The Last Nine Months’ Best Picture Oscar Predictions

The top contenders: Gravity and 12 Years a Slave

Why try to handicap the 2013 Academy Awards as early as June, when most of the likely Oscar hopefuls haven't even been completed, much less seen? Because predicting things is fun! And because I thought it would be interesting to keep a record of how expectations for cinema's highest honor can change over time, based on hype, critical reactions, and audience popularity. Take my word for it: I really did make each round of predictions at the end of each month. I never went back to tweak them later.

  1. June 30th Predictions: The Wolf of Wall Street, Foxcatcher, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, Captain Phillips, Labor Day, The Butler, American Hustle. Winner: The Wolf of Wall Street. By June, one could only guess at the likely nominees, based on the pedigree of their directors, cast, or source material. Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska were early locks because each film had already premiered at Cannes to favorable response. But I figured both would be too minor to win Best Picture. I chose The Wolf of Wall Street because the trailer looked great, the film seemed to tap into the year's anti-corporate sentiment, and Scorsese's a perennial fave.
  2. July 31st Predictions (new additions in italics): Blue Jasmine, Fruitvale Station, Saving Mr. Banks, The Fifth Estate, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, American Hustle. Winner: 12 Years a Slave. July releases Blue Jasmine and Fruitvale Station were added because of their strong reviews. I added Saving Mr. Banks and The Fifth Estate not because I thought they were serious contenders, but because their trailers were released in July, whereas Captain Phillips, Labor Day, and Foxcatcher remained unknown quantities. (Foxcatcher would later be moved to 2014 anyway.) I deleted The Butler because I felt its reputation would be tainted by childish industry in-fighting (Warner Bros. forced the Weinsteins to change the title to Lee Daniels' The Butler as its original title "competed" with a 1916(!) short comedy that WB owned) and because, in the summer of the Trayvon Martin protests, its approach to racism in America seemed cloying and contrived in comparison to 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station. I guessed that 12 Years a Slave would hit the right combination of contemporary insight and historical reverence to take home Best Picture.
  3. August 31st Predictions (new additions in italics): Gravity, Philomena, Labor Day, Her, The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, American Hustle. Winner: 12 Years a Slave. I added a few new contenders thanks to their warm receptions at Venice and Telluride - two film festivals known for rolling out major Oscar contenders. The decent box office and surprise critical acclaim for The Butler made me favor it over Fruitvale Station, which was off the radar by this point. I removed Blue Jasmine because it wasn't a great film, just a great performance by Cate Blanchett. Around this time, Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Fifth Estate started smelling like also-rans, so I deleted them as well.
  4. September 30th Predictions (new additions in italics): Captain Phillips, All Is Lost, Gravity, Philomena, The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, American Hustle. Winner: 12 Years a Slave. The Toronto Film Festival helped cement a lot of reputations. At this point, 12 Years a Slave was so universally celebrated that many were already declaring it the likely winner of the Oscar race. Great early buzz put Captain Phillips back on the radar, and enduring critical fondness for All Is Lost suggested it had a better chance than the still-unseen Her. Conversely, I deleted Labor Day because critics poo-poohed it in Toronto.
  5. October 31st Predictions: Captain Phillips, All Is Lost, Gravity, Philomena, The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, American Hustle. Winner: 12 Years a Slave. No changes this month. But certainly the success of Gravity, Captain Phillips, and 12 Years a Slave obliterated any lingering arguments over their likelihood for Best Picture nominations.
  6. November 30th Predictions (new additions in italics): Blue Jasmine, Her, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle. Winner: Gravity. That's right - I knocked 12 Years a Slave out as the winner because it was losing momentum as a bunch of strong contenders were being released. I deleted Philomena, August: Osage County, and All Is Lost as it looked like they'd be celebrated only for their performances. Conversely, I began to suspect that Blue Jasmine would be fondly remembered at nomination time, so I re-added it. Nebraska's nominations at the Independent Spirit Film Awards - the first "official" accolades of the season - also put it back in contention. Finally, buzz around Spike Jonze's Her was getting louder and louder.
  7. December 31st Predictions (new addition in italics): All Is Lost, Her, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle. Winner: Gravity. I was waffling on Blue Jasmine; many more critics included All Is Lost on their Ten Best lists, and I recalled that its writer/director J.C. Chandor had gotten a surprise Best Original Screenplay nomination for his debut Margin Call. For Best Picture, I still stuck with Gravity even though film critics were spreading the wealth, mostly for Her, American Hustle, and Inside Llewyn Davis. But the Academy is rarely in lock-step with film critics.
  8. January 31st Predictions: Actual nominees (new additions in italics): Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street. Predicted Winner: Gravity. Well, I totally blew it on overlooking Dallas Buyers Club, though it was always a lock for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations. And as usual, the Academy didn't quite make it to its 10-nominee limit, maxing out with just 9 films. With critical darling Inside Llewyn Davis and middle-ground crowd pleaser The Butler being ignored time and again by guild nominations, by January it looked like they'd meet a similar fate with AMPAS, and that's just what happened. With nominations no longer in question, that left me with just my winner prediction, and I still went with Gravity.
  9. February 28 Predictions: Since the only thing to look at this month was the likelihood of the Best Picture winner (in an unusually open contest, I shifted my vote over to 12 Years a Slave), I decided to revisit my original guesses at the nominees, way back in June 2013, to see how I fared. Five of my earliest picks - The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, and American Hustle - made it to the final round. And only one of them (Nebraska) had been screened by that time. So is it possible to handicap the Academy Awards eight months in advance, based merely on buzz and the talent attached? To some extent, yes. Though there is always room for surprises.