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Still in the dark: final Oscar nominee predictions

Two days from the announcement, many question marks remain

<p>Michael Shannon in &quot;Take Shelter.&quot;</p>

Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter."

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

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There are three reasons I've chosen the photo to your left to illustrate this post: 1) Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay nominations for "Take Shelter" are two of the fragile limbs I've climbed out on in compiling my final predictions for Tuesday's Oscar nominations announcement (with Kris and Gerard's to follow tomorrow); 2) Michael Shannon's face, staring impassively but uncertainly into the ill-lit darkness, roughly represents where I am with said predictions; and 3) if you look closely, Jessica Chastain's in the background, and since she's in the background of approximately half the films I expect to be nominated by the Academy, it seemed appropriate.

This feels like a tenuous year for predictions, and not just because -- for the first time in Oscar history -- we have the added variable of not knowing how many films will be nominated for Best Picture. In most years, at least a couple of categories feel more or less locked in place ahead of this announcement: this time, we have several major categories where a pair or trio of frontrunners are so far ahead of the pack (Clooney-Dujardin-Pitt in Actor, Davis-Streep-Williams in Actress, Hazanavicius-Allen in Original Screenplay), that the remaining slots, having already acquired the status of mere formality, are vulnerable to surprises.

A watched pot never boils, after all, and with the conversation already having narrowed in many races to two or three names, there are a lot of unwatched pots at the soft end of the ballot. A lot of unwatched screeners too, we know, which is why it only takes a smallish band of voters to watch an unheralded film or performance and recommend it to their pals to buck both the odds and the precursors: that's how a Tommy Lee Jones winds up nominated for "In the Valley of Elah." Or a Laura Linney for "The Savages." Or a Samantha Morton for "In America."

Or indeed a Michael Shannon for "Revolutionary Road" -- a handy segue, since I'm expecting that very actor to repeat the trick he performed three years ago, where he landed on Oscar's list without one major precursor nomination to his name. His rivetingly agitated performance in "Take Shelter" is one of the year's most glowingly reviewed, though few saw the film on its fall release. Still, as more heavily hyped contenders (DiCaprio, Gosling) have fallen away, the small but devoted fanbase for Shannon's work has remained steadfast, and word has slowly, modestly spread. It helps that the film plays well on a screener.

If Shannon pulls it off, I fear it'll be at the expense of another critically adored Michael: Fassbender may be the man of the hour, and "Shame" may be a buzzy conversation piece on the arthouse circuit, but do we know how the conservative actors' branch is responding to this chilly film and highly contained performance? It's finely detailed work, but not expansive thespian catnip for voters. Neither, for that matter, is fellow Brit Gary Oldman's equally reserved, low-temperature performance in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," but he has more than a few years on Fassbender, and the fact that this modern master is still awaiting his first Oscar nomination has been repeated often enough on the publicity trail to make voters feel a little sheepish.

It helps that Oldman's film is picking up some momentum, and not a moment too soon: after an alarming start to the season, which saw it blanked in one precursor list after another despite reasonable US box office, "Tinker, Tailor" rallied slightly with a pair of Guild nods (craft ones, but it'll take what it can get), a USC Scripter mention and a whopping 11 BAFTA nominations. Yes, that's home support that might well not translate to Oscar nominations at all, but you have to go back to "Billy Elliot" to find a British film that performed that well with BAFTA and didn't net a Best Picture Oscar nomination. (And it still got into Best Director.) It may be unwise, but I'm predicting the Academy's not-inconsiderable British voting bloc to come through for the cool spy drama, securing it a Best Picture nod by the skin of its tea-stained teeth.

In doing so, I'm predicting it to steal the classy-genre-piece thunder of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," which I'm probably underestimating rather severely with only two predicted nominations in the technical races, despite its rock-solid showing across the Guilds. I may regret that on Tuesday, but the Academy usually only responds to pulp if it's attained phenomenon status -- and with its respectable-not-ecstatic reviews and its respectable-not-stratospheric box office, I don't know how hard "Dragon Tattoo" is selling itself to Academy voters.(I'd certainly like Rooney Mara's chances of crashing the SAG-approved Best Actress lineup if she weren't such a dour presence on the publicity circuit.)

The reasoning that voters feel they owe David Fincher after his loss last year to Tom Hooper only goes so far: if they felt that bad about it, they would have voted for him in the first place. As it stands, I expect him to be the one DGA nominee that, as is usually the case, doesn't make the Academy's five. In his place: Terrence Malick. Whether or not "The Tree of Life" has broad enough support to crack the Best Picture lineup is an increasingly distant question mark, but his high-risk, high-reach helming of the Palme d'Or winner is just the kind of brazen auteur statement the Academy's smaller, more particular directors' branch often sticks up for -- which could result in our first 'lone director' nominee since Julian Schnabel four years ago. I've missed those.

I'm also counting on enough grudging respect for "The Tree of Life" -- propped by by a wave of not-at-all grudging adoration for Brad Pitt -- to see the locked-in Best Actor nominee score a surprise second nod for Best Supporting Actor. Again, there are few precursors to support that idea, but something about that category has looked ripe for a wild-card nominee for some time. I don't know I don't quite buy the Jonah Hill story, or indeed the Nick Nolte story, but if something gives, why wouldn't they reward one of their favorite stars for venturing into the arthouse, and earning some of the best reviews of his career for it? It's a nomination that would appear at once cosy and adventurous: everybody wins.

Other questions abound. Dare they nominate "The Artist" for sound awards? If Jonah Hill is this year's Mila Kunis -- sorry, Mila -- is Shailene Woodley this year's Andrew Garfield? (To remind you: fresh face giving a well-liked performance in a formidable Best Picture challenger, who nonetheless missed first with SAG and then with the Academy.) I think so, yes. If she is, is that a sign of weakness for "The Descendants" -- or can it make good on its concerted push for an editing nomination?

Speaking of the techs, what to make of that eternally wacky Costume Design category -- where, honestly, not one of the top 15 titles on our Contenders page would surprise me as a nominee? (Watch it be French royalty-porn extravaganza "The Princess of Montpensier.")

Very nearly as scattered is the Original Screenplay race: my long-held prediction for "A Separation" seems to be gaining company among other pundits, but "50/50," for all its precursor mentions, carries a strong whiff of the much-nominated but Academy-snubbed "(500) Days of Summer" to me -- and not just because of the JGL-Five-O parallel. (Still, what's up with that?) Any number of carefully written indies feel like plausible nominees there, which brings me full circle to my rash predictions for "Take Shelter" -- and there I shall stop, because if I think about this any further, I may start sounding a little like a Michael Shannon character myself. Good luck, everyone.

With that, here are my final predictions. Kris and Gerard will weigh in with theirs tomorrow.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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Guy Lodge
Critic
Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.
2013-2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014