Oscar's Best Picture Squeeze: Who Will

At this point, there are about 20 films competing for Oscar’s five to 10 best-picture slots. The race is like a game of musical chairs, but without the laughs.

In theory, the contest is beginning to take shape, after the awards from the New York Film Critics (saluting “American Hustle”), National Board of Review (“Her”), the L.A. Film Critics (“Gravity” and “Her”) and the AFI Awards to 10 films.

Wednesday’s SAG Awards nominations and Golden Globes noms should provide further clarity: Last year, four of the five contenders for SAG ensemble went on to a best-pic nomination, and seven of the 10 Globe nominees (split between drama and music/comedy) also ended up in the top Oscar race.

Based on buzz from industry folk, the ones that seem like sure bets for an Oscar nomination: “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “August: Osage County,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Nebraska,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Here’s the first problem. That’s 11 titles for 10 slots.

Here’s the second problem: There may not be 10 slots. While 2013 has been a banner year for acclaimed dramas, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Academy chooses more than seven or eight best picture nominees.

Also: There are other films that I would bet money will wind up with best-picture Oscar nominations, like “Blue Jasmine.” Cate Blanchett is great, but it’s not a one-woman show, and that film has a big advantage over a lot of newer films: Voters have seen it, because it’s on airplanes and went out in early screeners. So if I’m right, it will displace one of the “sure bets.”

While some of the titles such as  “All is Lost,” “Enough Said,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Lone Survivor,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Philomena,” and “Prisoners” are likely to get nommed in categories such as screenplay, acting and below-the-line, the best picture forecast is getting chillier each day. The same could be said for indie dark horses, like “Short Term 12.”

When the Academy inaugurated the idea of 10 best-picture nominations, some voters grumbled that they couldn’t find three movies they liked, much less 10. And even when there were only five nominees, there were usually three or four considered sure bets, and then a handful of others vying for the last spots.

Not in 2013. In any other year, all of these films would have been credible as a shoo-in for a nom. But only about half will end up with one. So when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 16, if your film is anointed, you will have the double pleasure of knowing you earned attention on a high playing field. And if your film isn’t announced…well, that’s the downside of musical chairs.

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