"I can't believe [fill-in-the-blank] won!" Depending on the category and the winner, this could either be a howl of triumph or a cry of dismay when it echoes across social media platforms Sunday night and around water coolers Monday morning. Nearly every Academy Awards category has its odds-on favorites, but the odds can always be evened out when the envelopes are opened. From behind-the-scenes visionaries to Hollywood royalty just waiting for their crown, here are half a dozen chances for the Oscars to do something truly surprising—for better or for worse.—Sean T. Collins
12 Years a Slave is a real (and unfortunate) rarity: It's a movie about race (this label's frequently used synonymously with "a movie with black characters" by lazy writers, but in this case it's legit). Even rarer: It's struck a chord with the infamously stiff Academy (you'll notice the absence of Fruitvale Station) yet doesn't feel like a well-intentioned but unpalatable "eat your vegetables" thing. In other words, Crash this isn't. It's gorgeous, it's terrifying, it's harrowing, it's enormously well-acted from top to bottom by men and women, black and white, and the ending is nominally happy but actually rips your guts out. It's basically a success in every way a movie can be; all it needs is the Oscar to make it official. By contrast, Her is a feature-length subtweet of Sofia Coppola that promotes really banal observations — people are, like, bigger than the sum of their relationships! — as devastating insights. It did at least look nice, unlike David O. Russell's unconvincing SNL sketch of a Martin Scorsese film American Hustle, but if it beats a movie like 12 Years it'll represent a triumph of familiarity and narrow focus over both ambition and execution.
Alright, alright, alright! I know McConaughey will win—it's his victory lap after a valiant career turnaround, a reward not just for his nominated work in Dallas Buyers Club but his berserk cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, his magnetic star turn on True Detective, and a whole string of edgy and uncomfortable performances. But Dallas Buyers Club is the kind of old-fashioned "Look at all this ACTING" performance showcase Oscar always loves, a vehicle designed to get one or two big roles across the finish line, with the added bonus of making voters feel good for rewarding work about HIV and transgender issues. While Ejiofor is undoubtedly the center of 12 Years—his character wrote the memoir on which the film's based, after all—he has to do his work within the confines of the story instead of wrapping the story around him. His Solomon Northrup survives by adapting to the demands of those around him while clinging to his true self undercover, and the resulting work is often so subtle in its brilliance it could easily be overlooked. What a treat, and a surprise, if it isn't.
Rounding out our 12 Years a Slave trio is a tale of two It Girls. Lawrence is unpredictable and often hilarious as a Long Island housewife done wrong in American Hustle. On a meta level, she's racking up Oscar nods hand over fist for someone this young, and she's also perpetually delightful in the before-and-after-show festivities, which is for some reason a thing that appears to matter to Oscar voters. But Nyong'o can stand toe-to-toe with Lawrence in these off-screen areaas. Her astonishing turn as Patsey, a slave whose "favored" treatment at the hands of her sadistic master illustrates how blessings are synonymous with curses in this tremendously evil system, marks her very first movie role (!), and she's dominated fashion coverage this awards season like Wayne Gretzky dominated opposing teams' goalies. Lawrence's work was easy to watch, Nyong'o's was often excruciating—is that an uphill battle she can win?
Look, I enjoy "Happy" as much as anyone who isn't in the video for it can (a whopping 8% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau), but between "Blurred Lines" and "Get Lucky" Pharrell Williams has had a good enough year already. Similarly, Bono's bluster and blarney makes for entertaining acceptance speeches, but with a new album on the way he'll likely have plenty of opportunities. When it comes to the Best Song Oscar, it go to "Let It Go," a bona fide anthem that's Disney's single biggest and best song in a generation, a tremendous showcase for Idina Menzel's genre-defining pipes, and a rallying cry for its new not-your-mother's-princesses vibe.
Roger Deakins has been nominated for this award ten times, which in theory is what happens when you're obscenely good at your job. Yet despite his integral involvement with the look of films from The Shawshank Redemption to No Country for Old Men to the billion-dollar Bond epic Skyfall (I'm convinced at least $250 mil should go directly in Deakins' pocket), he has yet to take one home. A win for Prisoners would correct this unfortunate oversight…if it weren't for Bruno Delbonnel, Deakins' replacement in the camp of his frequent collaborators the Coen Brothers. Delbonnel's work on Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece of wintry blue-gray melancholy, and it's the only major entry point that the critics'-darling period piece has into the Oscars this year. There'd be some serious Oedipal vibes if the new guy beat the old master.
By all accounts, perennial Oscar favorite Blanchett did career-best work in Blue Jasmine as the wealthy, wounded widow of a financial fraudster. Normally that would be more than enough to make her a lock. But that was before the deeply disturbing child-molestation allegations against the film's director, Woody Allen, came roaring back to the forefront following his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes and dueling accounts from his extended and estranged family, in particular his alleged victim Dylan Farrow. If Blanchett wins, is Oscar turning a blind eye to a predator in its midst? If Blanchett loses, is worthy work being faulted for crimes committed by somebody else entirely? Whatever the outcome, it may not be an upset as such. But it will be upsetting.