Who will take home the statuette in key categories at Sunday's 86th Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood? USA TODAY film critic Claudia Puigweighs in on who will win and should win.
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street
Will win/should win:12 Years a Slave. Following one of the best years for movies in at least a dozen years, the best-picture race is particularly tough. Several films are worthy, and it seems to be a three-way race between Gravity, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. But of the three, 12 Years is the most deserving, given its ambition, top-notch cast, deftly written script, stunning cinematography and moving script based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man taken into slavery. Gravity is most noteworthy for its masterful direction and jaw-dropping sci-fi special effects, and American Hustle is sharply written, funny and well-acted. But 12 Years a Slave has the seriousness and epic quality that academy voters tend to favor.
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Will win/should win: Cuarón. He's not only a masterful storyteller, but his genius for technical wizardry is powerfully evident in the space odyssey that is Gravity. It's not just outer space that Cuarón so powerfully depicts. He adds heft to his sci-fi tale by exploring the emotional isolation of inner space. Gravity's dazzling effects are integrated seamlessly, fulfilling a lofty artistic purpose. Academy voters may give Cuarón the award for his groundbreaking technological accomplishments, but it's his fusion of visual effects with a powerful human tale that makes him most deserving of the award.
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
Will win: McConaughey. The Texan's career-topping performance as a nasty good ol' boy turned AIDS activist already has nabbed him the Screen Actors Guild Award, and actors are the largest contingent of the academy, so his win on Oscar night seems likely. Given his recent turns in Magic Mike, Bernie, Killer Joe and Mud, and even his near-cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, McConaughey has evolved from a handsome lightweight into one of the more talented, risk-taking actors in Hollywood. In Buyers Club, he's a twitchy, emaciated, homophobic, bronco-riding electrician who becomes a crusader. McConaughey, who lost 50 pounds for the role, makes that transition credible.
Should win: Dern. At 77, he gives the performance of his career in Nebraska, fully rounding out the cantankerous, disheveled, obstinate Woody Grant into a poignant character of great dimension. Woody may seem addled, but he's got the determination and spirit of a Midwestern pioneer. What stands out is the fullness of his character and the understated details of his personality that add up to a man who would rather burn out than fade away. Dern's headstrong portrayal is brilliant, subtle, wise, moving and funny.
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Will win/should win: Blanchett. This is the most predictable win and probably the year's most indelible performance. Blanchett's portrayal of the self-absorbed and delusional Jasmine is akin to a latter-day Blanche DuBois. She depends on the kindness of strangers because she's alienated nearly everyone in her orbit. Blanchett's is a subtle and multilayered performance that avoids histrionics and gets under the viewers' skin. She's won nearly every award there is for this performance, so this is the category to bet the house on. If there is any remote chance for an upset, it would be between Dench, for her moving portrayal of an elderly woman in search of the son taken away from her in her youth, and Adams' flashier turn as a larcenous opportunist.
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/should win: Leto. He's the odds-on favorite for his vivid portrayal of transgender AIDS patient Rayon. Leto, who lost 30 pounds for the part and wore a curly wig and women's clothes and makeup, captures Rayon's sweet intensity, wounded quality, savvy wit and stylish panache. Rayon and Ron Woodroof, the homophobic Texan played by Matthew McConaughey, forge an unlikely friendship. Leto's performance includes his physical deterioration as his health declines, and he makes it all convincing. Dramatic acting turns in which an actor makes a metamorphosis are the performances that academy voters seem to honor regularly (think Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln and Charlize Theron in Monster).
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/should win: Nyong'o. While this category is full of strong performances, the Mexican-born, Kenya-reared Yale graduate is the front-runner, leaving the most powerful impression in her role as tragic Patsey, who is preyed upon by a sadistic plantation owner. She has 12 Years' most prominent female role as a strong and beautiful young slave who is able to pick 500 pounds of cotton a day — more than twice that of any man. Cruelly objectified and horribly mistreated by a slave master and maliciously humiliated by his scorned wife, Patsey regards death as her only escape. Nyong'o conveys Patsey's torment, as well as her effortless sensuality and quiet strength. It's a heartbreaking performance made all the more impressive given that this is Nyongo's first film role.