Oscar Nominations: '12 Years a Slave' Remains the Film to Beat (Analysis)

12 Years a Slave Night - H 2013
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12 Years a Slave Night - H 2013

At long last, our questions have been answered! Or have they?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for the 86th Oscars on Thursday morning, and while some are undoubtedly feeling disappointed by the choices (i.e. the campaigns behind Inside Llewyn Davis and the brothers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Saving Mr. Banks and Emma Thompson, Lee Daniels' The Butler and Oprah Winfrey, Rush, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks), many have major cause for celebration (i.e. American Hustle and Gravity, which led the field with 10 noms each, plus Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street, which outperformed most people's expectations). Now, as we head into the second phase of one of the most wide-open and competitive Oscar races in recent memory, the question, of course, is what does it all mean?

PHOTOS: 2014 Oscar Nominees

My take...

Even though it scored one nom fewer than Hustle and Gravity, 12 Years a Slave remains the film to beat among the nine best picture nominees. It has what most of the others lack -- namely, gravitas, social significance and relevance to the present day, plus the support of most of the key constituencies in the Academy (actors, directors, writers, film editors, etc.). It basically got everything that it could have realistically hoped for, save for noms for best cinematography (Sean Bobbitt hasn't worked much in this country before) and best original score (Hanz Zimmer being snubbed is bizarre and perhaps attributable only to the fact that he had several other scores in contention, as well, including Rush and Man of Steel, which may have split his support). And, as a result of its strong showing, I suspect that most of the Academy members who have heretofore resisted seeing the film for fear of being too disturbed by its content -- a not inconsiderable number, from what my fellow Oscar bloggers and I have been able to gauge on the circuit -- will reconsider that position and adopt a more conscientious one.

PHOTOS: 2014 Oscar Snubs

Gravity, meanwhile, looks like the Life of Pi of this year: a 3D film with amazing visual effects that will have a shot at winning best picture (although only two other films in the last 58 years -- The Sound of Music and Titanic -- have won best pic without a screenplay nom, and no film released predominately in 3D has ever won before); will probably win best director (Alfonso Cuaron) because of the magnitude of its ambition and daring; and will clean up in the technical categories (it is only the fifth film -- after Titanic, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Hugo and Life of Pi -- to score noms in all seven technical Oscar categories best cinematography, film editing, best original score, best sound editing, best sound mixing and best visual effects).

Moving on to American Hustle, it must be noted that David O. Russell has been on an unbelievable hot streak these last four years, during which he has directed three films that received best picture nominations and brought him best director nominations. (Only 11 other directors -- and only one since 1960 -- have matched the latter feat.) Even more impressively, he has now directed his actors to noms in each of the four acting categories for the second year in a row -- this year it's Christian Bale for best actor, Amy Adams for best actress, Bradley Cooper for best supporting actor and Jennifer Lawrence for best supporting actress -- something that has only been done 15 times ever. Talk about an actors' director!

STORY: Complete List of Nominees

But does American Hustle have a clear path to victory in any of its races? The last dramedies to win the best picture Oscar were Annie Hall 35 years ago and Terms of Endearment 30 years ago, so that may be an uphill climb. And its actors are all thought to be trailing in their respective races -- Bale behind Dallas Buyers Club's Matthew McConaughey, The Wolf of Wall Street's Leonardo DiCaprio, 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nebraska's Bruce Dern; Adams behind Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett; Cooper behind Dallas Buyers Club's Jared Leto; and Lawrence behind 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o (although that one is going to be very close). Consequently, I would think that its strongest shot is for best original screenplay -- which would bring Russell his first Oscar.

Captain Phillips enters phase two a little wounded, with a best picture nomination but without two noms that its backers expected it would have: best director (Paul Greengrass was this year's only DGA nominee who was snubbed by the Academy) and best actor (Tom Hanks had been nominated for Globe, Critics' Choice, SAG and BAFTA awards, a quartet that almost always predicts an Oscar nom). But it did do well elsewhere, with noms in the supporting actor (Barkhad Abdi), adapted screenplay, film editing, sound effects and sound mixing categories. Its lack of the directing nom, in particular, will dissuade many from considering it a film that can win the best picture Oscar, since only four films have ever won best picture without one: Wings (1927/28), Grand Hotel (1931/32), Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Argo (2012).

Nebraska had a terrific morning, becoming just the eighth predominately or entirely black-and-white film since 1970 to score a best picture nomination -- and it did land a spot in the best director lineup (its helmer, Alexander Payne, probably bounced Greengrass). Additionally, it scored acting noms (best actor nominee Bruce Dern, 35 years since his last Academy's acknowledgment for Coming Home, becomes the third oldest man ever nominated in his category, and best supporting actress nominee June Squibb, who becomes the third oldest woman ever nominated in her category) and noms for its original screenplay and cinematography. Its Achilles heel: its lack of a film editing nom (Kevin Tent was passed over for Dallas Buyers Club's John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa), without which only nine films have ever won the best picture Oscar. That is also going to be an obstacle for fellow best picture nominees The Wolf of Wall Street, Philomena and Her.

STORY: Who Was Snubbed

Speaking of Dallas Buyers Club, a well-made film about a serious subject, perhaps people should take it a bit more seriously as a best picture threat than they have up to this point. In addition to its aforementioned best picture, best actor, best supporting actor and best film editing noms, it was also acknowledged with noms for best original screenplay (which Craig Borten worked on for 20 years, the last 11 of them with Melisa Wallack) and best makeup and hairstyling. That's pretty widespread and broad support.

As The Weinstein Co.'s best picture nominee, you can bet that Philomena, a small film about a big scandal, will get a major push. The moving drama -- the talent and subject of which have been getting standing-O's on the Q&A circuit, of late -- ended up with four total noms: best picture, best actress (Judi Dench's seventh, all of which have come since she turned 63, a record), best adapted screenplay (co-star Steve Coogan shares this nom with Jeff Pope and, as a producer of the film, was also nominated for best pic) and best original score (Alexandre Desplat's sixth nom in the category over the last eight years). One of the arguments that will be mounted on Dench's behalf -- particularly as the 79-year-old remains in England recovering from recent surgery -- is that, while she has won a best supporting actress Oscar (15 years ago for Shakespeare in Love), she has never won in the lead actress category and deserves to as much as anyone. There's definitely some merit to that argument -- although the same one can be made for Blanchett.

The best picture nom for Her, a quirky and eccentric film -- a.k.a. "a Spike Jonze film" -- is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, which led me to suspect that it would make the cut as a result of the Academy's unusual voting system for the category, which rewards passionate support (i.e. highly placed votes on even a relatively small number of ballots) over lower votes on more ballots (i.e. the sort of support that Saving Mr. Banks and The Butler probably received). But perhaps it did have broader support than I gave it credit for, since it also scored noms for best original screenplay, best production design, best original score and best original song -- if not best director.

As for the controversial The Wolf of Wall Street, I see it as a total wild-card that could do some major damage at the Oscars or could just as easily go home empty-handed. It's got the support of directors (Martin Scorsese), actors (DiCaprio was no sure thing for best actor and virtually no one other than me was predicting Jonah Hill for best supporting actor -- the 30-year-old is now a two-time Oscar nominee) and screenwriters (Terence Winter bagged his first Oscar nom). But film editors, who usually come through for the great Thelma Schoonmaker, did not this time (perhaps because she was forced to edit so much so quickly and couldn't do her usual flawless work). And feelings about the film, in general, are very divided. Its best shot may well be for DiCaprio, who is only 39 but has given so many strong performances that a considerable number of people already regard him as overdue for recognition, and who could give Dallas Buyers Club's McConaughey -- with whom he also shares a terrific scene in Wolf -- a run for his money.

But, to put this whole morning in context -- something that I know is not easy for many of us to do, including myself -- I would urge you to consider the following. History will record that the following great films were not nominated for a single Oscar: Blackfish, Casting By, Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Out of the Furnace, Rush, Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now, Stories We Tell and Tim's Vermeer. Meanwhile, when our grandchildren Google Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger and Star Trek Into Darkness, they will read that they were Oscar nominees.

So, in short, an exciting morning has produced as many questions as answers -- and we still have just over six weeks to go until Oscar night!

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg