The sense of place and uniformly superb performances make it worth seeing, and maybe ultimately singing along with.
Welcome to the holiday portion of the awards race. The heavy shopping is out of the way from the critic groups. Over 20 regional city and state organizations, five or so specialty critic/press associations, three exclusively online entities and the Screen Actors Guild have announced their winners. Someone in a pear tree has no doubt weighed in. As most prognosticators could have told you two months ago, the ultimate battle is coming down to "12 Years a Slave" vs. "Gravity."
The anticipation leading up to those three weeks when the Oscar race is shaped dissipates into complacency. Another victory for "12 Years a Slave." Oh look, that group really liked Jared Leto, too.
But if history is any guide, there's still potential for surprise and outrage.
Let's go through the categories.
Since the rule changes in 2009 (and again in 2011 when there could be as many as 10 nominees as opposed to always 10) there have been no fewer than nine Best Picture nominees. The next best odds (77.7%) go to three contenders ("Captain Phillips," "Nebraska," "The Wolf of Wall Street"). Each of them received nominations from the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
Best Director nominees seemingly would come from the pool of the most likely Picture nominees. Those safe bets were given a wake-up call last year when both Ben Affleck ("Argo") and Kathryn Bigelow ("Zero Dark Thirty") were shockingly snubbed. All of a sudden nobody appeared safe.
Statistically, Paul Greengrass has the best numbers. He's the only other director aside from the safe bets to receive nods from BFCA and the Globes. Spike Jonze ("Her") won the prize from the National Board of Review, which has a 50% success rate since 2003.
With the exception of Bigelow though (NBR's 2012 choice) the five to get nominated had across-the-board support. Jonze got a BFCA nod and one from Chicago. Tim Burton ("Sweeney Todd") and Clint Eastwood ("Gran Torino") were the other recent NBR choices to get BFCA/Globe nominations but not Oscar. We can wait for the Director's Guild to sort things out next month, but even they missed with Affleck, Bigelow and Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech").
Both Judi Dench ("Philomena") and Emma Thompson ("Saving Mr. Banks") can be given an 86% chance for a nomination based on how they have fared so far. They belong to a group of early nominees to receive nods from the Screen Actors Guild, the Globes and the BFCA. That trifecta without a reciprocating nod from NY, LA or Chicago is 31-of-36 amongst all the acting categories since 2003.
After that, the odds decrease significantly (22%) for Brie Larson ("Short Term 12"), who would generate quite the yelp from the press corps if her name was announced; so would Adèle Exarchopoulos ("Blue Is the Warmest Color"), who shared the L.A. Film Critics award with Cate Blanchett. Exarchopoulos could be the one to put on upset alert, possibly knocking Thompson out.
Amy Adams ("American Hustle"), Julie Delpy ("Before Midnight"), Greta Gerwig ("Frances Ha"), Julia Louis-Dreyfuss ("Enough Said") and Kate Winslet ("Labor Day") have only received major support from the Golden Globes, thus giving them each a 1.1% shot for an Oscar nomination. Since 2003, only Rooney Mara ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") was able to do what 85 other actors could not do: get just a Globe nomination from major awards groups and still have a shot at Oscar.
WILD CARDS: Christian Bale "American Hustle"; Robert Redford, "All is Lost"; Forest Whitaker "Lee Daniels' The Butler"; Tom Hanks "Captain Phillips"; Leonardo DiCaprio "The Wolf of Wall Street"; Joaquin Phoenix "Her"; Idris Elba "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"; Oscar Isaac "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Things are not as cut and dried in the men's category. This field is deep, and could go any way.
Christian Bale is in the same boat as Dench and Thompson in the actress category: his previous nods from major groups give him an 86% chance of scoring an Oscar nomination. That is still slightly better than Robert Redford, who surprisingly did not get a Screen Actors' Guild nod. He did win the top honor from the New York Film Critics Circle, though; their choice of best actor has not failed to grab an Academy Award nomination since Paul Giamatti won best actor from the NYFCC winner for "Sideways" in 2004 but didn't get an Oscar nod for his lead performance, a conspicuous snub.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Joaquin Phoenix and Idris Elba received only Globe nominations for their lead performances in "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Her" and "Mandela," respectively. They can only hope Oscar's own "Rooney Rule" comes through for them. Or they win the Golden Globe outright which would significantly increase their chances. If Oscar Isaac could somehow make it into the Best Actor list for "Inside Llewyn Davis," he would help make the numbers game moot, considering his combination of accolades to date have translated to a big 0-for-7 at the Oscars.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Also favoring the 86% with nods from SAG, the Globes and the BFCA is Julia Roberts ("August: Osage County"). She seems a likely fourth choice, though the possibility this category could host three African-American actresses is intriguing.
The Oprah train exists thanks to nods from SAG and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. This puts her at 50/50. The National Board of Review chose Octavia Spencer. They have a 60% track record by comparison, but have missed the past two years, and Spencer received no other mentions from major awards groups.
Easily the biggest and best potential surprise come nomination morning—and one to inspire the greatest debate no matter how it turns out—is whether Scarlett Johansson can snag a nomination for her voiceover work in "Her." Already inspiring the most discussion since Robin Williams' work in 1992's "Aladdin," Johansson has received more mentions from voters than any other contender save for the three safe bets listed above, including nominations from Chicago and the BFCA. Academy members are probably too short-sighted and wouldn't want to make a precedent over the fear that computers and digital creations will take their place someday.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
SAFE BETS: Barkhad Abdi, "Captain Phillips"; Michael Fassbender, "12 Years a Slave"; Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club"
As we noted last week, since 2003, any Supporting Actor nominee receiving both a SAG and a Globe nod has had a perfect 29-for-29 shot at an Oscar nomination. That could make Daniel Brühl ("Rush") the fourth nominee in that category.
Bradley Cooper has the same odds for "American Hustle" (27.2%) that Tom Hanks has in the lead category for "Captain Phillips".
Will Forte won the National Board of Review whose choice in this category was on a 12-year nomination streak until Leonardo DiCaprio ("Django Unchained") was snubbed last year. With respect for Forte's performance and the 90% chance this seemingly gives him, this is a category that may be decided already.
James Gandolfini ("Enough Said") did not get a Golden Globe nomination. The late "Sopranos" star seems like the obvious fifth nominee—even more obvious when you consider that anyone in the past decade to receive a SAG nomination as well as nods from the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, as Gandolfini did this year, are also a perfect 15-for-15. A groundswell of support for Gandolfini could push him to become the sentimental surprise of the Oscarcast.
We would hate to think that he was not nominated by the 93 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press because he was unavailable to attend their television show. In 2008, Heath Ledger was nominated posthumously for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor in a drama for "The Dark Knight". Peter Finch was nominated posthumously for a Globe as best actor in a drama in 1976, for "Network." Both went on to win Oscars in those same categories.
It doesn't help the numbers when there are still organizations out there who still can not be bothered to separate screenplays into Original and Adapted distinctions. (Looking at you, Golden Globes, New York and Los Angeles.) New York chose "American Hustle" as their Best Screenplay. "American Hustle," "Her" and "Nebraska" were each nominated by Chicago, the Globes and the BFCA.
"Blue Jasmine" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" were left off the Globes list but filled out the Original lists for Chicago and BFCA giving them each a 68.7% probability of being nominated.
The Boston Film Critics chose "Enough Said" as their best of the year (Original or Adapted) and they have not missed with Oscar here since 1996's "Big Night." Nicole Holofcener's script seems the most likely one to nudge out Woody Allen, who is hard to bet against as the Academy's most honored writer, but also recently won in 2010.
Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón ("Gravity"), Aaron Guzikowski ("Prisoners"), Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith ("Saving Mr. Banks") and Jeff Nichols ("Mud") would need some support from the Writers Guild; so would personal favorite "The World's End," from Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg, chosen as the Best Original Screenplay by the Utah critics.
The good news for these outliers is that the Screenplay categories are the most likely to spring last-minute surprises. Since 2003, "Amour", "The Barbarian Invasions", "Bridesmaids", "Dirty Pretty Things", "Frozen River", "Hotel Rwanda", "The Incredibles", "Margin Call", "The Messenger" and "Vera Drake" received no support from the early voting groups and were all up for Oscars.
"12 Years a Slave" and "Philomena" received the trifecta of nods from Chicago, the Globes and the BFCA. "Before Midnight" was the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's pick for Best Screenplay of the Year (original or adapted). The last choice from L.A. to not be nominated was "About Schmidt, back in 2002. (In case you're wondering, the third entry in the "Before" trilogy is considered an adaptation because of the previous existence of the characters—just as "Toy Story" started in the Original category and its sequels were nominated in Adapted.)
That brings us to two scripts boasting the same odds as "Blue Jasmine" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" in the Original category. Tracy Letts ("August: Osage County") and Terence Winter ("The Wolf of Wall Street") have not had a lot of competition to date to make them sweat too profusely.
Billy Ray's work on "Captain Phillips" got the sixth BFCA nod and poses the most direct threat. Only 7 of the last 19 scripts to get just a BFCA nomination have been nominated.
Since 2003, eight films have not received a screenplay nomination from any of the major groups at this point in the race but still went up for Oscar. This gives hope to Destin Cretton ("Short Term 12") as well as Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber ("The Spectacular Now") and Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix ("Blue is the Warmest Color") to be this year's big surprise. Every Oscar race could use a few just to keep us interested.