When Oscar nominations were announced last week, "Gravity" and "American Hustle" led the field, each winning 10. "12 Years a Slave" was right behind them with nine nominations. Then "Hustle" won the Screen Actors Guild Award for ensemble last Saturday, making it the favorite to win best picture — a distinction that lasted all of 24 hours until the Producers Guild of America gave "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" top honors in an unprecedented tie Sunday night. (We're still trying to fathom the odds on the exact same number of voters — in a group numbering nearly 6,000 — placing "12 Years" above "Gravity" and "Gravity" above "12 Years." Let's just say it's about as likely as the 49ers' Michael Crabtree hosting a celebratory dinner for the Seahawks' Richard Sherman.)
The guilds' wealth-spreading means that this year's best picture Oscar race is the closest since the academy expanded the category in 2009. Three films have a legitimate shot at winning, and even the results of this Saturday's Directors Guild of America contest won't really tip the scales for the winner. It's that tight.
You can make a case why each movie won't win. "Gravity" didn't receive a screenplay nomination, and only two films in the last 50 years, "The Sound of Music" and "Titanic," have won best picture without a writing nod. "12 Years a Slave," meanwhile, is favored in only two (adapted screenplay, supporting actress) of its nine races. Can a best picture winner take only three Oscars? Why, yes. It happened just last year with "Argo." "Crash" and "Rocky" also won best picture and just two other categories. "The Greatest Show on Earth" won best picture and only one other Oscar. Still, this kind of thing is the exception to the rule.
As for "American Hustle," it, like "12 Years," isn't a heavy favorite in many of its races. Even after winning SAG's ensemble award, none of its four nominated actors — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper — are the front-runners in their respective categories. Like "12 Years," it would likely be a best picture winner with an unusually low overall total.
So that's why the leading best picture contenders might not win. Now it's up to their studios and award consultants to make a case to voters as to why their movie should win. They have time. Balloting doesn't begin until Feb. 14 (with the ceremony set for March 2). You'd think by now most academy members would have their minds set. But in a year this close and with so many great movies on the ballot, many undoubtedly will remain open to a persuasive argument.
Here's an early snapshot of four key races:
"Dallas Buyers Club"
"12 Years a Slave"
And the winner is: "12 Years a Slave." While it isn't nearly as polarizing as "Wolf," many academy members feel the film's lengthy scenes of plantation brutality are heavy-handed and, as a result, will be placing the movie low on their ballots. In a preferential system, that could spell doom. But I remain inclined to believe that after a few years of rewarding entertaining movies — "Argo," "The Artist," "The King's Speech" — voters will go for a film with a little more heft and substance.
Unless: The preferential ballot makes it too difficult for an artistically uncompromising movie to win. Then it's "Gravity" or perhaps "Hustle."
Alfonso Cuarón, "Gravity"
Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave"
Alexander Payne, "Nebraska"
David O. Russell, "American Hustle"
Martin Scorsese, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
And the winner is: Cuarón. Directing a huge commercial hit that also advanced the medium, this popular industry favorite has the edge. With choices all over the map, it feels like one of those years that picture and director will be split.
Unless: The academy goes with McQueen, making him the first black director to win this Oscar.
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, "American Hustle"
Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Spike Jonze, "Her"
Bob Nelson, "Nebraska"
And the winner is: Jonze for "Her." It's tempting to go with "American Hustle" here, thinking this could be the category that voters give it something. But the screenplay is actually the movie's weakness. "Her," meanwhile, is a beautifully imagined, beguiling love story that feels relevant to the way we connect (or don't) as humans today. Its five Oscar nominations, including best picture, indicate a broad level of support, and this would be the most obvious place to salute it.
Unless: "Hustle" prevails, giving Russell his first Oscar.
Billy Ray, "Captain Phillips"
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, "Philomena"
John Ridley, "12 Years a Slave"
Terence Winter, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
And the winner is: Ridley. For the same reasons "12 Years" might win best picture. Only here, more people will be inclined to go along with the argument.
Unless: "Before Midnight" resonates with academy members as much as it has with critics groups, who have heaped numerous prizes on the third film in this remarkable, ongoing love story.