Oscar 8 Ball: Best picture favorites ‘12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Gravity’

12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” open the award season as the favorites in the best picture Oscar race. Which movie will score more nominations? Let’s gaze into the Oscar 8 Ball.


Total nominations: 8

12 Years a Slave’

Expect nods for acting, screenplay, cinematography and music.

It is certain

Steve McQueen’s first two movies examined an IRA hunger strike (“Hunger”) and sexual addiction in a graphic, NC-17-rated manner (“Shame”). So the fact that an uncompromising look at slavery in America can somehow be his most accessible film speaks to both his resolute artistic vision and his growth as a filmmaker. McQueen’s visual mastery remains intact, but the presentation isn’t self-conscious, as was often the case in the first two movies. The quality of John Ridley’s screenplay undoubtedly has something to do with that. McQueen has never had a better script, and his work behind the camera single-mindedly focuses on advancing the story. Nominations for picture, McQueen and Ridley are assured.

Yes, definitely

The actors branch, easily the largest bloc of voters in the academy, will come out in force for “12 Years,” nominating the film’s three most prominent actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. In fact, all three could end up winning, with Nyong’o having the clearest path in the supporting actress category, which often goes to newcomers. (Cue shot of Oprah applauding from the audience.) As such, “12 Years” is also an early front-runner to take the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award, an honor “Argo” took this year on its way to winning best picture.

Outlook good

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s work, particularly in the movie’s extended shots (not to mention the candlelit scenes), is exemplary. He should receive his first Oscar nomination. Conversely, composer Hans Zimmer has been nominated nine times (winning for “The Lion King”), but his tense, pounding, shudder-inducing score here might be a career best.


Expect accolades for Sandra Bullock and the film’s technical achievements.

It is decidedly so

Shortly after the film’s release, there were a number of tongue-in-cheek (they were jesting, right?) critiques about how “Gravity’s” science was mostly fiction. The important thread, when considering the movie’s prospects with the academy, is that Alfonso Cuarón’s movie is, at its heart, a story of survival and not, in the strictest sense, science fiction. So nobody needs to wring their hands and wonder whether fantasy-phobic academy members will shun it. They won’t. And Cuarón should easily score his first nomination as a director (he has two nods for writing and one as an editor) for his landmark work, which restored both our wonder for the cosmos and our faith in the possibilities of 3-D filmmaking.

You may rely on it

There’s an abundance of goodwill in Hollywood for Sandra Bullock. She won an Oscar for “The Blind Side.” Her turn as the novice astronaut with a tragic past in “Gravity” is demanding physically and emotionally and is easily the best thing she has ever done. The academy will gladly reward her with another nomination.

Tech talk

The movie’s technical achievements hardly need more accolades; all that’s left is the handing out of the hardware. Oscar nominations for visual effects, editing, sound editing and mixing and for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a five-time nominee long overdue for a win) are assured. Composer Steven Price’s complex score is also a crucial element of the film’s immersive experience, beautifully evoking the story’s awe and terror.

Outlook not so good

The original screenplay, which Cuarón wrote with his son Jonás is simple, shrewdly so. It has an outside shot at a nomination, and if the writers branch does smile upon their work, it would be a clear indication of the movie’s strength as a best picture contender.

Charm factor

We’re under no illusion that George Clooney’s charismatic, movie star turn will be nominated, though it’s impressive technically (mostly, he’s using just his voice) and in the way the Cuarón’s use his astronaut’s humor and stories to relieve the building tension. It’s not the kind of performance the academy often rewards, simply because it looks a bit too easy. But it isn’t.