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  • Three-movie race for top Oscar

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  • Surprise! There might actually be some suspense at this year’s Oscars ceremony.
    Sure, some of the major categories – Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor – look like sure bets. But the Best Picture contest has developed into a three-movie race.
    That’s good news for this year’s Oscars show, which airs live Sunday night. Usually, with all of the other movie awards preceding the Academy Awards, the announcements of the big Oscar prizes seem to follow a script we’ve already read.
    The downside of this – as, frankly, it seems to be every year – is that more attention is given to predictions of who will win rather than who should win. It seems to me it should be the other way around.
    With that in mind, I’ll do what I’ve done here for recent Oscar nights: I’ll rate the candidates in descending order from most deserving of winning (in my opinion, of course), then offer my predictions of which nominees will win.
    Best Picture
    1. “Her”
    2. “Philomena”
    3. “12 Years a Slave”
    4. “Nebraska”
    5. “Gravity”
    6. “Dallas Buyers Club”
    7. “The Wolf of Wall Street”
    8. “American Hustle”
    9. “Captain Phillips”
    The two movies that top my list are, in a way, opposites. Spike Jonze’s “Her” is the most unusual film of the nominees, while Stephen Frears’ “Philomena” is the most mainstream. But they share things in common, too.
    Both involve love for someone (or some thing) who/that isn’t physically present – a computer system (featuring the voice of Scarlett Johansson) in “Her”; a son put up for adoption decades earlier in “Philomena.” Both films show how powerful and beautiful love can be, but also how heartbreaking. They challenge us to consider the nature of love, the boundaries we sometimes place on it. They make us feel, deeply, for their characters, and they also make us think about so many things – acceptance, forgiveness, what it is to be human.
    Both are beautiful films, and neither has a shot at winning the big prize.
    Instead, “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “American Hustle” have emerged as the strongest contenders. They’ve dominated in the year-end awards, and there’s no reason to think they won’t on Sunday night.
    “American Hustle” is the edgy choice, the one that might be favored by the Scorsese-Tarantino crowd. Director Martin Scorsese has his own candidate with this “cool” factor in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but some moviegoers (among them, possibly, academy voters) seem turned off by its raw depiction of greed and shallow values.
    “Gravity” is the most groundbreaking with its stunning visual effects. It’s this year’s “Avatar,” only, outside of the visuals, 1,000 times better. Plus, “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron won this year’s Directors Guild Award, which often would make a film the clear favorite.
    Page 2 of 3 - But then there’s “12 Years a Slave,” arguably the best movie ever about slavery. Director Steve McQueen’s film is this year’s prestige picture, given its bold depiction of a part of our history we’d rather forget but shouldn’t. Ever.
    In the end, I think it will be a coin toss between “12 Years” and “Gravity.”
    My favorite: “Her.”
    My prediction: “12 Years a Slave.”
    Best Actor
    1. Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
    2. Christian Bale, “American Hustle”
    3. Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
    4. Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
    5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
    Most years, any of these nominees could win – and deserve it. But this is McConaughey’s year, and it should be. He clearly lost a lot of weight to play the role of an HIV-positive rodeo cowboy, but his performance goes a lot deeper than that. McConaughey creates a complicated, unforgettable character who goes through many changes while maintaining a certain rebellious attitude. He’s believable and fascinating.
    My favorite: Matthew McConaughey.
    My prediction: Matthew McConaughey.
    Best Actress
    1. Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
    2. Judi Dench, “Philomena”
    3. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
    4. Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
    5. Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
    My guess is people are a bit sick of Streep winning awards. That’s not going to help her this year. And playing someone as repulsively nasty as family matriarch Violet Weston in “August: Osage County” probably doesn’t help, either.
    So even though Streep’s remarkable, chameleonlike portrayal in the film is Oscar-worthy, Blanchett will win for her jittery Judy Davis-like turn in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” Blanchett has pretty much won every award in sight as that self-consumed neurotic, and there’s no reason to think she won’t win now.
    My favorite: Meryl Streep (with Dench a close second).
    My prediction: Cate Blanchett.
    Best Supporting Actor
    1. Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
    2. Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
    3. Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
    4. Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
    5. Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
    Another strong batch of candidates. Hill is hilarious in “Wolf” – even the whiteness of his teeth is funny – and yet there are three nominees I’d pick ahead of him.
    Leto is far and away the best, though, and, like his “Dallas Buyers Club” co-star McConaughey, it’s not just because of the physical transformation he went through for the role. As an HIV-positive transvestite, Leto creates a character with equal parts strength and vulnerability. What could have been a caricature turns into anything but one.
    My favorite: Jared Leto.
    My prediction: Jared Leto.
    Page 3 of 3 - Best Supporting Actress
    1. Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
    2. Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
    3. Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
    4. June Squibb, “Nebraska”
    5. Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”
    It pains me to put Hawkins fifth here, because she’s become one of my favorite actresses, thanks to many outstanding performances in recent years. Check out Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” and you’ll see what I mean. But she didn’t leave much of an impact on me with “Blue Jasmine.”
    Lawrence and Nyong’o delivered the two best performances here, and one of them will take home the Oscar.
    Lawrence’s appeal here is the larger-than-life (yet believable) charismatic personality she projects on the screen as a con man’s estranged wife in “Hustle.” As she was in her Oscar-winning turn in “Silver Linings Playbook,” Lawrence is just so engaging, so much fun to watch.
    Nyong’o delivers one of the year’s most intense portrayals as a slave in the McQueen film. With her work, you remember more the character’s agony and other emotions – what she represents – than the character herself. That’s not a knock; it’s just a different type of impact than what Lawrence provides.
    My favorite: Jennifer Lawrence.
    My prediction: Jennifer Lawrence.
    Best Director
    1. Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
    2. Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”
    3. Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
    4. Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
    5. David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
    It’s no coincidence that the order here falls in line with my order of preference in the best-picture category. As for who will win, this could be one of those years when the best picture and best director winners don’t line up. In other words, I think Cuaron could edge McQueen because of the breathtaking visuals of “Gravity.”
    My favorite: Steve McQueen.
    My prediction: Alfonso Cuaron.
    Tim Miller is the Cape Cod Times’ film critic and features editor. His movie reviews can be found at www.capecodonline.com/miller.
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