It's not quite a rematch of 1998, when Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan, but the contest for this year's Academy Award for Best Picture shapes up as another showdown between campy, costumed entertainment and weighty historical drama.
American Hustle, with 10 nominations overall, and 12 Years a Slave (nominated in seven major categories, including production design and adapted screenplay) face off for the Best Picture Oscar in a clear-cut choice between out-and-out fun and wrenching reality. It wouldn't be a bit surprising if Academy members sidestepped a difficult decision and simply voted for the cinematic spectacle of the year (and a box-office hit, to boot), Gravity (which landed safely with 10 nominations altogether).
Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Philomena, Nebraska and Her round out the field vying for the Best Picture Oscar. The presence of nine nominees (out of a possible maximum of 10), rather than the five that prevailed from 1944 through 2008, spreads out the votes and makes it much harder to predict a winner. It's even tougher in a year like 2013, with many solid, well-acted films but no masterpieces.
The acting categories offer plenty to ponder, not least the inability of the Academy to recognize actresses beyond the tiny handful of household names and usual suspects. The Best Actress nominees are Cate Blanchett (ordained as the winner since Blue Jasmine opened in late July), Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Amy Adams (who's achieved heading-for-a-fall status of seriously overrated between The Master and American Hustle) and Meryl Streep (who is technically excellent, as always, in August: Osage County, but are voters so Pavlovian that they must scribble her name every single year, even for movies that don't work, in part because of distracting casting?)
The Academy did a smidgen of original thinking for Supporting Actress, nominating Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave), Sally Hawkins (presumably for holding her own opposite Cate Blanchett) and June Squibb (the heart and anger of Nebraska) along with now-perennial sweethearts Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) and Julia Roberts (August: Osage County). Perhaps the voters were generously considering that familiar faces in lavish gowns are an essential element of the Oscar telecast (March 2, 2014), and wanted to be sure we were taken care of.
It's hard to find fault with the nominees for Best Actor, each of whom is worthy of the statuette: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street).
I tab Jared Leto as the favorite in the Supporting Actor category for Dallas Buyers Club -- I choose to believe in the existence of a gay Mafia in Hollywood -- although Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) all have a coterie of fans. Jonah Hill is the lone egregious and undeserving performance in this category, for The Wolf of Wall Street.
Nebraska is this year's little indie that could, with a Best Picture nod, two major acting citations and even a nomination for director Alexander Payne (who has no chance, but I'm sure he's honored if not humbled to be nominated). Some might pick Her as the underdog of the year, but it boasts the name casting of Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. The question is whether it possesses enough pseudo-hip and quasi-insightful touches to bamboozle older members of the Academy along with the younger ones.
The major travesty of the nominations is that the impeccably crafted and painfully funny Inside Llewyn Davis inexplicably missed the cut in every category except cinematography. It's worth noting that the Coen brothers don't do interviews, PR tours and the related schmoozing and glad-handing that enhances one's chances with the Academy, but frankly I think that the last thing show-business types want to confront, contemplate and reward is failure. I'm referring to Llewyn, not the movie.
(Yes, the Coens won for No Country for Old Men, but that film was a critical and popular triumph. And yes, Woody Allen got nominated again this year for Original Screenplay and he's never participated in awards-season self-promotion. But the Academy has long recognized that he stands outside the system, and doesn't penalize him for it. He's an exception.)
The question in the documentary feature category is whether the Academy will sidestep the heavy issue-oriented films and push the unsung singers of 20 Feet From Stardom into the spotlight. The Act of Killing unequivocally deserves the trophy, with The Square, Cutie and the Boxer and Dirty Wars acceptably completing the field.
The only political controversy to be found among this year's nominations -- that is, if we pretend that the heinous history depicted in 12 Years a Slave has no contemporary relevance -- is the Foreign Language nomination for Omar (opening Feb. 21 in the Bay Area), Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad's street-level drama set against the backdrop of the Israeli occupation. Whether it can outpoll a devastating reenactment of Cambodian genocide (The Missing Picture) and a gorgeously cinematic Fellini update from Italy (The Great Beauty), as well as the ill-fated romance of The Broken Circle Breakdown (from Belgium) and former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen as a wrongfully accused teacher in The Hunt (from Denmark), remains to be seen. Admittedly, this isn't the category that millions of people will be watching with bated breath.
For the full list of nominees, visit oscar.go.com.