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Best Picture Front-Runner: 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen's gripping survival saga won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival, where it became the first sure thing of this Oscar season. The true story of a free black man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped and sold into bondage in the 1840s leaves audiences speechless, but some Academy voters have been intimidated by descriptions of its violence.
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Best Picture Front-Runner: Captain Phillips
When Somali hijackers seized control of an American shipping freighter in April 2009, many watched the fatal standoff play out in real time on cable news. Director Paul Greengrass's harrowing re-creation makes the conflict intimate and personal, generating sympathy not only for Tom Hanks's working-class hero but also for the desperate, misguided men holding him captive.
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Best Picture Front-Runner: Gravity
The second sure thing of the awards season, Alfonso Cuarón's visually stunning drama about stranded astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) debuted in Toronto just days after 12 Years a Slave, quickly launching an intense two-way race between the films. The wow factor of Gravity's special effects is rivaled only by its blockbuster box office popularity.
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Best Picture Front-Runner: Her
Imaginative, funny, and emotional, writer-director Spike Jonze's near-future tale of a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with an artificial intelligence program (the warm, witty voice of Scarlett Johansson) could not have stronger word of mouth. Critics swooned when it debuted last month at the New York Film Festival. Expect Oscar voters to fall head over heels for it too.
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Best Picture Front-Runner: Lee Daniels' The Butler
It didn't receive the strongest reviews, but it's one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the year. The multi-decade story of a black White House butler (Forest Whitaker) who serves — and influences — eight U.S. presidents is partially fictional, but it has three true-life Oscar heavyweights behind it: costars Oprah Winfrey and Whitaker and distributor Harvey Weinstein.
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Best Picture Contenders
All Is Lost
Saving Mr. Banks (shown)
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Best Picture Possibilities
August: Osage County
Dallas Buyers Club
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Wolf of Wall Street (shown)
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Best Actor Front-Runner: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Ejiofor has more than earned his first Oscar nod not just for inhabiting the confusion of a free man who is staggered to find himself a slave, but for enduring the physical and emotional torment that undoubtedly accompanied the role. The impulse is to turn away, but his performance makes that impossible.
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Best Actor Front-Runner: Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Fierce determination, rapid-fire calculation, and a rough, blue-collar accessibility make this one of the richest characters the two-time Oscar winner has ever played. When his final breakdown arrives, the only thing voters in the Academy's actors' branch will dislike is that they didn't get this part.
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Best Actor Front-Runner: Robert Redford, All Is Lost
He barely says a word, but that's the power of the 77-year-old's performance. Redford stars alone as a man stranded on a damaged sailboat in the middle of the ocean, methodically fighting for survival. His only previous acting nod was for The Sting 40 years ago, but this will surely be his second.
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Best Actor Contenders
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club (shown)
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
Forest Whitaker, Lee Daniels' The Butler
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Best Actor Possibilities
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (shown)
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
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Best Actress Front-Runner: Amy Adams, American Hustle
David O. Russell's account of an FBI corruption sting hasn't screened much yet, but voters may well be taken in by the four-time nominee's sexy, dynamic, and Machiavellian grifter, who spins through accents and identities with such deftness that even those closest to her wonder who she truly is.
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Best Actress Front-Runner: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Academy members immediately began buzzing that Blanchett was the one to beat in this race after Woody Allen's dark drama debuted this past summer. She stars as a self-obsessed woman trying to rebuild her life on the ruins left by her husband's massive Wall Street fraud. Months later, voters remain haunted.
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Best Actress Front-Runner: Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Few actresses could hold their own amid such dazzling visual effects and moments of gasp-inducing peril, but Bullock has wowed voters by delivering a poignance and strength that elevate this story of a stranded astronaut above a mere thriller. Her trophy for The Blind Side could soon have a companion.
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Best Actress Contenders
Judi Dench, Philomena (shown)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Kate Winslet, Labor Day
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Best Actress Possibilities
Bérénice Bejo, The Past
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Brie Larson, Short Term 12 (shown)
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Best Supporting Actor Front-Runner: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
The real-life Somali refugee and first-time actor's stark, wide-eyed desperation as the lead hostage-taker adds an unpredictable menace and hunger to this drama. Abdi (center) is not a household name, but voters will likely seek him out for their ballots.
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Best Supporting Actor Front-Runner: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Unhinged, self-pitying, and sadistic, his Bible-thumping slave master is almost inhuman — until you realize he's probably a mentally ill alcoholic. That doesn't make him forgivable, but Fassbender makes him unforgettable.
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Best Supporting Actor Front-Runner: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Right now, it's his to lose. Voters have been overwhelmed by Leto's funny, touching, and transformative work as a transgender prostitute dying of AIDS who joins a smuggling operation for experimental drugs.
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Best Supporting Actor Contenders
Daniel Brühl, Rush
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks (shown)
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
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Best Supporting Actor Possibilities
George Clooney, Gravity (shown)
Chris Cooper, August: Osage County
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners
Matthew McConaughey, Mud
Jeremy Renner, American Hustle
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Best Supporting Actress Front-Runner: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
As the mercilessly abused slave Patsey, newcomer Nyong'o perfectly balances the character's strength with her equally undeniable helplessness. Patsey may be trapped, but Nyong'o ensures her spirit leaves with every moviegoer.
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Best Supporting Actress Front-Runner: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
She won for her sassy, sensitive performance in 2011's The Help, but it's her subtler, even more heartbreaking work as the mother of a young man recklessly killed by police that could earn her another nod.
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Best Supporting Actress Front-Runner: Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels' The Butler
Playing the boozy, truth-telling wife of a White House servant, Winfrey adds a lively spark to the historical proceedings, and the media queen could secure her first Oscar nom since 1985's The Color Purple.
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Best Supporting Actress Contenders
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Margo Martindale, August: Osage County
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska (shown)
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Best Supporting Actress Possibilities
Melonie Diaz, Fruitvale Station
Naomie Harris, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Melissa Leo, Prisoners
Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County (shown)
Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave
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Best Director Front-Runner: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
The technical prowess necessary to set a realistic 3-D drama in orbit is enough to land Cuarón a nomination, but the film's emotional depth has also impressed voters, making him a favorite to win.
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Best Director Front-Runner: Spike Jonze, Her
The directors' branch loves to stray into the avant-garde and will likely adore Jonze's innovative, philosophical vision of the near future, where lonely people sometimes fall in love with digital souls. This would be his first nod since 1999's Being John Malkovich.
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Best Director Front-Runner: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
McQueen has earned respect for crafting such a beautiful film about one of the ugliest times in American history. Unflinching and uncompromising, he took an atrocity out of the abstract by personalizing it.
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Best Director Contenders
J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street (shown)
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Best Director Possibilities
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis (shown)
Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
Lee Daniels, Lee Daniels' The Butler
John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks