By Eric Henderson

It’s not exactly the mirror opposite of the situation we had last year at the Academy Awards, but most pundits seem to agree that whereas last year’s best picture frontrunner Argo left the best director a free-for-all when Ben Affleck got snubbed by the directors’ branch, this year’s best director prize is one of the evening’s biggest locks even though its corresponding film is still considered by many to be an iffy prospect for the big prize.

In fact, many believe this to still be a very tough three-way best picture contest between Gravity (whose director Alfonso Cuarón is all but assured his own Oscar), 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle. It’s an impossible race to boil down to cliché “David vs. Goliath” terms. For instance, even though the sci-fi adventure feels like the Goliath, it’s 12 Years whose subject matter marks it as the heaviest contender. Meanwhile, the light and effervescent Hustle has the most nominations in the top categories, undercutting its bid to be the plucky underdog.

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Of course, there are six other films in the mix, and many of them are vying for the few prizes not expected to go the way of Gravity. (For the record, the standing record for the most Oscar wins a film has earned without actually winning best picture belongs to Cabaret, which snagged a jaw-dropping eight trophies before losing the top award to The Godfather back in 1972.) Last year, eight of the nine best picture nominees managed at least one win. This year, expect a few more to go home empty-handed.

Here are my predictions for all 24 categories, including all those little and/or technical ones that typically trip so many up in their Oscar pools. And, just because what does win at the Academy Awards doesn’t always (or, dare I say, usually) deserve to win, I also offer my own opinions on who should be ascending the podium on Sunday.

(credit: CBS)

Best Picture

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will Win: It started with critics’ awards, continued through the Golden Globes and just happened again at the BAFTAs. At each awards show, 12 Years a Slave has lost trophy after trophy to Gravity or American Hustle only to, at the last minute, snatch best picture. There’s certainly precedent for it to win here too even without the benefit of a sweep. Its grand historical import marks it as the smart money bet, but I can’t help but note that many other recent winners lack … ahem, gravity. I say the combination of an assured technical sweep and a best director prize give Gravity the very, very narrow edge.
Should Win: I’d be thrilled to see the formally interesting and emotionally satisfying Gravity take the prize; it’s my favorite of the three presumptive frontrunners, though I’d also be fine with a win for 12 Years, which is far from standard-issue message movie hokum (unlike Dallas Buyers Club, my least favorite nominee). But no nominated movie has more to say about the way we live now or says it with as much nuance and delicacy as Spike Jonze’s magnificent Her.

(credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Best Actor

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofer, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: If Nebraska had earned more than 89 cents at the box office, Bruce Dern might have earned enough “career achievement” votes to make a difference. But Matty McC’s hat trick with Dallas Buyers Club seems unstoppable. He lost a ton of weight, he plays the victim of a then-terminal illness, and he is in the middle of a (thanks to HBO’s True Detective still surging) career renaissance.
Should Win: Ejiofer is smolderingly good at the center of 12 Years a Slave, but no one laid it out on the line like Leonardo DiCaprio does as the venal, childish anti-hero Jordan Belfort. The physical comedy of his Quaalude-hindered “walk” down a set of hotel stairs is alone enough to merit the award.

(credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Best Actress

Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Will Win: Don’t let the white noise surrounding Woody Allen’s latest scandal fool you. Cate Blanchett’s performance as a Blanche Dubois for the Bernie Madoff era is maybe the evening’s surest bet.
Should Win: And that’s because it’s also an astonishing performance, filled with unbearable anxiety and nervous laughter. Even those who balk at the suggestion that “best acting” equals “most acting” would likely agree. Especially since there’s a big, messy, tic-filled Meryl Streep performance in the running this year, too.

(credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: The competition is thinner here, so even though Jared Leto has his share of detractors (beyond those just reacting to his strangely graceless acceptance speeches), his performance as the transsexual prostitute who helps Matthew McConaughey’s bigoted character broaden his horizons is baity enough and the Academy’s obvious respect for Dallas Buyers Club on the whole should carry him through.
Should Win: James Franco’s performance in Spring Breakers towers above any of these five, but despite the attention Barkhad Abdi commands as the head pirate in Phillips, I’ll reluctantly give props to Bradley Cooper for being the live-est wire among Hustle‘s plenty keyed-up crowd.

(credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Will Win: This is unquestionably the closest call among this year’s acting awards. There’s no doubt that Jennifer Lawrence would’ve been unstoppable … had she not just won an Oscar last year. She’s still a genuine threat for her blowsy work as a low-class Jersey housewife, but I expect Lupita Nyong’o’s star-making, tragic performance in 12 Years to come out on top.
Should Win: June Squibb’s salty work just about saves Nebraska from utter tedium, but I like Sally Hawkins even better. It may be difficult to see since she’s up against The Blanchett Show, but it’s seamless, underrated work.

(credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Best Director

David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Will Win: Visionary work from a director who should’ve already been nominated at least once before (for Children of Men). No matter how best picture settles, basically every single precursor has lined up Cuarón for the win.
Should Win: Every single precursor was right.


Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle, David O. Russell & Eric Warren Singer
Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen
Dallas Buyers Club, Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
Her, Spike Jonze
Nebraska, Bob Nelson

Will Win: If American Hustle is going to win anything from its 10 nominations, this category may represent its best shot. That said, Spike Jonze’s film has the more overtly unique premise and follows through with it more convincingly. Even Hustle‘s fans admit its script is a bit scattershot.
Should Win: As big a fan of the film as I am, I’d also have admit that Her the movie is somewhat more elegant than Her the script. Still, it’s ambitious and visionary from the foundation up, and that’s enough to elevate it over the rest of its competition.


Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy &Ethan Hawke
Captain Phillips, Billy Ray
Philomena, Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope
12 Years a Slave, John Ridley
The Wolf of Wall Street, Terence Winter

Will Win: I think the “screenplay award as consolation prize” impulse is greatly exaggerated by most pundits, but in this case, I think there’s a strong case to be made that guilt over 12 Years‘ potential loss in the top categories may translate to a back-patting win here.
Should Win: The Wolf of Wall Street‘s punchlines are pretty delectable on the page, no matter how one feels about how Scorsese chose to film them. Philomena‘s script is a well-constructed machine, no matter how middlebrow the ultimate result. But the third installment of what seems the most well-shaded study of a romantic relationship’s lifespan is in a class all its own.


Best Foreign Film

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

Will Win: The Great Beauty (my co-blogger Jonathon Sharp’s favorite film of 2013) hearkens to the heyday of Federico Fellini, who remains one of the most successful filmmakers in this category. It’s a pretty safe bet.
Should Win: Can’t argue against Kevin B. Lee’s astute comments here on why The Missing Picture is the strongest nominee this year: “As an essay filmmaker, you don’t just tell us a story by showing images. You also make us reflect on the way you are telling and showing … Your movie is like the anti-Lego Movie. You not only use real models, but each one is made by hand. Each one is invested with time and care, heart and soul. And because they reflect a time and place where creativity meant death, they celebrate creativity more powerfully. Thank you Rithy, for this film that reminds us that the power of cinema, the power of images, is still in our hands.”


Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom

Will Win: This year’s selection leans a bit heavy, so it’s probably a race between the portraiture of Cutie and the Boxer and the exuberance of 20 Feet from Stardom, with the latter likely singing its way to victory.
Should Win: Fans of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell might disagree (as would those who could only name Blackfish if asked to talk about last year’s documentaries), but once again the group responsible for deciding the nominations in this often scandal-plagued category have done a pretty decent job. The Square carries the most import, but The Act of Killing was the most unforgettable.


Best Animated Feature

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
The Wind Rises

Will Win: Many other years and The Wind Rises, the supposed swan song for Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki (who previously won for the magical Spirited Away), would’ve been a significant contender. But not this year. Frozen‘s a sure thing.
Should Win: At least two of the nominees this year are a flat embarrassment, and another two are if not terrible at least undeserving of an Oscar when compared to the likes of, say, WALL-E. Therefore, I’ll file a protest vote in favor of the one I haven’t seen. Sorry ’bout it.


Best Cinematography

The Grandmaster, Philippe Le Sourd
Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki
Inside Llewyn Davis, Bruno Delbonnel
Nebraska, Phedon Papamichael
Prisoners, Roger Deakins

Will Win: And now the floodgates for Gravity open. From here on down, other films will largely have to feel lucky for the nomination. Very few cinematographers currently working are as well-respected as Emmanuel Lubezki, who should already have won awards for lensing The New World, Children of Men and The Tree of Life. The last four winners in this category have been CGI-heavy 3-D fare. This trend along with Lubezki’s overdue status are a perfect storm.
Should Win: Actually, Roger Deakins is about as well-respected as Lubezki and is even more overdue, with 11 nominations now without a win. His work on Prisoners is amazingly textured, but the moodiness and shadows surrounding Llewyn Davis were immaculate.


Best Costume Design

American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave
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Will Win: Baz Luhrmann movies are made to win this award.
Should Win: Costume work that straddles the line between contemporary and period, like all ’70s movies do, runs the risk of spilling over into kitsch. American Hustle didn’t.


Best Film Editing

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave

Will Win: Most are predicting Gravity will take this one along with the rest of the tech awards, and I could definitely see it happening. But I have to wonder if the film’s emphasis on long, unbroken takes might not work against it here. Captain Phillips feels more like the sort of movie that would garner acclaim for its swift cuts.
Should Win: Editing is as much about when you choose to not cut away as when you choose to do so. Beyond that, Gravity is simply a seamless blend of effects sequences and live action.


Best Production Design

American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave

Will Win: What I said above about Baz Luhrmann movies and the costume design category? That goes tenfold here.
Should Win: The subtly futuristic touches throughout Her (including but hardly limited to the grafting of Los Angeles’ skyline with Shanghai’s) don’t announce themselves a la Blade Runner. They add up to a believable, naturalistic sci-fi cityscape.


Best Music (Score)

The Book Thief, John Williams
Gravity, Steven Price
Her, William Butler & Owen Pallett
Philomena, Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks, Thomas Newman

Will Win: Gravity‘s score frequently doubles as its ersatz sound effects, given in space you can’t hear the ISS tearing itself apart. Steven Price may be a newcomer in a category that doesn’t always reward fresh faces (behold, John Williams’ 400th nomination), but his bold score announces itself like nothing else in the running here.
Should Win: I’m a fan of Price’s rousing score as well, but the muted flourishes Arcade Fire’s Owen Pallett and William Butler overlaid on Her cast a spell.


Best Music (Song)

“Happy,” Despicable Me 2
“Let It Go,” Frozen
“The Moon Song,” Her
“Ordinary Love,” Mandela: Long Road To Freedom

Will Win: It’s probably a closer contest than most pundits would have you believe, with three behemoths facing off against Her‘s meek ditty. But the foregone conclusion that “Let It Go” is going to take this in a cakewalk may prove insurmountable.
Should Win: Just don’t be too surprised if Pharrell Williams’ exuberant “Happy” — a real-life “Everything Is Awesome!” — snatches the award at the last minute. It’s a giddy, infectious pop pleasure and coincidentally made a belated run to the top of the Billboard charts at just the right time, when Academy members were receiving their ballots. The song’s joyful spirit puts me in mind of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” which is high praise indeed.


Best Makeup & Hairstyling

Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Will Win: Sometimes this category breaks toward the most flagrant displays of latex flab. Other times voters rally behind the movie they simply like the best. In this case, I think it’s pretty clear voters are going to do the latter.
Should Win: This is the first chance the Academy has given me to rally behind the Jackass franchise, and you better believe I’ma take it.


Best Sound Mixing

Captain Phillips
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Will Win: Films centering around musical performances do very well in this category, but the Academy’s overall coldness toward Llewyn Davis makes a win here unlikely. Again, all signs point to Gravity walking away with this one.
Should Win: And rightfully so. The movie’s command of dynamics was in a rarified class.


Best Sound Editing

All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Will Win: When there’s a ten-ton gorilla in the room like Gravity, there’s usually little reason for voters to split their decision between the two sound categories.
Should Win: That said, I have to give kudos to the team who designed the terrifying creaks and pops throughout All is Lost. And, no, I’m not talking about Robert Redford’s aging bones.


Best Visual Effects

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Will Win: Gravity. Nothing more need be said.
Should Win: Gravity. Nothing more need be said.


Best Live-Action Short Film

Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?
Just Before Losing Everything
That Wasn’t Me
The Voorman Problem

Will Win: My colleague dismissively referred to Helium as Patch Adams 2, but its pathos may be enough to lift it above the din.
Should Win: This year’s slate is notably less distinguished than average, and includes possibly this year’s worst nominated film (the one I now frequently refer to as Did I Do That?). The one exception is the unbearably tense domestic violence melodrama Just Before Losing Everything, which plays a little like a haiku by Michael Haneke.


Best Animated Short Film

Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Room on the Broom

Will Win: Though many are predicting a win for Mickey Mouse’s return in Get a Horse! — it would be his first in this category, amazingly enough — I wouldn’t be surprised to see it fall to any of the other four nominees. Mr. Hublot‘s brand of riveted whimsy strongly resembles other recent winners The Lost Thing and The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, and that gearhead dog is incredibly cute. I give it the edge.
Should Win: The panoply of textures in Possessions were positively eye-tickling, but I was won over by the brief, understated Feral.


Best Documentary Short

Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
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Will Win: Without a doubt, this represents the strongest lineup of the three short categories this year, which makes it even more difficult to make a call on what has in the past already proven to be an almost impossible award to predict. CaveDigger may be too “first world problems,” and Facing Fear too pat and self-congratulatory in its conclusions, but it’s pretty easy to make a strong case for any of the other three. That said, I expect The Lady in Number 6‘s winning blend of historical gravitas and charming personality portraiture to push it to the top. Also, gauche as this is to point out, the film’s subject — the irrepressible 109-year-old Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer — passed away just days ago while ballots were still out.
Should Win: Ties are rare, but I’m not the Oscars, so I can give them out indiscriminately. The Lady in Number 6 is endlessly pleasurable, and the mercilessly galvanizing Prison Terminal the precise opposite, in the best sense.

Eric Henderson