12 Years a Slave
Why it could win: Oscar loves harrowing stories of historical importance. And the academy may feel guilty for snubbing African-American stories and talent.
What else could it win? Director (Steve McQueen), actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), supporting actor (Michael Fassbender), supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o), adapted screenplay, visual awards.
However: Could be too brutal for voters to sit through. And look at last year’s “Lincoln” (12 nominations, just two awards).
Why it could win: Oscar likes money-making crowd-pleasers (see previous winners “Argo,” “The King’s Speech”) and tales of underdogs overcoming adversity (“Slumdog Millionaire”).
What else could it win? Director (Alfonso Cuaron), actress (Sandra Bullock), a galaxy of technical awards.
However: Oscar hates science fiction. And technical marvels, though heaped with praise, rarely win (see losers “Avatar,” “Life of Pi,” “Inception,” “Apollo 13” ...).
Why it could win: Popular with audiences, this caper is suddenly gaining momentum with the Hollywood elite, too.
What else could it win? Supporting actress (Jennifer Lawrence, the girl on fire), original screenplay, visual awards.
However: That hair! Those clothes! The academy may deem it too lightweight for the top prize.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Why it has a shot: Shocked Oscar voters think this stockbroker carnival glorifies sex, drugs and moral reprobates. That very controversy could spur a passionate groundswell from supporters. Bonus: It’s Martin Scorsese.
What else could it win? Adapted screenplay.
However: The older, conservative wing of the academy almost always gets its way. (Remember “The Social Network”? Oscar didn’t.)
Dallas Buyers Club
Why it has a shot: The subject of AIDS is an Oscar magnet, and the strong performances only add to the cachet.
What else could it win? Actor (Matthew McConaughey), supporting actor (Jared Leto).
However: For best picture, it’s overshadowed.
Why it has a shot: No shame of slavery or the silly 1970s, just a pulse-pounding true story of Yankee heroism.
What else could it win? Adapted screenplay, technical awards.
However: Voters might be uncomfortable with that old trope of black villains attacking innocent white people, even though it all really happened. And the snub of director Paul Greengrass doesn’t bode well.
Why prospects are dim: Its mix of bleak and sweet charmed film critics, but Oscar voters have different tastes.
What it could win: Actor (Bruce Dern), original screenplay, cinematography.
Why prospects are dim: Oscar likes a token quirky nominee (“Juno,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild”), but those don’t win.
What it could win: Original screenplay.
Why prospects are dim: The marketing magic of the winning Weinstein studio couldn’t draw the spotlight this time.
What it could win: It’s an honor just to be nominated.
Early favorite: Beloved Alfonso Cuaron toiled for years on his astonishing outer-space creation.
Spoiler: Steve McQueen may be a Hollywood outsider, but obviously his searing film didn’t direct itself.
Did you know: McQueen is only the third African-American director to be nominated (after John Singleton and Lee Daniels); none have won, yet.
Early favorite: As a modern-day Blanche DuBois, Cate Blanchett seems unstoppable.
Spoilers: More people saw astronaut Sandra Bullock, and popularity counts.
Did you know: Amy Adams has scored a remarkable five nominations in nine years but never won. The others all have statuettes. And Meryl Streep has extended her record to 18 nominations.
Early favorite: Chiwetel Ejiofor delivered an anguished, moving performance in a crowded category.
Spoilers: Matthew McConaughey, as an emaciated crusading cowboy.
Did you know: Christian Bale, the surprise nominee, is the only one to have won before. It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s fourth nomination and Dern’s second; Ejiofor and McConaughey are first-timers.
Early favorite: Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who added heart to a harsh film.
Spoiler: Hollywood It Girl Jennifer Lawrence (but she just won best actress last year for “Silver Linings Playbook”).
Did you know: Eleven women have won supporting actress for their debut performance. Of the last four, three are African-American: Mo’Nique (“Precious”), Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) and Oprah Winfrey (“The Color Purple”).
Early favorite: Jared Leto, transfixing as a transgender prostitute with HIV.
Spoiler: A terrifying Michael Fassbender, if “12 Years a Slave” has coattails to ride.
Did you know: If Leto and McConaughey win, it would be the first time in a decade to have actor and supporting actor winners in the same film, and only the fourth time ever.