The ceremony is next weekend and I've seen nearly all the big contenders, so let's get down to predictions and "If I picked the winners" for the major categories. It's been a fun, if overlong season full of drama and controversy, and there's some real ambiguity as to who is going to walk away with the top prize this year. Let's start from the top.
Best Picture - "Gravity" took home the BAFTA a few days ago, and there are still rumblings of a potential "American Hustle" upset, but I think the Academy is going to go with "12 Years a Slave." The narrative is just too good - the fiftieth anniversary of Sidney Poitier's Best Actor win, the first major film about slavery from a black director, and a bumper crop of prestige films about African-American this year that didn't get much attention like "Mandela," "Fruitvale Station," and "The Butler." Who ought to win? The only two nominees I feel strongly about are "12 Years" and Spike Jonze's "Her." I'm going with "12 Years a Slave."
Best Director - Alphonso Cuaron has won most of the early races, and considering what he went through to get "Gravity" made, he's certainly got a lot of points in his favor. Also, last year the Academy gave the award to Ang Lee for "Life of Pi," a similar technical marvel. "Gravity" doesn't have a shot at any of the other non-technical awards, besides Cinematography, so I'm guessing the recognition for "Gravity" will come here. Cuaron's biggest competition would be Steve McQueen, who would be the first black Best Director winner, but I think it's more likely that Best Picture and Director are going to be split this year. McQueen would be my pick if I chose the winners, though, for that hanging sequence if nothing else.
Best Actor - Matthew McConaghey's comeback is a great story, and he's done so well this season that I think the momentum is going to be with him. I could see Chiwetel Ejiofor or Leonardo DiCaprio winning too, but McConaghey has had a great run these past few years that the Academy will probably take into account. Personally, while I think McConaghey was the best thing about "Dallas Buyers Club," I don't think he was as good and Chiwetel Ejiofor or Bruce Dern in "Nebraska." My choice would be Dern.
Best Actress - I don't see anybody but Cate Blanchett going up to the podium to collect the statuette for "Blue Jasmine" and she deserves it. In fact, the conversation seems to have turned to how she should acknowledge Woody Allen in her acceptance speech, considering the controversy surrounding him these past few weeks. Sadly, it's not a very strong field this year, with too many appearances by old regulars like Meryl Street and Judi Dench. Amy Adams is a strong runner up though, in one of her best roles.
Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto has been winning everything, so I don't see why he wouldn't continue to. The category is, sadly, something of a mess, missing Daniel Bruhl, Sam Rockwell, and a couple of others who could have really made the race interesting. While I thought Leto did a perfectly fine job, my pick would be Michael Fassbender from "12 Years a Slave" in one of his most terrifying performances. Oh well, I guess I should be glad he was nominated at all. Really, what is Bradley Cooper doing here?
Best Supporting Actress - It's down to Lupita Nyong'o and Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence won last year so the Academy will be wary of handing her two in a row, though she was one of the best things about the deeply problematic "American Hustle." Nyong'o has won her share of the preliminary bouts, enough that I'm going to call this in her favor. And I wouldn't be surprised if this is the only acting trophy "12 Years a Slave" ends up winning. My pick? June Squibb for "Nebraska," who totally knocked my socks off.
Best Original Screenplay - I haven't been keeping up with the writing races, so I'm going to take a shot in the dark here. I think we can rule out "Dallas Buyers Club," which is a pretty standard social issue film, and "American Hustle," where the screenplay seems to have been mostly ignored. That leaves "Blue Jasmine," "Her," and "Nebraska." I think there's too much heat on Woody Allen this year, so "Blue Jasmine" is out. Between "Her" and "Nebraska" I preferred "Her." I think the Academy voters will too.
Best Adapted Screenplay - "12 Years a Slave" is going to be the frontrunner here simply because the film is a frontrunner for Best Picture. I think its only real competition is "Wolf of Wall Street," as "Captain Phillips" and "Philomena" were much more performance-driven films, and "Before Midnight" is a dark horse. If I had my way though, I'd love to see an upset here with "Before Midnight" taking home the prize. The film was one of the best of the year and it deserves all the recognition it can get.
As a final caveat, I have proven to be notoriously bad at these predictions in the past. We'll see how I did on Oscar night.