their office pool, beware! I’ve never won an office pool. The Oscars are a political campaign; sometimes having seen the films turns out to be a disadvantage. I tend to suck in the minor categories. And this year we have a real horse race, too close to call in many cases. But here goes nothing. Inverting the order in which the results are announced. I’ll concentrate on the major categories.


Among the nine nominees competing for the grand prize at the 86th annual Academy Awards, the biggest box-office hit is Gravity, but it lacks the gravitas expected of an Oscar winner. Not that Argo had gravitas, but it at least pretended to. This year’s putative frontrunner is 12 Years A Slave, which has too much freakin’ gravitas for some people. In fact, given that so many Academy members see movies via “for your consideration: DVDs,” there’s concern that a lot of them just haven’t got around to watching the most important movie of the year, because everyone agrees it’s so hard to watch.

I saw it on the big screen at TIFF and was devastated. I still feel it’s the movie the year. But my DVD of 12 Years a Slave has been sitting on the shelf, staring at me, daring me to revisit the torture and the grief a second time.

Yet the Academy likes to feel it’s making history, and 12 Years A Slave is a historic picture, a hard-to-make movie based on an extraordinary true story of a free black man who’s kidnapped and sold at auction. It’s the Schindler’s List of American history, the film that finally redresses Hollywood’s failure to tell the story of plantation slavery head on. (Quentin  Tarantino’s pulp affliction of Django Unchained doesn’t count.)

That said, Steve McQueen’s landmark picture could be overtaken by more palatable fare—American Hustle or Philomena. In an Academy dominated by actors, Hustle is a seductive option, an ensemble of delicious performances. Its evil twin is Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, another other con-artist extravaganza, but Hustle is easier to embrace morally, less intoxicated by the gonzo excess that it portrays, and its characters are more likeable, more human than hyperbolic.

Philomena, meanwhile, is this year’s Little Movie That Could. It hits Oscar’s sweet spot, the Goldilocks zone between substance and fun, and it’s full of Brits. Oscar adores Brits. But it may be too modest to carry the day.

What will win: 12 Years A Slave.
What should win: 12 Years A Slave.
The challenger: American Hustle
The spoiler: Philomena


This is a tight two-way race. Clearly, the most virtuosic feat of direction is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Say what you want about the movie’s laughable script, Cuarón takes the space opera where it’s never been before, and it will never be the same. On the other hand, 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen has made a film of frightening power and beauty that is also a historic milestone. And in an exceptional year for black cinema—which includes The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Fruitville Station (all snubbed by voters)— the Academy has an opportunity to award Best Director to a black filmmaker for the first time in its history. If Cuarón wins, he will be the first Hispanic director to win that award, but it’s a less significant landmark—Gravity isn’t about Mexican migrants lost in space.

Who will win: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Who should win: Alfonso Cuarón
The challenger: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
The spoiler: no one


Another tight race. The frontrunner is Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), followed by Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). The Academy tends to vote for characters as much as the actors who play them, and preferably characters drawn from true stories. All three of these actors play real-life heroes, or an anti-heroe in Di Caprio’s case. Bearing that in mind, I’d put my money on McConaughey, partly because he portrays a macho cowboy/closeted gay who is humbled by AIDS and wages a heroic struggle to save lives before falling victim to the disease. But also because he lost a ton of weight for the role, and in Hollywood there is no nobler sacrifice than losing weight.

DiCaprio’s campaign has gained surprising momentum, especially given the controversy generated by The Wolf of Wall Street when it opened. Even if you think the film is too long, too loud and too indulgent, you have to admire DiCaprio’s performance, which has him careening from earnest American Dreamer to slapstick loser crawling across a parking lot on Quaaludes. This is the gonzo flipside of his Great Gatsby. And remember that Oscar loves a movie star—DiCaprio is the only matinee idol in the pack.

After seeing Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, I just assumed he would have a lock on the Oscar. But his is a kind of character the Academy does not easily embrace, a tragic hero who does not control his own fate, who is beaten, humiliated, and has to collaborate to survive, and who is not even the author of his own escape, which comes as bittersweet solace. Hollywood likes fables about the triumph of the human spirit; 12 Years a Slave is about the torture of the human spirit.

I’d put my money on McConaughey, partly because he’s had a remarkable year, and Academy voters may have just tuned in to True DetectiveBut don’t count out chameleon Christian Bale as the toupeed trickster of American Hustle. And even Nebraska’s Bruce Dern, the ultimate dark horse, has a chance in a race where age has been known to trump beauty.

Who will win: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Who should win: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
The challenger: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
The spoiler: Christian Bale, American Hustle


Cate Blanchett leads the pack for her brilliant performance as a deluded, Tennessee Williams-style heroine in Woody Allen’s otherwise pedestrian comedy Blue Jasmine. The revival of abuse allegations against Allen by his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow, deliberately timed for awards season, may have damaged her chances. But regardless of their veracity, there’s no reason to punish Blanchett for his crimes and misdemeanors, real or imagined. American Hustle’s Amy Adams, another ensemble player, is the most serious challenger in this race, and benefits from the fact that voters may feel that she, unlike Blanchett, is under-recognized. On the other hand, unlike Blanchett, she doesn’t carry the movie. In fact, Jennifer Lawrence blows her off the screen.

Sandra Bullock is well-loved and performs as a virtual solo action hero in Gravity. But she’s won before, and at the end of the day we’re left with that lightweight image of a desperate babe floating embryo-like in her underwear. I’d count out Meryl Streep this time around: her scenery-chewing in the theatrical melee of August: Osage County is more of an act than acting. But Dame Judi Dench is impeccable (and adorable) in Philomena. Also, she has never won Best Actress, and the Academy loves a coronation.

Who will win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Who should win: Cate Blanchett
The challenger: Amy Adams, American Hustle
The spoiler: Judi Dench, Philomena


I’d say Jared Leto has a lock on this one for his turn as a McConaughey’s transsexual sidekick in Dallas Buyers Club. Losing a ton of weight and acting in drag is the actor’s equivalent to performing two quad jumps in the second half of a figure-skating free skate. Michael Fassbender could win for his role as a villainous plantation owner, only if a sweep sets in for 12 Years A Slave. In other words, if he wins early in the night, expect Best Picture and Director wins for the movie. But Barkhad Abdi’s riveting performance as a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips also stands a chance, especially for voters who want to award an under-nominated movie. I’d count out Jonah Hill and Bradley Cooper, if only because their characters are so vile.

Who will win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Who should win: Jared Leto
The challenger: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
The spoiler: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips


Lupito Nyongo is the front-runner for her incendiary performance in 12 Years a Slave. She gets to express the passion and rage that is largely suppressed in Ejiofor’s character. And this is a category that likes to award newcomers. Jennifer Lawrence poses her strongest competition for her take-charge role in American Hustle, which leaves every member of the film’s ensemble in the dust. But hers is a comedy number, and the Academy may feel Ms. Lawrence has already had quite enough recognition. Sally Hawkins and June Squibb do fine work in Blue Jasmine and Nebraska respectively. And Squibb’s nomination could rally Nebraska fans looking for a place to park their vote. But neither role has the Oscar heft. By contrast, Julia Roberts plays a virtual co-lead opposite Meryl Streep in August: Osage County, and effectively wipes the floor with her. The movie likely doesn’t have enough love, but if she wins, she will have earned it

Who will win: Lupito Nyongo, 12 years a Slave
Who should win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
The challenger: Julia Roberts, August, Osage County
The spoiler: June Squib, Nebraska


Hers story of a man who falls in love with his computer operating system should and will win this if for no other reason that it’s so damn original. American Hustle also scores high points for ingenuity and wit. Dallas Buyers Club and Blue Jasmine are not in contention, but Nebraska may have an outside chance.

Who will win: Spike Jonze, Her
Who should win: Her
The challengers: Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell, American Hustle
The spoiler: Bob Nelson, Nebraska


This is a tighter race, with a showdown between the heavyweight 12 Years a Slave and the lightweight Philomena. The writing is not what people think of when they think of Captain Phillips. Viewers wrongly assume that Before Midnight was half-improvised. And The Wolf of Wall Streets screenplay needs an editor. I’d like to see Philomena win if only for Steve Coogan’s acceptance speech.

Who will win: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Who should win: 12 Years a Slave
The challenger: Philomena
The Spoiler: none


Unfortunately, the year’s best foreign-language films, China’s A Touch of Sin and France’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, were not submitted to the Academy by their respective countries. Italy’s The Great Beauty, a Fellini-esque portrait of the artist, appears to be the frontrunner, and qualifies on many counts: it’s about showbiz, an Italian spectacle that plays like a funhouse mirror of Hollywood grandeur. Denmark’s The Hunt, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a man falsely accused of child abuse, offers a more accessible alternative, which may speak more directly to voters. I haven’t seen the film since Cannes, 2012, but it left a strong impression. Omar, which I saw recently, is a powerful drama about Palestinian youths who get caught up in terrorism. It would be surprising to see the Academy anointing a Palestinian film, but stranger things have happened. The Missing Picture is a long shot, but Belgium’s Broken Circle Breakdown has its fans.

What will win: The Great Beauty
What should win: The Hunt
The challenger: The Hunt
The spoiler: Omar

The most extraordinary film in this category is The Act of Killing, a cunning exposé of Indonesia’s genocide, in which the perpetrators re-enact their own crimes in pageants of surreal horror. The movie has swept critics awards, but may be too tough and too strange for the Academy. The Square, a vérité chronicle of the Egyptian revolution, is also a vital film, without strong characters, and without the bizarre controversy. And 20 Feet From Stardom, a portrait of pop music’s unsung female back-up singers, is a genuine crowd-pleaser.

What will win: The Act of Killing
What should win: The Act of Killing
The challenger: 20 Feet From Stardom
The spoiler: The Square

 And now for a more abbreviated survey of the remaining categories . . .

Disney’s Frozen, which generated a polar vortex at the box office, has a lock on this one, despite the sublime beauty of Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises.

Gravity has an air-lock on both categories.

Also bet on Gravity to win these in these two, which most people find indistinguishable.

Here’s one category where Captain Phillips should get its due, with Gravity nipping at its keel.

The Great Gatsby looks like it was been made uniquely to win both these awards, and it most likely will.

What distinguishes this category is that it elevates both The Lone Ranger and Bad Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa to the Oscar pantheon. But expect Dallas Buyers Club to win, as a corollary to Jared Leto’s victory.

It’s no lock, but I’d place my bet on Canada taking the gold, with the score for Her by Owen Pallett and Arcade Fire’s William Butler.

With Pharrell Williams and U2 in contention—respectively for “Happy” (Despicable Me 2) and “Ordinary Love” (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)—this is a close race. But Frozen’s “Let it Go,” by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, has terrific momentum.  A hit is a hit, especially when your kids are singing it: “Let it Go” should win.

I haven’t seen any of them, but there’s huge buzz around The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, by Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed. It’s the story of the world’s oldest pianist, Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer, who just died on Feb. 23, at the age of 110. If that doesn’t turn Oscar’s head, nothing will.

Sorry, but you’re on you own with these ones. Time to bring out the Google dartboard.

Have fun! On the morning after the Oscars, tune in to CBC Radio’s Q, with Jian Ghomeshi, where I’ll share a panel to discuss the show with Johanna Schneller and Katherine Monk.