Handicapping the Oscars: Lots of sure bets

Rarely has there been a year when the Oscar nominations felt so pre-ordained. Spoon-fed, you might say.

Oh, the movies are mostly good. 2013 was a decent year in film and the nominees are actually an admirable lot.

But with all the second-tier events like the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics and the SAG awards, not to mention a slew of critics groups around the U.S., the nods seemed already set in stone by the time they were announced on Jan. 16.

And not just because of the repetition of awards. The campaigning this year — magazine ads, talk-show appearances, endless interviews — resulted in the people spending the most money getting the most nominations.

Can nobody else but Cate Blanchett win for best actress? Could we possibly spread around the supporting actor nods to someone other than Jared Leto? Does anybody even remember seeing “August: Osage County”?

No wonder Robert Redford sounded miffed when he said the Oscar nominations are largely dependent on money and campaigning. He should’ve been nominated for his turn in “All Is Lost,” but found himself outside the final five.

That bellyaching (mine, not Redford’s) out of the way, we can settle in and see that indeed, some very good movies are spotlighted this year. It figures to be a year in which the winners are spread out, rather than a single title sweeping the board.

“Gravity” will win a batch of technical awards (no argument there), the Academy will pay proper tribute to “12 Years a Slave,” and “American Hustle” will likely pick up a couple of wins from its 10 nominations.

It would be cool if the Oscar voters went their own way and chose some wild cards. But — except in the foreign-language and documentary categories, where voters must actually see the movies in question — that doesn’t happen often.

One thing we do know. If host Ellen DeGeneres comes out and falls flat on her face, she will still do a better job than last year’s master of ceremonies, Seth McFarlane.

With that, here are some predictions for the 86th annual Academy Awards. These choices are what I think will win, not necessarily what I think should win.

BEST PICTURE. “12 Years a Slave.” From its first appearance at film festivals, this movie was tabbed as a likely best picture: a blunt-impact treatment of an important subject, slavery. It’s the kind of year where a surprise could happen — “Gravity” and “American Hustle” are the likeliest alternates — but this is the kind of movie most Oscar voters go for. There are nine nominees in total; the others are “Captain Phillips,” “Philomena,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”

BEST ACTRESS. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine.” Stunning performance in Woody Allen’s sour character study. I’d vote for Amy Adams in “American Hustle” myself, and she and Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”) are the only nominees with any chance of a surprise here. Also included: Judi Dench (“Philomena”) and Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”).

BEST ACTOR. Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club.” Everybody’s in love with the story of McConaughey’s turnaround as an actor, and his fine performance as a feisty 1980s AIDS patient was uncompromising. The runner-up might be Chiwetel Ejiofor, excellent as the freeman bound into slavery in “12 Years a Slave,” but McConaughey’s been winning everything in sight. Also in the running: Christian Bale (“American Hustle”), Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS. Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave.” The main competition for this newcomer is Jennifer Lawrence (“American Hustle”), who won an Oscar last year — and yet Hollywood seems besotted by her, so who knows. This is probably not the year for Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”), Julia Roberts (“August: Osage County”), or June Squibb (“Nebraska”).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR. Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.” Oscar voters tend to favor elaborate transformations over quieter performances, and Leto certainly sank himself into the role of a transsexual addict. The most likely surprise would come from Michael Fassbender (“12 Years a Slave”), who has established himself as an exciting presence in recent years, but he’ll probably get another chance or 12 to win an Oscar. Less likely: Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”), Bradley Cooper (“American Hustle”), Jonah Hill (“The Wolf of Wall Street”).

BEST DIRECTOR. Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity.” An astonishing movie — and while movie directing constitutes many facets (vision, passion, all that stuff), it also requires a gift for problem solving. “Gravity” sets up one technical problem after another, and Cuaron solves them all. Steve McQueen definitely has a shot for “12 Years a Slave,” and maybe David O. Russell is in the running for the raucously entertaining “American Hustle.” But probably not Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”) or Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf of Wall Street”).

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY. “American Hustle,” Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell. A logical spot for this barn-burner to take a prize, even if one could argue that the script was its least exciting element. Some people have been touting “Her” in this slot, although that’s another movie weaker in its script than in other departments. Also tabbed: “Blue Jasmine,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Nebraska.”

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY. “12 Years a Slave,” John Ridley. A probable win for the best picture designate — in fact, close to a lock. If the award should go to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” expect an uptick in the number of f-words in next year’s Hollywood movies. Also up: “Before Midnight,” “Captain Phillips” and “Philomena.”

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE. “Frozen.” Yeah, there probably won’t be any surprises here — Disney’s cartoon musical has garnered acclaim and hot box-office. The snowman probably deserved a supporting actor nomination, but never mind. Also on the list: “The Croods,” “Despicable Me 2,” Ernest &Celestine” and “The Wind Rises.”

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM. “The Great Beauty,” Italy. This is a tough one, because the voters can be whimsical. The eye-filling Italian film simply seems like the sort of thing most loved by Oscar in the past.

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