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oscars 2014

Best Picture: It’s Time to Cast Your Vote!

The Nominees
12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street

Plenty of pundits will tell you that this year's Best Picture contest is a close horse race, though they're not in total agreement about which horses are in the lead, or even how many. "It's between 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle," Yahoo's Thelma Adams said confidently last week, while an Oscar voter told the Daily Beast today, "I think it’s between Gravity and Slave." And then there's Harvey Weinstein, who explained to Deadline yesterday that his nominee Philomena is surging because the Best Picture category has "no front runner [and] three movies tied for first place." With consensus so hard to come by, which film should you put at the top of your Vulture Oscar ballot? Let's dive deep and see how all of the Best Picture contenders are faring before March 2's big Oscar ceremony.

We'll start with the weaker nominees, the ones that haven't picked up any of the major precursors and can't boast concomitant Best Director nominations. The least well-positioned of the bunch, sadly, is Spike Jonze's lovely Her, a film that's intended to sneak up on you and seep in, which makes it a little too subtle for this year's flashy Best Picture derby. Make no mistake, Her has its devoted fans in the Academy, but there weren't enough of them to push Jonze into the Best Director category, and I think they'll instead focus their attention on handing him a win in Best Original Screenplay.

In Harvey Weinstein's interview with Deadline yesterday, he claimed that the Best Picture is so deadlocked that it benefits Philomena, "the little Irish film, charging up on the outside lane." Added Weinstein, "What I keep hearing about Philomena is some films might tie and cancel each other out, and you never know." When Weinstein says "you never know," he's speaking from personal experience: Even he didn't seem to realize that Philomena was the studio's best bet for Oscar, since the Weinstein Co. spent much more heavily on The Butler's ultimately fruitless Academy Award campaign. Still, despite a screenplay win at last week's BAFTAs, Philomena faces a tough road in this category, especially since fellow contender Nebraska is aimed squarely at the same voter demographic.

Captain Phillips recently picked up some steam with surprise wins at the Writers Guild Awards and American Cinema Editors Awards, but will those add to its Best Picture chances? I'm not sure we can glean too much from the WGAs since the Best Adapted Screenplay front-runner, 12 Years a Slave, wasn't eligible there, though I do think Captain Phillips will repeat in the Best Editing category at the Oscars. The film's director, Paul Greengrass, shoots in a jittery style that the editors' branch really responds to — in 2007, his film The Bourne Ultimatum picked up the Best Editing prize — and though a lot of pundits thought Gravity was the one to beat at the ACE awards, those long, computer-stitched takes don't feel like traditional editing to many voters. Still, while a Best Editing victory is often seen as a bellwether for Best Picture, I think that may be as far as it goes for Captain Phillips, which didn't earn Greengrass an expected nomination for Best Director.

And then we come to two films that did earn nods for Best Director, but still face an uphill battle. Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street were both amply recognized by the Academy this year — the former earned six nominations, the latter five — but they're not leading in any of the categories that they're contending in, and both are projected to go home empty-handed on Oscar night. Teams for Nebraska and Wolf will be watching the Best Actor category closely: If Bruce Dern or Leonardo DiCaprio can engineer a surprise win, that could indicate a Best Picture shocker, too. But even as I wrote that sentence, I thought to myself, Ehhhh, probably not. The wind simply hasn't been blowing that way.

So why do I think that Dallas Buyers Club, which didn't manage a Best Director nod, is better-positioned than two other Best Picture nominees that did? Momentum. Dallas Buyers Club is the front-runner in three Oscar categories — Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling — which makes it perhaps the strongest contender for a big awards haul this side of Gravity. (12 Years a Slave is also projected to win three Oscars, but not all of its races are as clear-cut.) I think its director, Jean-Marc Vallée, must have just missed the Best Director cutoff because time and time again this season, Dallas Buyers Club did better than most people were expecting, pulling in surprise nominations like a Best Editing nod at the Oscars and an Outstanding Cast nomination at the SAG Awards. What better surprise to complete that arc than a Best Picture Oscar?

Still, there's not a lot of room at the top, and now we've arrived at our three big contenders jostling each other for the lead. American Hustle had a very hot moment in early January when it coasted from an early NYFCC Best Picture prize to the best cast prize at the SAG awards. "There is no point in not saying what is the obvious writing on the wall," pundit Sasha Stone typed on January 6, predicting, "David O. Russell will finally collect the big Oscar for directing as American Hustle wins Best Picture." Well, maybe not: American Hustle hit a major wall just two weeks later when it failed to take home the top prize from the Producers Guild Awards, a precursor with the most enviable track record for predicting the eventual Best Picture winner. Instead, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave tied for the top spot with the PGA, meaning American Hustle wasn't first or even second: The supposed front-runner had now presumably come in third, and since the PGA uses the same preferential ballot that the Oscars do, those third place votes had to hurt. Hustle got a boost this past week when it took home two key BAFTAs for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay, but even there, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity dominated the proceedings, winning Best Film and Outstanding British Film respectively.

So are those two our actual front-runners? Let's look at Gravity, which has had a pretty great awards season run so far. Director Alfonso Cuarón has won every major Best Director trophy of note, and since the film has proved so beastly a competitor in the tech categories — Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, and both sound categories all seem like sure bets — its trophy haul is hard to beat. At last week's BAFTAs, Gravity picked up so many of those early awards, utterly dominating the bulk of the ceremony, that Deadline live-blogger Nancy Tartaglione sniffed, "It’s official: Even if Best Film goes to 12 Years a Slave, what a deflation for that film tonight." (Indeed, 12 Years did win that prize.) Gravity is by far the most widely seen film in this category, earning a tremendous $268 million domestically, which only adds to its reputation as a juggernaut.

Still, there are a few obstacles that Gravity will have to overcome to win. 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle all have passionate partisans who love their movies unequivocally and won't brook dissent; by contrast, one Oscar voter who's picking Gravity still admitted to the Daily Beast, "I didn’t think the acting was that good," and the film also missed out on a screenplay nomination. After Argo won last year without a Best Director nod, I'm obliged to tell you that these rules are less than ironclad, but it's very rare for a movie to win Best Picture without a screenplay nomination, and the last to manage it was Titanic in 1997. Some very savvy pundits are still picking Gravity for the win — among them, Deadline's Pete Hammond, Gold Derby's Tom O'Neil, and the Wrap's Steve Pond — but even though the film will pick up several Oscars on March 2, I think the biggest one may yet elude it.

Finally, then, we arrive at 12 Years a Slave, which some obnoxious dude forcefully predicted would win Best Picture all the way back in September (like, calm down, buddy). There have been a whole lot of surprises over this Oscar season, and things are a lot closer than they looked several months ago, but that premature prediction still stands: 12 Years has won nearly every major Best Picture trophy aside from SAG's ensemble equivalent, picking up the top prize from the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the Critics Choice Movie Awards, and the PGA. As plenty of supposed challengers have come and gone — remember when so many people were convinced that Saving Mr. Banks could take the lead? — 12 Years has remained at the top of the pack.

There are still voters who refuse to watch it, or who consider its torture scenes too brutal, but for the many viewers who favor 12 Years, the film is positively DNA-altering, which goes a long way on a preferential ballot that rewards passion. Sure, the Academy can be stodgy and conservative at times, but voters still endeavor to pick a film that reflects well on them, and Fox Searchlight has wisely seized on that sentiment, running an awards campaign for 12 Years with the simple slogan "It's time." For the 12 Years team, that time will come awfully late on March 2 — Gravity will be dominating the proceedings for most of the night — but it will come.

Likely to win: 12 Years a Slave
Dark horse: Gravity