Five reasons why ‘American Hustle’ is now the Oscars frontrunner

Several important things happened in this morning’s Oscar nominations that indicate strength for “American Hustle” in the Best Picture race. That’s slightly disappointing to me, because while “Hustle” would be a worthy winner most years I don’t think it’s in the same league as “Gravity” or “12 Years a Slave,” which I believe will be better remembered by film history. So it goes with the Oscars sometimes. Here’s why I think “American Hustle” just emerged as the frontrunner.

It’s tied for the most nominations
Statistically, films that lead the nominations tend to win, and “American Hustle” and “Gravity” are ahead with 10 each. Recent years have challenged that notion – three of the last four winners didn’t have the most nominations (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Artist,” and “Argo“) – but if you have to choose between leading the nominations and not, you should choose to lead.

All four principal actors were nominated
We knew Jennifer Lawrence would get in, and Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams were likely, but Christian Bale managed a nod too despite an overstuffed Best Actor field. The academy’s acting branch clearly loves this film, and it’s by far the largest branch, with 1,176 members out of 6,028 total academy voters.

It earned nominations for directing, writing, and editing
The winner for Best Picture tends to have all of these nominations, and this year only two films scored the trifecta: “Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave.” No film has won without a writing nomination since “Titanic,” and only one other film has done it in the last 50 years (“The Sound of Music,” 1965). Only nine films have ever won without an editing nomination, and none since “Ordinary People” in 1980. Last year, “Argo” became only the fourth film in Oscar history to win without a directing bid.

“Gravity” wasn’t nominated for Best Original Screenplay
See above. We could attribute its writing snub to the fact that it’s considered more a visual achievement than a storytelling one, but tell that to “Hugo” and “Life of Pi,” which earned writing nominations despite also being technically driven. Even “The Artist” managed a writing nomination before winning Best Picture, and it didn’t even have the benefit of dialogue.  This may not be impossible for “Gravity” to overcome, but it’s a handicap.

“12 Years a Slave” underperformed overall
As Tom O’Neil explains here, nine nominations are nothing to sneeze at and films have overcome far greater deficits to win, but for a lavish period piece that had consistently led the nominations at previous events – Golden Globes, SAG, Critics’ Choice – it’s still a significant shortfall. This gritty slavery drama was always going to be a tough sell to the academy, and it clearly didn’t sell to their music, cinematographers, or sound branches.

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