The 2014 Oscar winners will be announced on March 2, and for once we have no idea who's going to win. Usually the Oscars, especially the acting and Best Picture categories, seem like a foregone conclusion weeks before the event. Sure, there were was the occasional surprise, but was anyone really shocked when Anne Hathaway won Best Supporting Actress for Les Miserables, or when Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for Lincoln? Didn't think so.
But this year the only sure thing we're seeing is Jared Leto winning Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. He's swept almost all of the advance awards and, unlike Best Actress frontrunner Cate Blanchett, nothing has besmirched his film's good image thus far. Yes, Blue Jasmine star Cate Blanchett still seems like the likely winner for Best Actress, but the recent torrent of negative publicity about the film's writer/director Woody Allen might sour some voters and leave room for contenders Amy Adams or Sandra Bullock, for American Hustle and Gravity, respectively.
Best Supporting Actress was called many months in advance for 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o, but that was before American Hustle came out and Jennifer Lawrence once again stole the Academy's hearts. She's everyone's favorite movie star at the moment – and not for nothing, she's very good in the movie – which makes her a serious contender. Then again, Nyong'o and Lawrence could potentially split the vote and leave room for June Squibb, whose performance in Nebraska is a critical darling that caters towards the Academy's significant older demographics.
Best Actor is starting to look like a runaway for Matthew McConaughey, who's winning many of the major awards in advance of the Oscars even though just a few months ago he seemed like an also-ran compared to Nebraska's Bruce Dern and 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor. Regardless, if the Oscars were given out tomorrow, we'd be putting all our money on the McConnaissance.
But the real story this year, for once, is Best Picture, which looks like a three-way horse race between Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. Usually Best Picture feels like a binary category: it'll either be The Hurt Locker or Avatar, The King's Speech or The Social Network, No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood. The rest of the time the winner is obvious from the get-go: The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed. This year three films have the zeitgeist and acclaim necessary to go the distance, and they're such incredibly different pictures that one imagines the final results – if we could ever get a look at them – will probably be really close.
Gravity has the support from the Director's Guild and Producer's Guild, who each award the film their top honors. Those are usually excellent prognosticators of the ultimate Oscar winner, but the Producer's Guild Award was a tie between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, so don't count out Steve McQueen's hard-hitting historical biopic yet. The film is about an important historical issue, features a stellar cast and a serious contender for Best Director, Steve McQueen, who would be the first black person to ever win that award if he comes out on top. The Academy loves to make statements, and they love to make history, and 12 Years a Slave is considered by many – but not all – to be one of the best films of the year. It's going to be a squeaker.
But don't count out American Hustle yet. Director David O. Russell has been an Oscar bridesmaid twice before with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and in particular seems to be a favorite of the Academy's acting branch, since both Playbook and Hustle each earned nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. (A rare feat in the Academy's history, and Russell's done it twice in a row.) People love American Hustle, and this may finally be the year when the Academy caves and give Russell's films the biggest awards of the night. Maybe.
We'll keep you up to date with the Oscars as the month progresses and hit you with our final predictions during the week of the telecast.