Unprecedented talent compete for glory at 2014 Oscars

The nominations for the 86th Academy Awards were released Jan. 16, putting a much-needed lid on the wild prognostications that have been going on since July of last year. The announcement did not come with any huge surprises in major categories, but rather with exclusions — the problem this time around is that there are too many deserving artists and too few nomination spots.

This year’s scope of films make for an enjoyably perplexing puzzle to predict winners for the upcoming Oscars. However, the results from the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards all show a trend of winners that make predictions a bit easier. Here we’re giving you a breakdown of the nominees in the major categories to give you a better grasp of how the Oscar race is shaping up as we get closer to March 2.

In recent years, especially with the best picture race expanding to include more nominees, some projects feel like filler, earning nominations such as “Oscar bait” (see “The Reader” in 2008, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” in 2011, etc). This year’s race is so stacked with amazing contender’s that a Martin Scorsese directed film starring Leonardo DiCaprio could easily walk away with no awards. Whoever takes home gold on March 2 will have endured one of the most impressive arrays of nominees in Oscar history. Nothing is certain yet, but look for things to solidify, and for WSN’s coverage and predictions leading up to the awards.

Best Picture

Frontrunner: “12 Years a Slave”
As a well-made film with high social and political relevance, and after wins at the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards, “12 Years a Slave” is due for the win.

Dark Horse: “American Hustle”

“American Hustle” is still a strong contender after winning best acting ensemble at the SAG awards and Best Comedy at the Golden Globes, but “Gravity” could very well come out on top.

Should Win: “Gravity”

All the nominated films are fantastic and any one of them is worthy of the win, but “Gravity” was our pick for the best film of 2013 over on our Arts blog, The Highlighter, so it should take home the Oscar.

Best Actress

Frontrunner: Cate Blanchett
Fresh off her wins at the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards, Oscar winner Cate Blanchett looks poised to win Best Actress for her outstanding work in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.”

Dark Horse: Sandra Bullock

Oscar winner Sandra Bullock, who gives the best performance of her career in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.”

Should Win: Amy Adams

We pick Amy Adams, the only actress in this category to never have won an Academy Award, though she’s been nominated four times before.

Best Actor

Frontrunner: Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey of “Dallas Buyers Club” has won at every major awards ceremony this month and has the most momentum going into Oscar night.

Dark Horse: Christian Bale

Christian Bale, whose performance in “American Hustle” had been quietly building buzz until his surprise nomination last week.

Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a performance that seems to be getting overlooked in favor of actors in showier, more accessible roles. His work is the anchor of the fantastic and harrowing “12 Years a Slave.”

Best Supporting Actress

Frontrunner: Jennifer Lawrence
It’s really a tie between Jennifer Lawrence for “American Hustle” and Lupita Nyong’o for “12 Years a Slave.”  Lawrence won the Golden Globe but Nyong’o won both the Critics’ Choice and the SAG awards, so either one could take it.

Dark Horse: Sally Hawkins

Sally Hawkins for her strong turn opposite Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine.”

Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong’o for a brave and affecting performance that, in a film full of suffering, stood out as truly heartbreaking.

Best Supporting Actor

Frontrunner: Jared Leto
Far and away Jared Leto, who gives a transformative performance as transgender AIDS patient Rayon in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Like co-star McConnaughey, Leto has won every major award up to this point.

Dark Horse: Bradley Cooper

Second-time nominee Bradley Cooper for “American Hustle” or first-time nominee Michael Fassbender for “12 Years a Slave” could surprise us.

Should Win: Jared Leto

Jared Leto and his beautiful hair.

Best Director

Frontrunner: Alfonso Cuarón
“Gravity” helmer Alfonso Cuarón has won the first three major awards of the season for his revelatory technical masterpiece.

Dark Horse: Steve McQueen

NYU alumnus Steve McQueen might win for his unflinching look at slavery in “12 Years a Slave.” But we also cannot forget everyone’s favorite little director, Martin Scorsese.

Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón

Our money is on Alfonso Cuarón.

Best Animated Picture

Frontrunner: Frozen
“Frozen,” without a doubt.

Dark Horse: The Wind Rises

“The Wind Rises” has potential, though controversy surrounding the film’s seemingly positive message about Japan’s role in WWII has dragged it down. “Despicable Me 2” is also vying hard for the win.

Should Win: Frozen

“Frozen,” no contest.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Jan. 27 print edition. Ife Olujobi is film editor. Daniel Rubin Lieberson is a contributing writer. Email them at [email protected]