Feb. 28, 2014 at 7:14 AM ET
This year's Academy Awards, which air Sunday, is a real contest in most categories. Sure, "Frozen" has a lock on best animated feature and best song (just ask all those parents of young kids who still can't "Let it Go"), while "Gravity" is a shoo-in for the technical categories.
The rest of the race is a little more competitive. Is the best picture battle coming down to the soaring space drama of "Gravity" vs. the grim historical events of "12 Years a Slave"? Will Matthew McConaughey take home best actor, or does recent buzz for Leonardo DiCaprio hint at a surprise? Here are our predictions, all based on a mix of scrupulous research, previous winners, personal opinion, and pure speculation.
America loves a comeback story and Matthew McConaughey is the story of the year. After coasting through endless romantic comedies and lightweight adventure pictures, he reinvented himself with a series a roles that cast his easy charm in challenging characters. Ron Woodruff in "Dallas Buyers Club" is the culmination of that transformation and it's just the kind of character conundrum that Oscar loves to honor. But just when it looked like McConaughey had it in the bag, the buzz for Leonardo DiCaprio's adrenaline-charged performance in "The Wolf of Wall Street" began to grow, at least as measured by the conversation on social media. And let's face it, it takes real strength to sustain that kind of energy and compete with Scorsese's runaway filmmaking.
Will win: Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club."
Should win: Bruce Dern for "Nebraska," for making acting look so effortless and authentic.
Wild card spoiler: Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Wolf of Wall Street."
It's a powerhouse pack this year: four of the nominees already have Oscar gold while underdog Amy Adams, getting even farther from her good girl image "American Hustle," hopes to turn her fifth nomination into her first win. Good news for Adams: This is one year she doesn't have to worry about Meryl Streep, who has already racked up three awards for better performances in better films. The bad news: This looks to be the year of Cate Blanchett, whose shattering modern twist on Blanche DuBois in "Blue Jasmine" is so lacerating it trumps the wave of anti-Woody Allen sentiment. It's already earned her a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and (most telling) a Screen Actor's Guild Award.
Will win: Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine."
Should win: Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine."
Wild card spoiler: Amy Adams for "American Hustle."
Jared Leto's performance as transgender AIDS casualty Rayon in "Dallas Buyers Club" is lovely and knowing and has been sweeping the awards season, but the recent backlash against some of his patronizing comments may have soured his chances among voters sensitive to such things. That might shift votes to first-time performer Barkhad Abdi, a Somali-American immigrant playing a Somali pirate in "Captain Phillips." Oscar loves an underdog story.
Will win: Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club."
Should win: Michael Fassbender for "12 Years a Slave."
Wild card spoiler: Barkhad Abdi for "Captain Phillips."
Jennifer Lawrence is America's sweetheart of the moment, with acting talents matched with public poise and fierce intelligence, and her turn in "American Hustle" is the lightning that sparks the movie. But she won big last year. Look to voters to spread the gold around and honor newcomer Lupita Nyong'o and her fearless performance as the strong-willed Patsey in "12 Years a Slave."
Will win: Lupita Nyong'o for "12 Years a Slave."
Should win: June Squibb for "Nebraska."
Wild card spoiler: Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle."
This year is a head-on contest between "12 Years a Slave," a harrowing piece of American history etched into film, and "Gravity," an immersive disaster drama and dazzling big-screen achievement. Give the edge to "12 Years a Slave," for its seriousness and historical resonance, but don't ignore "Her," the most intimate and emotionally delicate of the nominated films.
Will win: "12 Years a Slave"
Should win: "Her"
Wild card spoiler: "Gravity"
Whether or not "Gravity" wins for best picture, the Academy is likely to honor its director, Alfonso Cuarón, for balancing the human equation with the sheer technical brilliance and visual achievement of his film. The Director's Guild did, and their award is a good bellwether for the Oscars.
Will win: Alfonso Cuarón for "Gravity"
Should win: Alfonso Cuarón for "Gravity"
Wild card spoiler: Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave"
Want to make your own picks? Vote for the major Oscar categories in our just-for-fun survey.