Oscars cheat sheet: Which category nominations are crucial to win?

To win Best Picture at the Oscars, you usually need to pick up a few vital nominations like writing, editing, and directing. Those are a given: few films win the top prize without them. But those categories are not the only ones to watch closely.

Consider 2010, when “The King’s Speech” swept the nominations, including an unlikely bid for Sound Mixing. Sound categories tend to favor thrillers, action movies, epics, and musicals, so the inclusion of a smaller character-driven drama indicated how much support there was for the film across the board.

The same year, “The Social Network” did pretty well, earning eight bids, but its canary in the coal mine was Andrew Garfield, who had received Best Supporting Actor plaudits throughout the season – including nods from the Golden Globes and BAFTAs – but was left out at the Oscars. Maybe that should have been our biggest clue that the academy just wasn’t that into it.

This year’s Best Picture Oscar will most likely go to one of three films: “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” or “Gravity.” What surprise nominations might indicate that they’re even stronger than we think?

12 Years a Slave
Our prediction center is forecasting 13 nominations for the historical drama. That’s just one shy of the all-time record shared by “All About Eve” and “Titanic,” so there isn’t much room for extra surprise nominations. Perhaps Best Song for “My Lord Sunshine“?

They key for “12 Years” will be to earn most of the nominations we’re expecting. It can probably survive without one or both of its predicted sound nominations, but if it’s missing from several tech categories, or is left out of any top-level races – another Oscar snub for poor Michael Fassbender, perhaps – it might be vulnerable.

American Hustle
Perhaps David O. Russell‘s caper film could pull an “Argo” with unanticipated nominations for sound, but in this case I think the acting races will be more telling. Only one of its actors was individually recognized at the SAG Awards (Jennifer Lawrence), but it swept the four acting categories at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs. If it does similarly well at the Oscars – especially if Christian Bale can sneak into Best Actor – “Hustle” might be the film to beat.

The big question is whether this visually audacious film will be nominated for Best Original Screenplay, which could be a make-or-break category; no film since “Titanic” (1997) has won Best Picture without a writing nomination, and you have to go back 32 more years to find another example: “The Sound of Music” (1965).

“Gravity’s” technological achievements will certainly be recognized below the line, but its straightforward story and dialogue have been much less the focus of its widespread praise. Nevertheless, it did earn an Original Screenplay nod from the BAFTAs, and the academy’s writing branch likes Alfonso Cuaron – he was nominated for “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Children of Men” – so its chances might be better than we think.

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