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This film image released by Warner Bros Pictures shows Sandra Bullock in a scene from ‘Gravity. (AP)
Oscars pit ‘Slave’ against ‘Gravity’ Tight race injects high dose of uncertainty

LOS ANGELES, Feb 27, (Agencies): To historian Brenda Stevenson, a scholar on American slavery, “12 Years a Slave” is a masterful cinematic work that achieves more than any other film on slavery, so worthy that she plans to screen it in classes at her university, UCLA. It’s the kind of validation “12 Years a Slave” has been earning from experts, critics, audiences and the film industry for six months now. Even so, the acclaimed drama may falter in the final test, losing out on the most coveted of movie prizes, the Academy Award for best picture. The film from British director Steve McQueen appears to be the frontrunner for film’s highest honor at Sunday’s ceremony but has at least three factors conspiring against it: another high-quality, groundbreaking movie called “Gravity,” the tricky math of Oscar voting and the film’s own brutal depiction of American slavery. “I think it is a hard film to watch,” said Stevenson. “One of the things I think Steve McQueen does extremely well is capture the violence of the institution.”

Portrayal
That unflinching portrayal of a real American story, that of the free black man Solomon Northup who is tricked and sold into slavery, may win on the gravitas scale. But sometimes the 6,000-plus voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just want to reward enjoyable entertainment and “Gravity” gives that in spades. If this year’s nine best picture nominees add up to the strongest year for film in recent memory, they also have injected a good dose of uncertainty into Hollywood’s biggest night. Voters had a good and varied lot from which to choose, with big successes such as “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and smaller films “Nebraska” and “Philomena.”
“In the 12-13 years that I have been doing this stuff seriously, I can’t remember a best picture race in which there was less certainty than there is this year,” said Scott Feinberg, awards analyst at The Hollywood Reporter. Over at the other trade publication, Variety, awards editor Tim Gray said that “more than ever, I’m totally flummoxed.” “I think best picture is between ‘12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Gravity’ but I wouldn’t bet money on that,” Gray said.

In a telling sign of the tight battle, the two films had an exact tie in one of the most reliable predictors of the Oscar best picture, the Producers Guild Award.
The heightened drama around the big prize could give viewers an extra reason to tune in to the live ABC telecast of the glamorous event, hosted this year by comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
The cliffhanger category also stands in contrast to more predictable outcomes in the top acting races. Cate Blanchett should win best actress for “Blue Jasmine,” while Matthew McConaughey is favored for best actor for “Dallas Buyers Club” and co-star Jared Leto has a lock on best supporting actor.
The best supporting actress category could see favorite Lupita Nyong’o, the slave Patsey in “12 Years a Slave,” upset by Jennifer Lawrence’s loopy wife in 1970s caper “American Hustle.”
For best animated film, the tale of Nordic princesses “Frozen” is expected to give the Disney Animation Studios its first Oscar in that category since it was added in 2002.
 

Nominations
“American Hustle” and “Gravity” lead nominations with 10 nods a piece, followed by “12 Years a Slave” with nine. But if the best picture award were decided at the box office, “Gravity” from Warner Bros. and Mexican director Alfonso Guaron would be the winner.
The outer-space thriller starring Sandra Bullock, for which Cuaron pushed the technical and visual effects boundaries, has brought in $270 million in North America and $703 million worldwide. That’s nearly as much as the $780 million earned collectively by the nine best picture nominees in the U.S. and Canada. For his feats, Cuaron is favored to win best director.
“12 Years a Slave,” in comparison, has pulled in $49 million at the domestic box office, a respectable figure for a hard-to-watch picture that features bloody whippings, lynchings and evil slave masters.
Even the studio feared members of the Academy might skip it, compelling Fox Searchlight Pictures to goad them into seeing the film with ads during the Feb 12-25 voting period showing slaves embraced with the tagline “It’s time.” Some Oscar watchers said the ambiguous phrase could also be seen as shaming voters.
 

The voting system for best picture also complicates the fortunes of the slave drama. It is a so-called preferential ballot in which members rank their top films rather than vote for just one and the consensus can emerge from films that are many people’s second or third choices.
But if history is a lesson, the Academy voters should go for the more serious subject matter.
“They generally are not looking to just reward the most fun movie, they are looking to reward the movie that has something meaningful to say,” said Feinberg.
“And if that is the case this year, the winner would clearly be ‘12 Years a Slave.’”
The Academy would also make its own history with that choice: “12 Years a Slave” would be the first best picture from a black director in 86 years of awards.
A seemingly endless movie awards season finally concludes Sunday with the Academy Awards. By now, many of the front-runners have established themselves, but the night’s big honor — best picture — remains a dramatic question mark.
Associated Press film writer Jake Coyle and Jessica Herndon both see “12 Years a Slave” eking out the win. But they have plenty to say about not only who will win, but who should win and who should have been a contender.
Best Picture
The Nominees: “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Coyle
Will Win: “American Hustle” feels too light — actors in wigs having a ball. And “Gravity,” for all its galactic splendor, lacks the force of a solid story. So it must be “12 Years a Slave,” the candidate with the heft of history. But make no mistake: There’s no certainty in this close contest.
Should Win: “12 Years a Slave.” It’s an unforgettable odyssey, a reckoning of past movie portrayals of slavery and a uniquely unflinching tale of perseverance.
Should Have Been a Contender: Few movies capture boyhood like Jeff Nichols’ soulful Mississippi River coming-of-age tale “Mud.”
Herndon
Will Win: Since “Gravity” stood out as an innovative prodigy advancing visual and 3-D possibilities, it’ll clean up in the tech categories and will be crowned the night’s big victor.
Should Win: “12 Years a Slave.” With its disturbing subject matter and factual significance, it’s the year’s most epic and vital narrative.
Should Have Been a Contender: Before Midnight.” A deliciously candid look at the dark and deeply romantic evolution of love.
Best Actor
The Nominees: Christian Bale, “American Hustle”; Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”; Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Herndon
Will Win: McConaughey. He ditched vanity and became the favorite. But DiCaprio may just pull through with the win here. The academy loves to crown excess, even if an actor’s previous roles dug deeper. (We all remember Denzel’s win for “Training Day” — and his snubs for “Malcolm X” and “Philadelphia.”)
Should Win: DiCaprio may not have abandoned his good looks for this role, but he was aggressive, hilarious and the hedonism made him repulsive.
Should Have Been a Contender: Joaquin Phoenix, “Her.” Carrying most of his scenes solo, since Scarlett Johansson didn’t clock any physical screen time, he was the heart and soul of Spike Jonze’s gentle romance.
Coyle
Will Win: McConaughey. Hollywood loves a good comeback story.
Should Win: Ejiofor. “12 Years a Slave” finds its strength in his deep eyes and commanding dignity.
Should Have Been a Contender: Many were left out here, most incredibly Tom Hanks for “Captain Phillips.” But Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as a kindergarten teacher unjustly accused of molesting a friend’s child in “The Hunt” was a haunting portrait of a small-town pariah.
Best actress
The Nominees: Amy Adams, “American Hustle”; Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”; Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”; Judi Dench, “Philomena”; Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County.”
Coyle
Will Win: Blanchett’s modern-day Blanche DuBois is likely a shoo-in, so long as voters haven’t turned against Woody Allen.
Should Win: Blanchett’s performance is the most complex here, playing a bitterly unlikable socialite both before and after her life falls apart.
Should Have Been a Contender:  The most naked (emotionally, though physically, too) performance of the year was Adele Exarchopoulos in the French drama “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” But what about Melissa McCarthy in “The Heat”? Is anyone funnier right now?
Herndon
Will Win:Blanchett, as an unraveling upper class dame, was so pure and direct that her neurosis seemed instinctive.
Should Win: Blanchett for her layered dethroned lady.
Should Have Been a Contender: Julie Delpy. In “Before Midnight” she was the French everywoman: Nurturing, sensual, feisty and vulnerable. Plus, she had a saucy way with words while arguing topless.
Best supporting actor
The Nominees: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”; Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”; Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Herndon
Will Win: Leto is exceptional and unforgettable as transgender Rayon.
Should Win: Returning to acting after a six-year hiatus, Leto left nothing behind when portraying a prostitute dying of AIDS. He’s both bold and defenseless.
Should Have Been a Contender: Will Forte in “Nebraska.” He plays a sweet and caring son, but those impromptu comedic chops (thanks, “Saturday Night Live”), which are punctuated by his dry delivery, are as solid as ever.

Coyle
Will Win: Leto is the surest bet of the evening.
Should Win: Fassbender. He deserved nominations for Steve McQueen’s first two films (“Hunger,” “Shame”), so his larger body of work deserves honoring. Plus, how many rising-star heartthrobs would opt to play such an ugly plantation owner without letting on (like DiCaprio in “Django Unchained”) that it’s just an act?
Should Have Been a Contender: James Franco, for his jaw-dropping, hysterical extremes in “Spring Breakers.” Alternatively, an opportunity was missed to honor the late James Gandolfini, so gentle (and more like himself) in “Enough Said.”
Best supporting actress
The Nominees: Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”; Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”; Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”; Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”; June Squibb, “Nebraska.”

Coyle
Will Win: Lawrence. This could very well go to the awards season breakout star Nyong’o, but few don’t love JLaw, who would accomplish the rare feat of back-to-back years of Oscar wins.
Should Win: Squibb. “Nebraska” needs her bite.
Should Have Been a Contender:  Carey Mulligan, for her foul-mouthed fury in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Herndon
Will Win: Newcomer Nyong’o’s performance of tortured field slave Patsey was heartbreaking and haunting.
Should Win:  Nyong’o. She is dauntless. Though both Squibb and Lawrence were irresistibly charismatic.
Should Have Been a Contender: Lea Seydoux for her passionate portrayal of a raw and tender lesbian in “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Also, few actresses could play a figure as loathsome, yet unequivocally cardinal as Sarah Paulson in “12 Years a Slave.”

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