"12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" became the best picture front-runners after flooring audiences at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and little has changed in the ensuing weeks. Naturally, then, given their estimable craft, both movies are also leading the way in the director and cinematographer races. The key category to watch: original screenplay. If "Gravity's" outer-space tale of spiritual rebirth can land a nomination in that competitive group, it will signal the movie has the kind of broad appeal needed to carry it to a best picture win.
Here's how the races for director, cinematography and original and adapted screenplay are shaping up on the eve of the L.A. unveiling of the season's final puzzle piece, Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Alfonso Cuarón, "Gravity"
Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave"
Paul Greengrass, "Captain Phillips"
Alexander Payne, "Nebraska"
David O. Russell, "American Hustle"
Prime contenders: Spike Jonze, "Her"; Joel and Ethan Coen, "Inside Llewyn Davis"; John Lee Hancock, "Saving Mr. Banks"
Bubbling under: Asghar Farhadi, "The Past"; Woody Allen, "Blue Jasmine"; J.C. Chandor, "All Is Lost"; Lee Daniels, "Lee Daniels' The Butler"
Not yet seen: Martin Scorsese, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
For your consideration: Robert Redford grabbed the headlines for his mesmerizing solo turn in "All Is Lost," but the film also confirmed that J.C. Chandor's excellent debut, "Margin Call," was no fluke. Here, Chandor has crafted a simple, elegant story filled with unforgettable images, unbelievable tension and a career-best performance from its star. Rightfully, that should earn Chandor a nomination.
Analysis: Look for the academy to spread the wealth when it hands out the Oscars for picture and director next year. Best early guess: "12 Years" wins picture, with Cuarón taking director honors. Greengrass is likely to join Cuarón and McQueen as nominees here, leaving two spots open. Two-time nominees Payne and Russell stand a good chance to score a hat trick. But if the ambitious "Wolf" dazzles, seven-time nominee Scorsese could knock one of them out of the race.
Joel and Ethan Coen, "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Woody Allen, "Blue Jasmine"
Bob Nelson, "Nebraska"
Spike Jonze, "Her"
David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, "American Hustle"
Prime contenders: Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón, "Gravity"; Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, "Saving Mr. Banks"; Ryan Coogler, "Fruitvale Station"; Nicole Holofcener, "Enough Said"
Bubbling under: Asghar Farhadi, "The Past"; Peter Morgan, "Rush"; Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, "Dallas Buyers Club"; Danny Strong, "Lee Daniels' The Butler"; Jeff Nichols, "Mud"
For your consideration: Nichols won comparisons to Mark Twain for his earthy adventure tale "Mud," which, to many writers, would be a higher accolade than an Oscar nomination. It's his best work, a striking tall tale exploring the tangible concerns of love, honor and trust.
Analysis: Voters have a good many choices here and could go in any number of directions. Allen and the Coens, perennial nominees, seem safe. Nelson's brilliantly constructed "Nebraska" should make it in as well. Then it will depend if writers branch balloters like their emotional payoffs teary ("Banks," "Fruitvale"), triumphant ("Gravity"), warm ("Enough Said") or weirdly affecting ("Her"). They all have considerable merit.
John Ridley, "12 Years a Slave"
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, "Before Midnight"
Tracy Letts, "August: Osage County"
Billy Ray, "Captain Phillips"
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, "Philomena"
Prime contenders: Steve Conrad, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"; Peter Berg, "Lone Survivor"
Bubbling under: Abdellatif Kechiche, "Blue Is the Warmest Color"; Jason Reitman, "Labor Day"; William Nicholson, "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"
Not yet seen: Terence Winter, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
For your consideration: Destin Cretton, "Short Term 12." Setting a movie in a foster home for at-risk kids puts you on a collision course with cliché, but Crettin's first feature, which he adapted from his own Sundance prize-winning short film, is a wonder of authenticity and emotional intricracy. It's inspirational storytelling delivered in the best possible manner, earning its hope through characters and conflicts that have the ring of truth.
Analysis: This category isn't nearly as deep as its original screenplay counterpart with probably only the final slot up for grabs between "Philomena" and "Wolf." Winter has won four Emmys for his work on "The Sopranos" (two for writing, two as an executive producer), and if his take on corporate crime pops with the same pizazz and detail as his work on that HBO series, he could land his first Oscar nod.
Emmanuel Lubezki, "Gravity"
Sean Bobbitt, "12 Years a Slave"
Barry Ackroyd, "Captain Phillips"
Bruno Delbonnel, "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Anthony Dod Mantle, "Rush"
Prime contenders: Roger Deakins, "Prisoners"; Phedon Papamichael, "Nebraska"; Stuart Dryburgh, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
Bubbling under: Frank G. DeMarco, "All Is Lost"; Hoyte Van Hoytema, "Her"; John Schwartzman, "Saving Mr. Banks"; Simon Duggan, "The Great Gatsby"; Philippe Le Sourd, "The Grandmaster"; Linus Sandgren, "American Hustle"
Not yet seen: Rodrigo Prieto, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
For your consideration: Papamichael worked with Alexander Payne on "Sideways" and "The Descendants." With "Nebraska," they moved into new territory, shooting for the first time in black and white, widescreen and digital. The results — those broad, wintry horizons, peaceful cloudscapes and austere, almost abandoned small towns — possess a bleak beauty that never calls attention to itself. But that doesn't mean the academy can't recognize it. Papamichael has more than earned his first Oscar nomination.
Analysis: Having predicted Oscar wins for Lubezki before — he has been nominated five times, most recently for "The Tree of Life" and "Children of Men" — we're not going to jinx him just yet. Let's just say he and Bobbitt and Ackroyd should win nominations with the remaining two spots likely going to cinematographers who have been to the dance before — Delbonnel, Dod Michael, Dryburgh and Deakins — though strong cases can be made too for Van Hoytema and Papamichael to win their first nods.