2014 Oscar Preview: Who Will Win, Who Should Win, Who Really Should Win

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2014 Oscar Preview: Who Will Win, Who Should Win, Who Really Should Win

From early in the season, it looked like a two-movie race for Best Picture between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. And despite a few moments of momentum for some other nominees, it’s still pretty much a two-film race, unless Harvey Weinstein can pull off an American Hustle miracle. Some of the other races seem equally clear (looking at you, Best Actor), while others are a little harder to call. What follows is Paste’s take on the 2014 Oscar race. (Note, “Who Should Win” draws from the nominees. “Who Really Should Win” points toward non-nominated entries that not only were unfairly left off the ballot, but also would have been worthy of the highest honor. “Other Perspectives” presents some alternate takes on the category’s competitors.)

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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)

Who Will Win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Who Should Win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Comments: When I first heard the conceit of Dallas Buyers Club—Matthew McConaughey loses weight, plays a resilient character with AIDS—I have to admit that my cynical side emerged. It sounded like pure Oscar bait, and I wasn’t sure McConaughey would have the chops to transcend his rom-com leading man sensibilities. I was doubtful, and I was wrong. Because in Ron Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey is a changed man, and not just bodily. He’s flinty and gaunt, with a new, earth-bound charisma that looks nothing like the two-dimensional debonair flash of his acting past. Woodroof operates with the hard cunning of a desperate survivor, and McConaughey disappears completely into the role, evincing the man’s irresistible rage and hunger for life in the face of the kind of corporate enemies who will kill you with a polite smile and a tepid apology. Woodroof is their opposite; every electron is humming, every vein is pulsing, every word is burning. It takes a force of nature to battle an institution, and in channeling this vitality, McConaughey transformed his entire career.—Shane Ryan

Other Perspectives:   Leonardo DiCaprio  (The Wolf of Wall Street)
For Howard Hughes. For Frank Abagnale Jr. For Amsterdam Vallon. For Calvin Candie. For being the only actor to ever be the muse of Scorsese, Spielberg, Nolan and Tarantino. For a career spent soaring consistently higher than most ever reach at their apex. For taking his propensity for playing tortured souls and throwing it in the garbage like Jordan Belfort’s hundred dollar bills. For finally being funny. For being the strongest performance in a year more loaded than most.—Tyler Chase

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

Who Will Win:   Cate Blanchett  (Blue Jasmine)

Who Should Win:   Amy Adams  (American Hustle)
Comments: Since stealing every scene she graced in 2005’s Junebug, Amy Adams has done a remarkable job at not repeating herself. Sydney Prosser, her American hustler, is a long way from the wide-eyed naivety of those early roles, but the real strength of the performance is how she plays with others, whether she pulling the strings of Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper or going toe-to-toe with Jennifer Lawrence. Let’s hope this isn’t the last time those two get to dance.—Josh Jackson

Who Really Should Win: Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
While it seems almost criminal to nominate Julie Delpy without also nominating her scene partner Ethan Hawke, given how brutally competitive the Best Actor race tends to be, I chose to interpret a nomination for her as an acknowledgment of both. Of course, despite giving three incredible performances in three incredible films, Delpy has yet to be recognized by the Academy. It’s a damn shame, especially considering that the final stretch of Before Midnight represents one of the most effective marriages of writing and acting I witnessed in 2013. As Celine, Delpy still boasts that neurotic charm and vibrant energy that made her so lovable in the first two Before installments, but the true hook of her performance this time around comes when she lets the audience witness the character’s uglier side. It’s a testament to Delpy’s dedication to realism and her lack of vanity that she plays Celine in an authentic, if sometimes abrasive, manner rather than simply leaning on the more charming, romanticized elements of her personality. Considering the actress spends a good portion of the film’s pivotal scene completely topless, it would seem really hacky to call this a “brave, stripped-down performance” but—originality be damned—that’s exactly what this portrayal, and this movie series in general, is all about.—Mark Rozeman

Other Perspectives:   Brie Larson  (Short Term 12)
Sandra got it for The Blind Side. Cate got it for The freaking Aviator. The Dame got it for The Queen. Meryl’s main competition at this point is John Williams. And Amy’s been nominated five times. All remarkable women. But none announced their arrival as dramatically, perfectly and loudly as Brie Larson. She’s the emotional centerpiece of the quietly forgotten Short Term 12, and if you have problems with the rich getting richer, the solution is simple—recognize that sometimes, the best work done is the kind that no one watches, rather than a role groomed for the awards circuit since it was written.—Tyler Chase

Other Perspectives: Adèle Exarchopolous (Blue is the Warmest Colour)
Blue is the Warmest Colour has had a rough time of it this awards season. As a result of being released too late in its native France, it was ineligible for Best Foreign Language Film, a category it would surely have had a fair chance of winning. But the absence of its young lead Adèle Exarchopolous from the Best Actress race is almost farcical. At just 19 years of age, she filled every frame of this three-hour marathon, giving a performance that is understated and painfully honest. On the brink of adulthood, her character Adèle becomes involved with art student Emma (Léa Seydoux), and the portrayal of their deepening relationship is both frank and unapologetically romantic. Exarchopolous is a luminous presence on-screen: whether tear-stained or flecked with pasta sauce, her face rises to meet the intimate gaze of the camera. She is beguilingly naive in the early stages of her affair; devastatingly broken in the latter. Without the aid of astonishing special effects, or an extensive ensemble cast, she is the unshakeable core of this film. In a category dominated by very strong but predictably “Hollywood” roles, her performance would have shone for its uncompromising take on first, and possibly last, love.—Megan Girdwood

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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)

Who Will Win:   Jared Leto  (Dallas Buyers Club)

Who Should Win:   Michael Fassbender  (12 Years a Slave)
Comments: Leto is heartfelt and moving in Dallas Buyers Club, but Fassbender’s spellbinding turn as plantation owner Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave was the best performance of the year, full stop—male or female, lead or supporting. He’ll win multiple Oscars in his career, but this should have been his first.—Michael Dunaway

Other Perspectives:   James Franco  (Spring Breakers)
I’m very much mixed when it comes to Harmony Korine’s MTV-meets-Terrence Malick-esque tone poem. One thing I cannot deny, however is that James Franco’s portrayal of eccentric rapper/criminal Alien stands as perhaps the most memorable performance of the year. Franco here is allowed to fully indulge his inner eccentric and let his freak flag fly. Needless to say, it’s a glorious sight to behold. What’s more, Alien’s appeal stems from the fact that the actor, far from reveling in the character’s sketchy or malevolent tendencies, instead plays him as an earnest romantic just trying to live out his own bizarro interpretation of the American Dream. Sprang Break Fuheveh, indeed.—Mark Rozeman

Other Perspectives:   Jonah Hill  (This is The End)
If you’re going to reward Jonah Hill for a performance where he is basically comic relief, let’s do it for the one that really mattered, the one in which he was an indispensable part of an ensemble instead of plug-and-play support staff for the one-man show that was The Wolf of Wall Street: his turn as “himself” in This Is the End. You get the same creepy vibe in both films, but in This Is the End, Hill’s character gets possessed—rectally. Surely that scores more points on the “vicissitudes endured” scale—that siren song for Academy votes—than 180 minutes of sidekick duty in Scorsese’s film?—Michael Burgin

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

Who Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Who Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Comments: Lupita Nyong’o was cast in 12 Years A Slave two weeks before she graduated from the MFA program at Yale. Her performance is shocking. Not just because of the subject matter, which must have been painful, but also because of the way she manages to transcend text. She is specific and clear about her thoughts and desires in every moment, even when she’s in the background. Just look at the scene with Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), who has parlayed her status as her Master’s lover into a position of power. She clearly sees something of herself in Lupita’s Patsy, and Patsy, in return, looks up to her. While the two have tea together at the Shaw plantation, Solomon arrives to take Patsy back to the Epps plantation. While Shaw entertains Solomon, Patsy studies her patroness, mimicking her every gesture. In one moment, she even sticks her pinky out just as Shaw does. Lupita’s single gesture is so detailed and clear that it nearly steals the scene from the great Woodard. —Leland Montgomery

Other Perspectives:   Scarlett Johansson  (Her)
When I first read that Scarlett Johansson, with her notoriously deep, sultry voice, would be voicing Joaquin Phoenix’s (literal) object of affection in Her, I’ll admit that I leapt to certain conclusions. Though I was an enormous fan of Johansson’s early breakthrough performances in Ghost World and Lost in Translation, none of her subsequent roles really seemed to follow up on that potential. So her casting did little to get me excited. Imagine my great surprise then upon seeing the film and witnessing the pure marvel that was Johansson’s artificially intelligent OS, Samantha. Despite never appearing on-screen in any capacity, Johansson manages to create a three-dimensional character full of incredible warmth and heartbreaking vulnerability. It’s enough to make you quickly look past the absurdity of the film’s premise and understand how someone could so easily fall in love. Before Her, I’d never much given thought to the concept of vocal performances as being award-worthy (I know, I know—shame on me). The fact that Johansson’s Oscar omission has me so outraged speaks volume about the power of her portrayal.—Mark Rozeman

Other Perspectives:   Jennifer Lawrence  (American Hustle)
During American Hustle, it hit me. I mean, really hit me—Jennifer Lawrence is an amazing actress. That may sound like the most obvious insight, or at least delayed realization, ever, but while I knew she was good—two Oscar nominations and one win do sort of bring such things to one’s attention—I hadn’t felt it before seeing her in David O’Russell’s glitzy film of ’70s dress-cess. Surrounded by other Oscar winners (Bale, Cooper, De Niro) and in a minor, caricature-susceptible role, Lawrence just throttles every scene she’s in. Whenever she’s in the room, she’s the most compelling person in that room. It’s scene-stealing without scene-chewing—she just imbues her character with such life that her every move and every line lives in a way that outshines all the other Oscar nomination-worthy performances around her. Heck, Lawrence stands out even amidst some ever-present, non-human competition that is a scene chewer—American Hustle’s relentless parade of low, mid and high fashion/costume design. No, Lawrence’s performance hits the mark—and leaves one.—Michael Burgin

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The Croods (Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco, Kristine Belson)
Despicable Me 2 (Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin, Chris Meledandri)
Ernest & Celestine (Benjamin Renner, Didier Brunner)
Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Peter Del Vecho)
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki)

Who Will Win: Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Peter Del Vecho)

Who Should Win: The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki)
Comments: While it’s true that it’s been a skimpy year for Oscar-worthy animated features, it’s also the year that marks animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises. His latest, supposedly last, an anti-war aviation-based movie, may not soar in the same stratosphere as universally beloved classics like My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Miyazaki, Spirited Away (and on and on), but it’s still propellers and tailfins superior to any other contender for 2013 by a sky-wide margin. And—come on—let’s mark our creative genius’s exit with a bit of ceremony, huh?—Scott Wold

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The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sourd)
Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki)
 Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel)
Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael)
Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins)

Who Will Win: Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki)

Who Should Win: Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Comments: Gravity could clean up tonight, but at the very least, Emmanuel Lubezki should walk away with his first statue after six nominations, including his stunning work for Terrence Malick (The New World, Tree of Life) and Alfonso Cuarón (including the ground-breaking single-take at the end of Children of Men). Most of the hype surrounding the film is the way the camera makes you feel like you’re floating right alongside Clooney and Bullock. We’ve spent a lot of time in movie theaters imaging space, but it’s never felt quite so real.—Josh Jackson

Who Really Should Win: To The Wonder (Emmanuel Lubezki)
I won’t begrudge the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki winning an Oscar for anything, but he’s winning for the wrong movie this year. His work in the criminally underrated To The Wonder is simply mesmerizing in its beauty. Just because you’ve seen him do it before (in other Oscar-worthy films), doesn’t mean it’s any less inspired—or inspiring—this time around.—Michael Dunaway

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American Hustle (Michael Wilkinson)
The Grandmaster (William Chang Suk Ping)
 The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin)
The Invisible Woman (Michael O’Connor)
 12 Years a Slave (Patricia Norris)

Who Will Win: The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin)

Who Should Win: American Hustle (Michael Wilkinson)
Comments: Pity poor Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer for American Hustle. Sure, he’s nominated for an Academy Award, but it’s in a category ruled by period pieces (and, occasionally, outlandish fantasies). In fact, the last movie set in a period more recent than the 1960s to win the gold statuette was 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and one could argue that was outlandish fantasy. (It certainly involved corsets.) Still, at some point, the late ’70s should count as “period drama,” right? But while I came out of American Hustle thinking, ‘That was some amazing ’70s cosplay’, the costume design in the movie went beyond just establishing an authentic look. No, Wilkinson’s work is pretty much a palpable “12th man,” propelling the film and its actors to greater heights. (I’m pretty sure Amy Adams’ dress gained her at least three extra yards in that one scene.) It’s possible the opposite poles of period-based affluence inhabited by the two lead contenders for this award (12 Years a Slave and The Great Gatsby) will yield a split vote and allow Wilkinson to sneak by. Unlikely, but possible. It wouldn’t be a travesty if it did.

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Feral (Daniel Sousa, Dan Golden)
Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan, Dorothy McKim)
Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz, Alexandre Espigares)
Possessions (Shuhei Morita)
Room on the Broom (Max Lang, Jan Lachauer)

Who Will Win: Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan, Dorothy McKim)

Who Should Win: Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz, Alexandre Espigares)
Comments: A stunning computer-animated film from Luxembourg and France that packs a wallop of heart in its 12 minutes. In this fantastical, semi-mechanical world, Mr. Hublot (who bears a familial resemblance to a Minion) is an OCD-stricken loner, living a highly organized life. His world is turned upside-down when he takes pity on a robot pet “puppy” living in squalor across the street and brings it home. The little pet grows and grows, and Mr. Hublot’s limits—as well as his home’s physical space—are tested. There’s a bit of suspense at the end that keeps viewers guessing whether this film will have a happy ending. There’s no dialogue either, which is another testament to Witz’s and Espigares’ top-notch visual storytelling.—Christine Ziemba

Who Really Should Win: Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz, Alexandre Espigares)

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Who’s Nominated:
Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric Reynolds)
Iron Man 3 (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, Dan Sudick)
The Lone Ranger (Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, John Frazier)
 Star Trek Into Darkness (Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton)

Who Will Win: Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould)

Who Should Win: Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould)
Comments: There should not be a bigger slam-dunk come tonight than in the category of Best Visual Effects, and that’s exactly as it should be. Critics are an unruly group, with plenty of voices swinging contrarian the moment any consensus threatens to become overwhelming, but with Alphonso Cuarón’s Gravity, even the staunchest, snarkiest commentators couldn’t make it beyond their word count limit without acknowledging that what they had seen looked amazing. Flying superheroes? Cool. A Cumberbatch-voiced dragon? Nice. That extended train sequence? Best thing about Lone Ranger. A Federation starship crashing … again? Yawn. Gravity surpasses them all, representing for many viewers a watershed film-viewing experience (and of the use of 3D in it).—Michael Burgin

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Dallas Buyers Club (Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews)
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Stephen Prouty)
The Lone Ranger (Joel Harlow, Gloria Pasqua-Casny)

Who Will Win: Dallas Buyers Club (Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews)

Who Should Win: Dallas Buyers Club (Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews)
Comments: Because we don’t think Academy voters will be able to hold their noses long enough to vote for any aspect, however worthy, of The Lone Ranger or Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa. —Michael Dunaway

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Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) (Esteban Crespo)
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) (Xavier Legrand, Alexandre Gavras)
Helium (Anders Walter, Kim Magnusson)
Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) (Selma Vilhunen, Kirsikka Saari)
The Voorman Problem (Mark Gill, Baldwin Li)

Who Will Win: The Voorman Problem (Mark Gill, Baldwin Li)

Who Should Win: Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) (Xavier Legrand, Alexandre Gavras)
Comments: Fever for its lead actor Martin Freeman will likely lift the British film to the award, but by far the best of a surprisingly weak field was the French entry, a white-knuckle suspense about a wife and children trying to leave an abusive husband.—Michael Dunaway

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CaveDigger (Jeffrey Karoff)
Facing Fear (Jason Cohen)
Karama Has No Walls (Sara Ishaq)
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (Malcolm Clarke, Nicholas Reed)
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (Edgar Barens)

Who Will Win: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (Malcolm Clarke, Nicholas Reed)
Comments: Is there a Holocaust film? Bet on the Holocaust film. Always.—Michael Dunaway

Who Will Win: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (Malcolm Clarke, Nicholas Reed)
Comments: See above.

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The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sørensen)
Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, Lydia Dean Pilcher)
Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, Jeremy Scahill)
The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer)
20 Feet from Stardom (Nominees to be determined)

Who Will Win: The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sørensen)

Who Should Win: The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer)
Comments: Jehane Noujaim’s latest feature documentary is, in and of itself, a revolutionary act. The Square is Egypt’s first Oscar-nominated film, and it’s currently banned from the country. It follows a group of friends from the beginning of Egypt’s revolution (which began in Tahrir Square in 2011), through the second wave, which started in 2013. Noujaim, whose previous efforts include and Control Room, did not allow participants in the making of this powerful film (including herself) to play the roles typically required for a documentary feature. The subjects were also filmmakers, providing much of the most compelling footage as the revolution unfolded, died down and then revived over the course of two years. And the filmmakers were also activists, as physically invested and in danger as their so-called subjects. Miraculously humorous, unflinching, heartbreaking and infuriating (often all in the same moment), The Square is brilliant in its refusal to simply report the day’s events—which would have been a life-threatening feat itself. This is a true story of a group of friends who chose to start a revolution, and often found themselves on opposing sides. Noujaim does not introduce us to the people behind the revolution; rather, she puts the citizens first with a completely character-driven narrative. This idea, that a political or social movement can in fact begin with and boil down to one person or one network of friends (and can be communicated with a single text, tweet, or video— because technology and social media also play a large role in the story) is not entirely new. But we now have a single work that communicates this idea beautifully, even as it functions as proof of a time that many powerful people the world over—including politicians in the United States who had much to do with the original, corrupt regime that inspired people to take to The Square—want to erase from the books and from the memories of those involved. The Square revolts against this wish, making a permanent footprint on the cultural landscape of Egypt and the rest of the world, beseeching us to remember a time when a small group of everyday citizens (boys, girls, women, men, from all cultural and religious backgrounds) got together and built themselves a revolution. And for that, yes, an Oscar is surely deserved.—Shannon Houston

Who Really Should Win: Muscle Shoals (Greg “Freddy” Camalier)
Freddy Camalier’s masterly Muscle Shoals is about the beginnings and heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Ala., a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock ’n’ roll, putting out along the way some of the greatest records in the history of American music. Many of those moments are recounted to great effect in the film; first-timer Camalier is a natural storyteller. But there’s so much more to the doc—the cinematography is lush and beautiful, the editing is crisp and precise, and it’s in turns heartbreaking, inspiring, wry, thought-provoking, nostalgic and genuinely funny. It’s simply a stunning debut film. It helps that Camalier and his producing partner Stephen Badger are after more here than just a dry lesson in musical history. They delve into the Civil Rights Movement and its effect specifically on Alabama, especially as it relates to a Muscle Shoals music scene that was, shockingly enough, lacking in any racial tension. They return again and again to the ancient Native American legend about the river that flows through the town, and the water spirit who lived there, sang songs and protected the town. And the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel. It’s thrilling, it’s engaging, it’s fascinating, it’s stirring. It’s the best documentary of the year, whether you’re a music lover or not.—Michael Dunaway

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

Who Will Win: The Great Beauty (Italy)

Who Should Win: The Hunt (Denmark)
Comments: Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps best known now in the States for his role on TV’s Hannibal, won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for this sobering drama about a decent, soft-spoken man whose life is destroyed after he’s accused (falsely) of sexually assaulting a little girl. Director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) has made a film about the ways in which we rush to judgment, somehow willing to assume the worst about those around us, especially if they seem too good to be true. The Hunt is enraging—not because its story is preposterous but, rather, because of how believable its witch-hunt worldview feels.—Tim Grierson

Other Perspectives: The Grandmaster
This year I was shocked to discover that I’d actually managed to see a large chunk of the Foreign Language nominees. And while I can safely stand behind all of the nominated entries, the most enthralling foreign language film I’ve seen this year remains the original Chinese cut of Wong Kar-Wai’s Ip Man bio film The Grandmaster (before Harvey Weinstein cut 20 minutes for American distribution). While, even in its most complete form, the movie may not be as consistent as some of the other nominees on this list, several set pieces in The Grandmaster stand as some of the most elegant and beautifully choreographed fight sequences I’ve ever seen. After leaving action behind early in his career in favor of the character-driven drama of Happy Together, Chungking Express and In The Mood for Love, Wong makes a triumphant return, crafting action scenes that reveal as much about the characters as any long-winded exchange. At its best, The Grandmaster represents cinema at its purest, most transformative form.—Mark Rozeman

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Captain Phillips (Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munro)
Gravity (Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick, Tony Johnson)
 Inside Llewyn Davis (Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, Peter F. Kurland)
Lone Survivor (Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, David Brownlow)

Who Will Win: Gravity (Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro)

Who Should Win: Gravity (Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro)
No argument here.

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All Is Lost (Steve Boeddeker, Richard Hymns)
Captain Phillips (Oliver Tarney)
Gravity (Glenn Freemantle)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Brent Burge, Chris Ward)
Lone Survivor (Wylie Stateman)

Who Will Win: Gravity (Glenn Freemantle)

Who Should Win: All Is Lost (Steve Boeddeker, Richard Hymns)
Comments: Look, Gravity sounds great, okay? But you know what’s really impressive? Keeping a movie sonically interesting when it has basically zero dialogue. A testament to the acting, cinematography and direction, too, given, but give Boeddeker and Hymns their due.—Michael Dunaway

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American Hustle (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten)
Captain Phillips (Christopher Rouse)
Dallas Buyers Club (John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger)
 12 Years a Slave (Joe Walker)

Who Will Win: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger)

Who Should Win: Captain Phillips (Christopher Rouse)
Comments: Director Paul Greengrass is known for his nerve-jangling thrillers, but a lot of credit should also go to Christopher Rouse, his longtime editor. Working with Greengrass’ shaky-cam shooting style, Rouse delivers sequences that aren’t just gripping but also coherent, hardly a given in the world of big-budget action movies. Their latest collaboration, the somber real-life drama Captain Phillips, isn’t an escapist adventure like the Jason Bourne films, but Rouse gives its action set pieces a gut-wrenching immediacy, combining excitement and dread in equal measure. Perhaps no sequence in 2013 was as brilliantly cut together as the Somali pirates’ invasion of the U.S. cargo ship, but the whole film is a model of intelligent, meticulous building of tension, never losing sight of character or moral dimensions in the process. —Tim Grierson

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American Hustle (Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler)
Gravity (Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne Woollard)
 The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn)
Her (K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena)
 12 Years a Slave (Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker)

Who Will Win: The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn)

Who Should Win: Her (K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena)
Comments: If there’s a “system” for handicapping the likely winner in the Production Design category of the Academy Awards, it probably goes something like this: Flashy world-building > period pieces > technical achievements > everything else. (The first two are pretty interchangeable, but fourth place stays the same.) Add critical and popular acclaim in the mix in case of a tie, and bam, conventional wisdom gives you the likely winner. (Yes, conventional wisdom has blind spots.) This year, the category has critically acclaimed period pieces (12 Years a Slave); popular, flashy period pieces (The Great Gatsby, American Hustle); astounding technical achievements (Gravity); and … Her. If only the Academy revealed the vote totals—I suspect Spike Jonze’s quiet tour-de-force of world-building would come in last. That’s too bad, for Her is a triumph of subtle, pitch-perfect production design, an example of brilliantly applied futurism. Judge it not by comparing it to other films that have pulled off so seamless a portrayal of a conceivable future—frankly, there aren’t many—but rather by looking at all the films that have tried and failed. (Their numbers are legion.) Her won’t win, and the other nominees are all worthy of a statue come Sunday. But to be fair, conventional voter behavior (and knowledge) make this a competition rigged against Her from the start. —Michael Burgin

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

Who Will Win: Gravity (Steven Price)

Who Should Win: Her (William Butler, Owen Pallett)
Comments: Ah, subtlety—no one ever saves you a seat at the Oscars. You may remember “The Moon Song,” but you probably can’t recall even a snippet of the other music. Nonetheless, Butler and Pallett’s score is restrained, haunting and utterly in service of the picture.

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“Happy” (Despicable Me 2)
“Let It Go” (Frozen)
“The Moon Song” (Her)
“Ordinary Love” (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

Who Will Win: “Let It Go” (Frozen)

Who Should Win: “The Moon Song” (Her)
Comments: Karen O habitually bares her fangs in her art-punk group Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but when she works with filmmaker Spike Jonze, she reveals a softer side. O contributed wistful, childlike songs to Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and for Her she brings us a perfectly twee little tune about hanging out with your beloved on the moon, “a million miles away” from the problems of the real world. Sappy, to be sure—but completely in keeping with Her’s moony romantic drama.—Tim Grierson

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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)

Who Will Win: 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)

Who Should Win: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
Comments: Before Midnight brings to mind two of the most common observations about writing: “Write what you know” and “This thing feels so much like real life that it doesn’t seem written.” There’s a perception among some that the film’s screenplay—written by director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—is really just a collection of loose ideas that were the basis for improv on the set. But that’s not the case: The three principals worked together to craft the scenes, drawing on personal experience to dramatize the unraveling relationship between Jesse and Celine. (“A lot of the things Celine is complaining about are things that Ethan and I have heard, directed at us in our relationships,” Linklater told Vulture last year.) This beautiful film with its wise, funny dialogue crackles with casual authenticity, but that’s because these three artists worked incredibly hard to make sure we never saw the sweat that went into it.—Tim Grierson

Other Perspectives: The Spectacular Now
Let’s be clear, if we’re talking purely about the strongest screenplay in this category it’s Before Midnight all the way. That being said, Before Midnight’s inclusion seems purely circumstantial since any sequel constitutes an “adaptation” in the Academy’s eyes. You can argue semantics all you want, but Before Midnight is, for all intents and purposes, an original screenplay. The best adaptations, in my opinion, work off of the format and limitations set by their source material. Writers must capture the core essence of the story, yet refine and tweak the plot and characters for maximum impact in a new medium. When thinking of ideal examples, my mind instantly goes to Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s film adaptation of Tim Tharp’s young adult novel The Spectacular Now. Admittedly, the source material has its flaws, chief among them is its overly dour ending. Yet, by making the proper adjustments, including adding a beautifully ambiguous coda, Neustadter and Weber’s script brings the story and characters to life in a way that a more straightforward, page-by-page adaptation might not have. While a large part of the film’s success resides in the central performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as well as in the deft, intimate direction courtesy of James Ponsoldt, the bedrock of the film’s success ultimately lies in the strength of Neustadter and Weber’s writing. With so few films capable of truly capturing the experience of young love, The Spectacular Now stands as a minor miracle. —Mark Rozeman

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

Who Will Win: American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)

Who Should Win: Her (Spike Jonze)
Comments: It seems at once hard to believe and yet perfectly credible and right that Her is director Spike Jonze’s first original produced screenplay. (His first two films were scripted by Charlie Kaufman, and his previous effort, 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are, was co-written with Dave Eggers and adapted from Maurice Sendak’s bestselling children’s book.) A rich, finely calibrated work—it’s both funny and sad, in the manner of real life—Her is the film the 44-year-old Jonze has been working toward his entire professional life. The extraordinary leaps and bounds of technological innovation have given filmmakers myriad new ways to imagine outlandish new worlds, dystopian hellholes and mass-scale destruction. To the extent that filmmakers even want to turn an eye back on the increasing degree to which those technologies are tethered to and interwoven into the fabric of actual human lives, they typically do so only in clamorous genre fare. Her, though, is a movie nominally of the future, but undeniably of the present. There’s a woozy wistfulness with which Jonze’s screenplay is shot through. It’s a film that has assayed the human condition and realized, both frustratingly and luckily, big questions will always remain.—Brent Simon

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

Who Will Win: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

Who Should Win: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Comments: Gravity isn’t as austere as All is Lost in its storytelling, and as a result the movie feels a little more conventional, despite the repeatedly extraordinary sequences that Cuarón has put together. Such quibbles are minor but nagging, and they keep Gravity from soaring as high as it could. But that shouldn’t diminish Cuarón’s considerable achievement. Claustrophobic, transporting and unbearably tense, Gravity is a new high-water mark for effects-driven cinema. The worst you can say about the movie is that it’s so grand it spoils you into expecting even more.—Tim Grierson

Who Really Should Win: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
Can we get a couple of myths out of the way first? “Aren’t all Linklater’s movies kinda improvised?” No, they’re nearly always tightly scripted. “Aren’t Hawke and Delpy kind of playing themselves?” Absolutely not. I’ve met them both, and neither is their character in the trilogy. “Isn’t Linklater just kind of a slacker director who just lets things happen?” Absolutely not. He’s fiercely intelligent and meticulous in his thinking. One day, he will win his overdue Oscar (perhaps as soon as this time next year for the majestic Boyhood), and we’ll all look back and be ashamed we didn’t give him one before. This year will be one of the memories that gives us pause.

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_American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave 
The Wolf of Wall Street_

Who Will Win: Gravity

Who Should Win: Her
Comments:   Spike Jonze’s colossal talent was far too great to remain trapped in MTV’s orbit; that became immediately clear when his breakout feature-length debut, Being John Malkovich, earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director. Following that minor postmodern masterpiece, he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman continued their journey into solipsism with the hilariously unhinged Adaptation. As challenging, yet fun and accessible as Kaufman’s screenplays are, Jonze’s Her answers any lingering questions of whether those two movies’ (well-deserved) acclaim sprang solely from the power of Kaufman’s words. Retaining the sweetest bits of the empathetically quirky characters, psycho-sexuality and hard-wrung pathos of Malkovich, Her successfully realizes a tremendously difficult stunt in filmmaking: a beautifully mature, penetrating romance dressed in sci-fi clothes. Eye-popping sets and cinematography, as well as clever dialog delivered by a subtly powerful Joaquin Phoenix, make Jonze’s latest feature one of the best films of 2013. It also serves as confirmation that—much like Her—the director is the complete package.—Scott Wold

Who Really Should Win: Before Midnight
Before Midnight concludes one of cinema’s great trilogies—assuming it stays a trilogy. Nine years from now, director Richard Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke could well revisit their characters from 1995’s Before Sunrise. But as it stands, they have built a beautiful study of life and love, each chapter of which stands on its own while adding emotional resonance to the other two. 2004’s Before Sunset saw Jesse and Celine re-connect in Paris for the first time since their magical night in Vienna, searching again for that rare, deep connection between two humans. Before Midnight spends another day with the characters, this time in Greece, but things are a little different. While they are still extremely connected to one another, additional people also command their attention and somewhat limit their personal time together. Which doesn’t mean the two leads don’t converse. The series’ trademark intense, thoughtful and personal conversations remain. An early scene holds on one perfectly acted two-shot in a car for 13 minutes. The discussions are often as hilarious as they are engaging. Hangups, regrets and doubts have have become a greater part of Jesse and Celine’s lives, and the film reflects that. But it also reminds us what made the couple such a lovable pair that they could hold our interest for 20 years.—Jeremy Mathews