Oscar nominations analysis: What’s up (‘American Hustle’) and what’s down (’12 Years a Slave’)

Though most of the favorites were recognized in Thursday’s Oscar nominations, some top contenders were unexpectedly left out of the major categories (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “All is Lost“) or shut out completely (“The Butler“).

For the films left standing, what do the nominations tell us about the state of the race?


American Hustle
It’s tied with “Gravity” as the nominations leader with 10, it’s nominated in all the fields usually required to win Best Picture – directing, writing, editing, and acting – and it earned nominations for all four of its actors, including an unexpected Best Actor bid for Christian Bale, who unseated Oscar stalwarts Tom Hanks and Robert Redford. Director David O. Russell has now helmed three Best Picture nominees in four years, so he now seems due to win. We could be looking at the Best Picture frontrunner.

Bruce Dern
Nebraska” performed above expectations, earning a nomination for Best Director (Alexander Payne) as well as Best Picture. I don’t think it has a serious chance to win either of those categories, but its strong showing overall is good news for Dern’s Best Actor candidacy. If voters want to honor the film somewhere, this is the best place to do it. At 77, Dern is also the oldest nominee in a Best Actor race full of relative youngsters – the next oldest is Matthew McConaughey at 44 – so if voters want to reward a veteran, he’s their only choice. But …

Matthew McConaughey
Dallas Buyers Club” also out-performed our expectations. We expected a Best Picture nomination, but its Original Screenplay bid was less certain, and the Editing nomination was a complete surprise. Given the strong industry support for the film (WGA, PGA, and SAG Ensemble nods), McConaughey is also well positioned to win Best Actor.

Judi Dench
With a nomination for Best Picture, “Philomena” has more overall support than “Blue Jasmine.” Like the star of that picture — Cate Blanchett — Dench is a previous supporting winner looking for her first lead victory. Blanchett is probably still in the lead, but they’ll face off at a number of precursor events — Critics’ Choice, SAG, BAFTA — so she might have to watch her back, kind of like she did when Dench was stalking her in “Notes on a Scandal.”

Last year, Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” seemed like a strong candidate for Best Animated Feature but lost to yet another Pixar contender, “Brave.” This year, the academy snubbed Pixar altogether –leaving “Monsters University” out of the final five — so the only obstacle between Disney’s “Frozen” and Oscar glory might be previous winner Hayao Miyazaki, whose “The Wind Rises” is in contention.


12 Years a Slave
The good news for the film is that it earned nominations in the most important categories for its Best Picture candidacy: besides “American Hustle,” it’s the only film up for directing, writing, editing, and acting. But it was expected to earn the most nominations, as it did at SAG, the Golden Globes, and Critics’ Choice. Though nine noms is plenty, it’s a significant shortfall from the 13 we’d been predicting, and the limited support below the line (the categories it missed were Cinematography, Score, and Sound) might mean it’s not strong enough to win the top prize.

Yes, the film is tied for the most nominations, and yes it could still win Best Picture. But its snub for Best Original Screenplay is a big hurdle to overcome. The last two movies to win Best Picture without a writing nomination were “Titanic” (1997) and “The Sound of Music” (1965). Of course, it was statistically even less likely for “Argo” to win last year without a directing bid; rules are made to be broken from time to time.

Roger Deakins
The veteran cinematographer received a nomination for “Prisoners,” and under most circumstances that would be good news for a behind-the-scenes artist. But his is the only nomination for the film, and up against “Gravity” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” he’s a longshot, so he could extend his Oscar shutout to 11 losses without a win.

Thomas Newman
The “Saving Mr. Banks” composer is in the same position as Deakins. This is Newman’s 12th nomination, and he has yet to win. But with “Mr. Banks” overlooked in all other categories, does Newman have a chance? The last 10 winners for Best Score have also been Best Picture nominees, and the last movie to win without any other nominations was “The Red Violin” in 1999.

Yes, there are a multiple black acting nominees in this year’s race – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Barkhad Abdi, and Lupita Nyong’o – and Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) or Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) could still make history in the directing category (no black or Mexican filmmaker has ever won), but in what was considered a strong year for diversity on-screen, the academy decided that one movie with non-white subjects was enough. While “12 Years” earned nine nominations, “Fruitvale Station” and “The Butler” were completely shut out, and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” had to settle for a nomination for Best Song.

Looking on the bright side, “12 Years” scribe John Ridley is probably the frontrunner to win Best Adapted Screenplay, which would make him only the second black writer to do so (following Geoffrey Fletcher in 2009 for “Precious”).


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