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Critics Webster, Weinbender explain their Oscar preferences

The commercials for tonight’s Academy Award ceremony have labeled this year’s Oscar race the most competitive in recent years, and for once there’s truth in advertising. Normally, your friendly neighborhood Oscar prognosticator would study the numbers, figure the odds and determine who’s most likely to win which award, but this year the acclaim has been all over the place. The marketplace was simply too crowded with good movies and performances, many of which were completely shut out by the Academy.

For three years now, Dan Webster and I have offered up our dual predictions in the main Oscar categories: actor and actress (lead and supporting), as well as best picture and director. In 2011 and 2012, our individual guesses were all the same; in terms of accuracy, we guessed five of six right in ’12, and four of six in ’13.

This year, however, those figures are likely to change: On top of our predictions in those six categories, Dan and I are also going to share our personal preferences – who we want to win. Maybe you’ll get an idea for how the Oscars would be handed out if the academy was smart enough to have movie critics as its members.

Introduction by Nathan Weinbender

Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”), Bradley Cooper (“American Hustle”), Jonah Hill (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), Michael Fassbender (“12 Years a Slave”), Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”)

NW: This will be the first award announced on Oscar night, and if Jared Leto doesn’t nab it, the rest of my predictions are immediately rendered questionable. This seems like the surest bet of any of the acting categories, as his work in “Dallas Buyers Club,” playing a transgender woman living with AIDS, has picked up nearly every major award this season. But as good as Leto is, I think I’d cast my ballot for Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave.” It’s the best performance he’s ever given: He’s raw and terrifying as a vicious slave owner, and he brings a chilling subtlety to a character that could have easily been a one-note villain. When most actors would be chewing the scenery, Fassbender retreats into himself, and that’s much scarier.

Prediction: Jared Leto

Preference: Michael Fassbender

DW: I have the same problem with Leto’s performance that I have with that of his co-star, Matthew McConaughey: Both seem coolly calculated to win awards. That’s not to say that the acting isn’t good, just that I kept marveling at wigs and makeup and loss of weight more than I was convinced of the characters’ authenticity. Same with Hill and the permed-hair Cooper. My preferences run to Fassbender and Abdi, with Abdi having one of the year’s signature lines: “Look at me. I’m the captain now.”

Prediction: Jared Leto

Preference: Barkhad Abdi

Best Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins (“Blue Jasmine”), Julia Roberts (“August: Osage County”), Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), Jennifer Lawrence (“American Hustle”), June Squibb (“Nebraska”)

NW: A good batch of nominees, but I think the frontrunners here are Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy, who receives most of the abuse from Fassbender’s plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave,” and Jennifer Lawrence as Christian Bale’s brassy young wife in “American Hustle.” Lawrence is Hollywood’s It Girl right now, and “Hustle” has a lot of good will behind it, but I think Nyong’o has the slight edge here. (Lawrence won best actress last year, and subsequent wins are incredibly rare.) Nyong’o is whom I’d vote for as well: She gives perhaps the most heartbreaking performance in a movie full of them.

Prediction : Lupita Nyong’o

Preference : Lupita Nyong’o

DW: Nathan gives a good explanation of this race, though history shows both supporting categories can offer the occasional surprise. The solid Hawkins was overshadowed by Cate Blanchett, Roberts was beaten into submission by scene-grabbing Meryl Streep and Squibb was a novelty act. This leaves Nyong’o and Lawrence as the favorites, with – as Nathan points out – Nyong’o’s devastating performance receiving a lot of deserving praise. Lawrence’s problem, aside from her winning a best actress Oscar last year, is that her performance was so natural, so nuanced – and at age 23 she is still so young – that her excellent work is likely to be overlooked .

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o

Preference: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Actress: Amy Adams (“American Hustle”), Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”), Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”), Judi Dench (“Philomena”), Meryl Streep (“August: Osage County”)

NW: When I saw Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” last August, I assumed that Cate Blanchett had this one in the bag. Her rattled, self-absorbed, vodka-swilling riff on Blanche DuBois is so carefully constructed and yet seemingly so effortless, and it’s the sort of neurotic performance the academy loves to reward. I think Blanchett is still the one to beat, but for the sake of cautiousness, I think two things could possibly derail her: the recent furor surrounding Allen, and the fact that her fellow frontrunner, the beloved Amy Adams, has been nominated five times without a win. I’ll go with my gut and stick with Blanchett.

Prediction: Cate Blanchett

Preference: Cate Blanchett

DW: Yes, the backlash against Woody Allen might just affect Blanchett’s chances. And for some reason that I have a hard time understanding, Adams continues to be a Hollywood darling. All that said, despite the fact that each of these performances (yes, even by Adams) is superb, Blanchett’s is one for the ages. It ranks among the best I have ever seen. Period.

Prediction: Cate Blanchett

Preference: Cate Blanchett

Best Actor: Christian Bale (“American Hustle”), Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”), Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”)

NW: Here we have the most competitive of the major acting categories, and any of these five actors could conceivably win. Based on their award show track records this year, I’m torn between Matthew McConaughey (who’s never before been nominated) and Leonardo DiCaprio (who’s been nominated five times without a win). I think McConaughey has the slight advantage here, and the academy will likely reward him both for his consistency in recent years and his dramatic physical transformation in “Dallas Buyers Club.” My personal vote, however, would go to Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave,” who so beautifully expressed anger, defeat, emotional exhaustion and moral confusion using his face and his eyes. It’s one of the best, most quietly confident performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Prediction: Matthew McConaughey

Preference: Chiwetel Ejiofor

DW: I’ve already explained the qualms I have about McConaughey’s performance. Still, as a longtime fan of his – one who thought he should have won Best Supporting Actor for 2012’s “Magic Mike,” for which he wasn’t even nominated – I have no problem with this nomination. And he’s the likely winner, especially considering the overall antipathy shown to DiCaprio’s movie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”). My vote, though, would go to Christian Bale for – yes, yes, I know, losing weight, etc. – creating a character unlike anything he has played to date. Besides, Bale is … Batman!

Prediction: Matthew McConaughey

Preference: Christian Bale

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”), Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), David O. Russell (“American Hustle”), Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”), Martin Scorsese (“The Wolf of Wall Street”)

NW: Cuarón will win this, no question. Not only did he win the Director’s Guild of America award, a (usually) reliable indicator for who will take home the Oscar, but “Gravity” is all craft. I’m sure the artists responsible for the film’s visual effects, sound design and cinematography will also be rewarded, but Cuarón was the visionary steering the ship. If I had it my way, though, the Oscar would go to “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen, who communicated the horrors of slavery in a way that no other filmmaker has before.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

Preference: Steve McQueen

DW: I think we can eliminate Scorsese and Payne, given the mixed reviews that greeted both their films. Russell’s movie is scintillating, if only marginally better than its trailer. McQueen’s film is riveting, powerful, artfully done and another reminder that slavery was nothing like Hollywood has traditionally portrayed it (“Gone with the Wind,” anyone?). Cuarón, though, has propelled cinema into its next gestation, one that combines all the strengths of CGI and 3-D and applies them to a story that grips you five minutes in and immerses you in pure experience. James Cameron is seething with envy.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

Preference: Alfonso Cuarón

Best Picture: “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”

NW: While I’m reasonably confident with my previous predictions, this one gives me pause. At the beginning of Oscar season, I was sure “American Hustle” would win. But considering Cuarón’s almost certain victory for “Gravity,” that film is also a serious contender now. And then there’s “12 Years a Slave,” which, in terms of subject matter and execution, is the most prestigious of the nominees. So which movie to pick? After a lot of hesitation, I’m sticking with “Hustle.” It’s nominated for 10 Oscars, and I think it’ll likely lose most of them, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the academy will reward it (and director Russell, a frequent nominee) with the night’s top prize. As for the movie I wish would win: Spike Jonze’s “Her,” the best movie I saw all last year.

Prediction: “American Hustle”

Preference: “Her”

DW: I just argued that Cuarón deserves the Best Director Oscar, if only by a fraction, over McQueen. But when it comes to the movies they directed, I believe exactly the opposite: In this strong field – really, Hollywood, nine nominees? – a blend of art and heart should triumph. “Gravity,” overall, is entertainment. “American Hustle” is flash. And none of the others is likely to be in the final running. “12 Years a Slave,” though, is a masterful achievement, one that corrects history while being something so horribly beautiful it belongs in a torture museum.

Prediction: “12 Years a Slave”

Preference: “12 Years a Slave”


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