The Golden Globes, SAG, PGA and Critics Choice prizes were split among “American Hustle,” “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.” Big takeaway: Those three are strong Oscar best-picture contenders. The bigger takeaway: This year is not conforming to any traditional gameplan and anything can happen. So here’s a look at the strengths and vulnerabilities of the nine best-picture nominees.
“12 Years a Slave”
Strengths: The subjects of racism and oppression are big and important. It’s a beautifully made film, with a message that we are responsible for helping others; the film also makes us see familiar works about the Civil War with different eyes.
Vulnerability: Some people regard it as the film equivalent of broccoli and still resist seeing it. Strategists should continue to stress the emotional uplift of the film as well as its artistry.
Strength: The film has style to burn, and it’s fun, thanks to smart writing, direction and performances, as well as the costumes, hair, makeup and music.
Vulnerability: Audiences remember those positive elements. But with so many films tackling weighty topics, this film may seem slight, so strategists should emphasize the content and themes.
Strengths: The intensity starts about 20 minutes in, and never lets up. It’s the kind of action movie that Hollywood does best, but with added depth and surprising touches.
Vulnerability: The non-nominations for Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks weren’t snubs, they just show what a competitive year this is.
“Dallas Buyers Club”
Strengths: It’s a great story about AIDS and medical bureaucracy, and the guerrilla-style filmmaking (25 days, under $5 million) adds to the sense of urgency. And there’s a great backstory: It took 20 years and 86 rejections to get made.
Vulnerability: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have been saluted so much, some people may overlook the film as a whole.
Strengths: It’s a technological ground-breaker and a huge hit. It should appeal to two key demographics in AMPAS: the 2,375 below-the-line members (39% of the voters) — and women. (Few best-picture winners have centered around women and even those have featured men prominently. No best-picture winner has rested so much on the shoulders of a female protagonist.)
Vulnerability: It is a thoughtful film about emotions, and what it means to be a human being. But its technology is so dazzling, voters may think of the film solely as a spectacle.
Strengths: The premise sounds like a comedy sketch: A man falls in love with his voice activated system. It’s a totally original look at technology and alienation, but it’s more than that: It’s one of the most touching relationship movies of the year..
Vulnerability: Voters need to accept the premise that this is a complex relationship, with all the growing affection and mistakes — yet only half of the couple is ever seen.
Strengths: With vivid writing, directing and acting, the film deals with a topic that’s tackled so rarely in Hollywood that it seems exotic: The everyday dreams and disappointments of daily life in the Midwest. If you had to pick one film to put into a time capsule, this would be an excellent choice.
Vulnerability: It has the same challenges as some others: It may be seen as a “little” film and voters may concentrate on individual contributions and miss the picture as a whole.
Strengths: It’s old-fashioned, in best sense of the term: a charming odd-couple comedy, but with unusual substance. It’s also a rare tearjerker, touching the heart in a way that few other 2013 films did.
Vulnerability: The balance of comedy and tragedy is so successful, it looks easy. Though seeming like another “little” film, it actually makes strong points about religion, faith, forgiveness, government indifference — and human connection.
“Wolf of Wall Street”
Strength: Maestro Martin Scorsese works in a new style, getting the most from his actors and collaborators. It’s a morality tale, disguised as an in-your-face comedy that is wildly entertaining (emphasis on “wildly”).
Vulnerability: Conservative voters may balk at the drugs, sex and crude language. Strategists need to remind skeptics what the fans already see: The lead character’s greed is a case study of our self-indulgent and cash-obsessed times.