Oscar Breakdown: Best Picture

THR's awards analyst offers a look at each of the nine films that are nominated for the best picture Oscar, the winner of which will be announced on Sunday evening.
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Prior to the 86th Oscars on March 2, THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg will present an eight-part series of posts breaking down the key facts and figures pertaining to each of the "big eight" Oscar categories. (For his predictions, see the weekly "Feinberg Forecast" post.) This post focuses on the best picture Oscar race. And the nominees are...

Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave, the third feature from British director Steve McQueen, offers a hauntingly authentic portrait of American slavery the likes of which has never been seen on the screen before. Adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northup's 1853 autobiography, it features a huge ensemble -- highlighted by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and standout newcomer Lupita Nyong'o -- and several scenes that already belong to the ages. An emotional rollercoaster that some say they cannot handle, it also has legions of champions, not least of all the critical community, and reminds Americans of how far we have come -- and how far we still have to go -- when it comes to matters of race.

American Hustle, Sony's most nominated contender, is perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser in the mix this year. David O. Russell's third nominee in this category in the last four years, it is also his second in a row to earn noms in each of the four acting categories, thanks to colorful and endearing characterizations by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The film was inspired by the ABSCAM scandal of the seventies and written for the screen by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, and it offers a reminder that, even in our daily lives, we are all, to one extent or another, hustlers.

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Sony's other nominee in this category is Captain Phillips, the highly-gripping Paul Greengrass thriller that was adapted by Billy Ray from Richard Phillips' memoir, which recreates the hijacking of Phillips' U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates in 2009. Phillips is played by Mr. All-American Tom Hanks, who was denied a best actor nomination, while first-time actor Barkhad Abdi makes a strong impression as the leader of a band of Somali pirates and is a best supporting actor nominee. The rapid-cutting of the film helps to get audiences' heart-rates going and its grand finish -- entirely based on fact -- is a rah-rah reminder of the power and might of the American military.

Focus Features' Dallas Buyers Club offers a searing look at the life of Ron Woodruff, a bigoted heterosexual whose view of the world changes after he is diagnosed with AIDS during the early days of the epidemic and partners with a transgender woman who is also suffering from the disease to obtain -- and market -- better medications than were legally available at the time. Its strong ring of authenticity is attributable to a script that was honed over the last 20 years by Craig Borten who personally interviewed Woodruff before his death) and Melisa Wallack and performances of a lifetime by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, both of whom totally committed to their parts -- dropping 50 and 40 pounds, respectively -- and are poised to win acting Oscars.

The highest-grossing of the nominees, by far, is Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron's relatively short but epic drama -- which he co-wrote with his son, Jonas Cuaron -- that wowed audiences with its 3D depiction of space and the travails of two American astronauts (real-life pals Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) who become lost in it following a freak accident. Its cinematography (by Cuaron's longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) and visual effects (overseen by Tim Webber) are awe-inspiring and advanced the bar of what movies can do.

Gravity gives us a sense of what the movies may look like in the future, but WB's other best picture nominee, Her, gives us a sense of what society may look like a few years from now, as technological advances continue to infiltrate our lives. Drawn from a quirky original screenplay by Spike Jonze, who also directed the picture, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as a regular guy who acquires an advanced operating system that is programmed to have a personality -- voiced by Scarlett Johansson -- and with which he develops an emotional bond that morphs into a romantic relationship.

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Set more in the present, but with more than a whiff of America's rich lifestyle and traditions of the past, is Paramount's Nebraska, Alexander Payne's latest road movie, which focuses on the complicated relationship between an aging man who believes he has won a million dollars (comeback kid Bruce Dern) and his wife (June Squibb) and son (Will Forte) who try to talk some sense into him. Bob Nelson's script captures the personalities and places on the heartland as few others have ever done, and Phedon Papamichael's black-and-white cinematography makes one feel nostalgic for a complicated generation that is fading into the past.

The Weinstein Co.'s best picture entry is Philomena, Stephen Frears' British indie tearjerker that is based on journalist Martin Sixsmith's book about his unlikely friendship with Philomena Lee, an elderly Irish woman who sought his help in tracking down her child who was taken from her a half-century earlier by nuns from the "Magdalen Laundry" at which she lived when she became pregnant out-of-wedlock. Sixsmith is played in the film by Steve Coogan (who also co-adapted the book with Jeff Pope, with whom he shares a best adapted screenplay nom) and Lee is unforgettably brought to life by the great Judi Dench.

Finally, there is Paramount's The Wolf of Wall Street, which marks the fifth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. A look at the rags-to-riches life of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), a Wall Street huckster who swindled thousands of people out of their money in the 1990s and whose 2008 novel of the same title inspired Terence Winter's script, it is emblematic of the era of corporate greed that brought the global financial system to its knees and caused the American recession that continues to this day. Jonah Hill scored a second Oscar nom for his work as Belfort's sidekick and Margot Robbie showed promise for real stardom as Belfort's sexy wife.

This is one of the strongest and most competitive best picture fields in years, but, barring a historic shock, the winner will be either Critics' Choice, PGA and BAFTA winner 12 Years a Slave, PGA and DGA winner Gravity or SAG best ensemble winner American Hustle.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg