On Thursday morning, at an ungodly hour (5:30 a.m. West Coast time, to be precise), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce its nominations for the 86th annual Academy Awards. Whose names might we hear that morning? Here’s an overview of the major categories — the likely nominees, the possibilities and the longest of long shots.
—Best Picture: This category’s gotten more interesting since the Academy’s decision in recent years to allow between five and 10 nominees. (Last year, there were nine; the final number’s obtained through some elaborate mathematical formula that I wouldn’t dream of trying to explain.) In a year that brought a bumper crop of good movies, perhaps we’ll see the full 10 this time?
Sure things: Beyond the shadow of a doubt, “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “Philomena” will be on this list. Only slightly less likely are “Nebraska” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.” So that’s six, right there.
A decent shot: “Captain Phillips” and “All Is Lost” are possibilities, though both are acting tour de forces and may be relegated to those categories. Spike Jonze’s “Her” got a lot of end-of-year love from critics’ groups, though it’s not clear if the Academy (whose membership skews older) will feel the same way; likewise Martin Scorsese’s entertainingly raunchy “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Other possibilities: “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Rush,” “Enough Said,” “The Butler,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Before Midnight.”
Snowball in hell: Almost nobody saw Joss Whedon’s rollicking “Much Ado About Nothing” — but those who did will understand why it deserves to be on Oscar’s list.
—Best Director: Now it gets tricky. Up to 10 nominated movies — but only five nominated directors. Luckily, Steven Spielberg didn’t make a movie this year.
Sure things: Hmm. I’d call the closest to a safe bet here David O. Russell (“American Hustle”) and Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”), both two-time previous nominees in this category, and first-timer Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave.” But I’m not sure I’d put money on it. As we learned last year, when “Argo” won best picture but didn’t get a directing nomination, anything can happen in this category.
A decent shot: Martin Scorsese is a seven-time nominee here, but I wonder what the staid Academy might make of the very, very R-rated “Wolf of Wall Street.” Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” was admired by all, but many Academy members view movies on DVD screeners, and this film might lose some of its impact on a small screen. Stephen Frears, for “Philomena,” might surprise (it screens very well on DVD), as might Spike Jonze for “Her.” Other possibilities: the Coen brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips”).
Snowball in hell: Documentary filmmakers never get recognized in this category ... but “Stories We Tell” is a unique meld of documentary and feature, and a triumph for its director, Sarah Polley.
—Best Actor: Sure things: Let’s hope that whoever announces the nominations has practiced pronouncing “Chiwetel Ejiofor,” as the “12 Years a Slave” star is certain to be here. Matthew McConaughey seems sure to get his first Oscar nomination for “Dallas Buyers Club,” and Tom Hanks should notch his sixth for “Captain Phillips.”
A decent shot: Now it gets interesting. Robert Redford would seem to be a shoo-in, not to mention a sentimental vote, for “All Is Lost” — but the Screen Actors Guild (whose membership has much overlap with the Academy’s acting branch) left him off their nominations. Bruce Dern and Christian Bale, never nominated in this category, are in the mix for “Nebraska” and “American Hustle,” respectively, as are previous nominees Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” but I’d give it to him for “The Great Gatsby”) and Forest Whitaker (“The Butler”). Throw in newcomers Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”) and Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and you’ve got a very competitive category.
Snowball in hell: For some reason, absolutely nobody’s talking about Hugh Jackman’s remarkable work in “Prisoners,” which struck me as a stronger and more unexpected performance than last year’s nominated work in “Les Miserables.”
—Best Actress: Sure things: This has been a two-woman race for a while now: Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”) and Sandra Bullock (“Gravity”). Both are previous Oscar winners, though Blanchett’s was in the supporting category (for “The Aviator”); Bullock won best actress for “The Blind Side.”
A decent shot: 79-year-old Judi Dench found her best role in years in “Philomena”; it seems unthinkable that the Academy won’t reward her with a nomination. “Saving Mr. Banks” is getting mixed reviews, but everyone agrees that Emma Thompson’s tart performance is nomination-worthy. And, as evidence this is a funny year, Meryl Streep, despite heroic scene-chewing in “August: Osage County,” may get crowded out in favor of long shots Amy Adams (“American Hustle”), Julie Delpy (“Before Midnight”) or Kate Winslet (“Labor Day”).
Snowball in hell: The Academy is notoriously hostile to comedy performances, so it’s likely that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ lovely work in “Enough Said” will go unnoticed.
—Best Supporting Actor: Sure things: Barkhad Abdi, remarkable in “Captain Phillips,” will in all likelihood receive the honor of an Oscar nomination for his very first screen role. Also shoo-ins: Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club” and Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave.”
A decent shot: Plenty of gentlemen have reason to set their alarms early on Thursday, as it’s anyone’s guess who might score those last two slots — though most likely: George Clooney (“Gravity”), Tom Hanks (“Saving Mr. Banks”), Bradley Cooper (“American Hustle”), Chris Cooper (“August: Osage County”) and/or Daniel Bruhl (“Rush”). And sentiment is rising for a posthumous nomination for James Gandolfini, who died just before the release of “Enough Said.”
Snowball in hell: Nobody seems to be paying much attention to Will Forte, whose gentle, quiet performance in “Nebraska” could be a career-changer.
—Best Supporting Actress: Sure things: Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, whose heartbreaking performance as the slave Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” was her feature-film debut, is a safe bet here; as is Academy darling Jennifer Lawrence, the hilarious heart of “American Hustle.”
A decent shot: Julia Roberts and/or Margo Martindale could turn up here for “August: Osage County,” but the film doesn’t seem to have a lot of awards traction. June Squibb in “Nebraska” has a good shot, as does Oprah Winfrey for “The Butler,” Jennifer Garner for “Dallas Buyers Club,” Octavia Spencer for “Fruitvale Station” and Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine.”
Snowball in hell: Just watch Julianne Moore as a neglectful, self-absorbed mother in “What Maisie Knew,” a wonderful film that came and left theaters last spring as quickly as the wind, and tell me she doesn’t belong at the top of this list.
In other categories, I’d love to see Bob Nelson take a well-deserved original screenplay nomination (“Nebraska”), and I’ll be closely watching my own favorite race: best costumes. (Will the Academy forget “Beautiful Creatures” and the gorgeous gowns created by Jeffrey Kurland? I hope not.) See you Thursday, as the Oscar race begins.