Clear favorites emerged weeks ago. Numerous film organizations have hinted at, nearly shouted out, which names and titles will be announced Sunday. And the Internet is awash with opinions and odds-making.
But unlike Oscar competitions in the past, the real nail-biter this time comes with the ultimate prize, the best picture contest, where three films appear to be neck-and-neck-and-neck. Then again, even when you think you have Oscar figured out, expect a fender-bender of a surprise. ("Crash," anyone?)
Here's a rundown on who we think will and should win in key categories.
Nominees: "American Hustle," "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Gravity," "Her," "Nebraska," "Philomena," "12 Years a Slave," "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Whittling it down: "Phillips" rocked our boats in some ways, but there's zero wind in its awards sails. We bought into "Dallas Buyers Club" more for the acting than the storytelling. "Her" ponders modern tech conundrums, as did "Social Network," and look what that did for director David Fincher and company. "Nebraska" looked fab in black and white -- but let's face it, as a film, it's not as richly hued as other competitors. If the polarizing "Wolf" wins, expect (bleepin') anarchy in the streets. While "Philomena" is a strong little drama, let's put emphasis on where it's deserved, as in "little." "Fruitvale Station" should be occupying that slot anyway. So it comes down to three: David O. Russell's pop-tart confection featuring '70s dreamers with bad hair and distracting cleavage ("Hustle"), a two, er, one-person space odyssey ("Gravity") and a bruising historical slap to the face about American slavery ("12 Years a Slave").
What will win: "12 Years a Slave." Voters might reject it as being too cruel and just too relentless, but Oscar tends to favor history over space journeys and Scorsese-lite dramas. Then again ...
What should win: "12 Years a Slave." I'd be satisfied if "Gravity" or "Hustle" took top honors, but "12 Years a Slave" is the most powerful film of this bunch, with individual moments (Solomon Northrup hanging and gasping from a tree while children play nearby) that I will never, ever forget.
Nominees: Christian Bale ("American Hustle"), Bruce Dern ("Nebraska"), Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave"), Matthew McConaughey ("Dallas Buyers Club")
Whittling it down: Bale sported a potbelly and a bad hairpiece and pulled off an amazing Robert De Niro impression to play Irving Rosenfeld (based on a real-life character) in "Hustle," but he won recently for getting gaunt in "The Fighter." Dern was perfection as a taciturn man with a one-track lottery mind, but Oscar won't hand him a winning ticket. DiCaprio came out blazin' as fast-talkin' swindler Jordan Belfort, who was living the really high life until things came crashing down. And if you want to see the horrors of slavery reflected in anyone's eyes, just see what Ejiofor accomplished as Solomon Northrup. And then there's McConaughey, who dropped 47 pounds and shed his hunky image to play Ron Woodroof, a homophobic Texan who gets HIV and takes on the medical establishment.
Who will win: McConaughey. Written off as a lazy performer in brainless romantic comedies, he's had a stunning rebirth. His chances are bolstered due to a glorious year, with other award-worthy turns in "Mud" and "The Wolf of Wall Street." Plus, Oscar can't contain itself when hot-looking performers mess with their good looks. (Charlize Theron, anyone?)
Who should win: As good as McConaughey was, and no matter how high a bar DiCaprio just set for the rest his career, Ejiofor pulled off the most demanding and difficult performance in this group. He made us feel every ounce of blood, sweat and tears of a free black man who is mercilessly subjected to the cruelty of other men and women. And that final scene rips your heart out. Amazing.
Nominees: Amy Adams ("American Hustle"), Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine"), Sandra Bullock ("Gravity"), Judi Dench ("Philomena"), Meryl Streep ("August: Osage County")
Whittling it down: If you can get beyond the cleavage (and some can't), there's yet another alluring and sexy performance from Adams. But it won't be her year. The luminous Cate Blanchett delivered one of the decade's most seamless performances as Jasmine, a coming-undone socialite subjected to life in San Francisco (but, really, Woody Allen, the city is much smarter than you portray it). "Gravity" was a one-woman show (sorry, George Clooney), and Bullock brought humanity and likability to a role that required her to play off special effects. If you seek to witness elegant acting, watch Dench as a woman searching for her lost son. Should you prefer an avalanche of histrionics, check out Streep's take-no-prisoners work as Violet, a mean momma with cancer in "August."
Who will win: Blanchett. She's a lock.
Who should win: Blanchett. Acting doesn't get much better than this performance.
Best supporting actor
Nominees: Barkhad Abdi ("Captain Phillips"), Bradley Cooper ("American Hustle"), Michael Fassbender ("12 Years a Slave"), Jonah Hill ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), Jared Leto ("Dallas Buyers Club")
Whittling it down: Former limo driver Abdi made waves as Somali pirate Abduwali in "Captain," but he will have to be content with just being along for the awards ride this year. Cooper looked dandy in curlers, but his vain and ambitious "Hustle" FBI agent Richie DiMaso didn't require too much of an acting stretch. As the tortured and torturing Edwin Epps, a plantation owner with insecurities aplenty, Fassbender added depth and dimension to what could have been a one-note role. Hill surprised everyone by copping a nomination as DiCaprio's geeky cohort in "Wolf." But he stands no chance. Leto inhabited the role of his transgender character Rayon, making her complex and multidimensional.
Who will win: Leto. Not only did the rocker and actor drop a lot of weight (again, Oscar worships that), he never overplayed or overdramatized Rayon. It was one of the year's most remarkable transformations.
Who should win: This is a tough call, but I'd narrowly give the edge to Fassbender over Leto. It's an unforgettable and incendiary performance, one that's shaded enough to create one of the most pathetic and despicable characters you'll ever find on film.
Best supporting actress
Nominees: Sally Hawkins ("Blue Jasmine"), Jennifer Lawrence ("American Hustle"), Lupita Nyong'o ("12 Years a Slave"), Julia Roberts ("August: Osage County"), June Squibb ("Nebraska")
Whittling it down: Although her messy, bra-strap-showing Ginger seemed more New York than Frisco, Hawkins was a gas. The forever-hot Lawrence could get a follow-up Oscar for creating such a kooky Rosalyn, a deluded con-artist wife with microwave issues and half-baked intentions. Nyong'o came out of nowhere and nailed every harrowing scene as the feisty Patsey in "Slave." Roberts gave one of her strongest performances as a dour daughter who not only started picking up bad traits from Momma but forcefully demanded the eating of fish. But all that plate smashing will do her no good. And Squibb was a fireplug as fed-up wife Kate Grant in "Nebraska," a role that upon closer inspection is hysterical but not overly nuanced.
Who will win: Nyong'o. Initially, it seemed like Lawrence had a lock, but her support has waned of late.
Who should win: Nyong'o. Her Patsey endures countless acts of cruelty and remains a survivor. Even in "Slave's" quieter moments, when Nyong'o isn't at the center of a scene, her actions and reactions speak volumes about who her character is.
The nominees: Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity"), Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave"), Alexander Payne ("Nebraska"), David O. Russell ("American Hustle"), Martin Scorsese ("The Wolf of Wall Street")
Whittling it down: Cuaron made something revolutionary with the wizardry of his space odyssey. McQueen gave us a shattering history lesson you didn't read in textbooks. Payne took us on a cheeky Midwest tour. Russell gave us big hair, big dreams and a rambling movie. Scorsese rankled the rank and file with his vulgar and sensational "Wolf."
Who will win: Cuaron. The hypnotic 17-minute shot at the beginning nearly clinches the deal. Beyond that, the movie is executed to perfection.
Who should win: Cuaron. Most directors couldn't even imagine making "Gravity," let alone pull it off. It is a monumental directorial feat from beginning to end.