Everett; Focus Features; Sony
PEOPLE Movie Critic
February 27, 2014 05:35 PM

Will Gravity outweigh 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle? Can Matthew McConaughey coast to his first win? And will previous winner Cate Blanchett be giving her statuette some company?

As the Oscar race enters its final stretch, PEOPLE’s critic handicaps the contenders gunning for gold this Sunday.

Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto

Don’t blame the actors for jacking up your Oscar ballot. Nearly all of this year’s front-runners are heavy favorites, so they’re probably not going to keep you from winning the office pool. (I wish you all kinds of luck with those tricky technical categories, though.) Indeed, Leto – who faces off against Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) – has all but assured a win for his performance as Rayon, the transgender woman who goes into business with McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof to provide safer drugs to people with HIV/AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. But that’s as it should be. Lesser actors might’ve turned Rayon into a caricature, but Leto develops a fully realized person, one who’s fighting just as hard as Woodroof not simply to survive, but to live.

Best Supporting Actress

Lupita Nyong’o

From left: Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

I’ve adored Jennifer Lawrence since I first saw her in Winter’s Bone, and have been delighted with nearly every performance since. She’s hilarious in American Hustle as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, giving a surprisingly nuanced take on an outlandishly big character (and in a movie full of them, no less). But I have to give the edge to Lupita Nyong’o. The newcomer – who’s also up against Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) and June Squibb (Nebraska) – is a revelation as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, trapped in her master’s glare, an object of his revulsion and his lust. When finally called on to unleash Patsey’s festering rage, she does so with a mighty roar that doesn’t begin to diminish our empathy for her. I fervently hope that Nyong’o takes that Oscar, but furthermore, that she goes on to have the kind of career opportunities readily available to an actress like Lawrence.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
Focus Features

Let’s take a moment to pour one out for the homies who aren’t here – the cruelly snubbed Robert Redford and the (arguably) overlooked Tom Hanks. With that said, drink up for Dallas Buyers Club‘s McConaughey, who’s clearly had the most dramatic artistic maturation of any of this year’s nominees. (McConaughey’s competition? Christian Bale in American Hustle, Bruce Dern in Nebraska, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.) Need I remind you that this is the same dude who slouched through Dazed and Confused, extolling the glories of high-school girls? His portrayal of Ron Woodroof, a hard-living rodeo clown/electrician/SOB, is beautifully well-rounded, hilarious, heartbreaking, infuriating and heroic, often at the same time. In fact, he deserves bonus points for having worked so hard to get Dallas Buyers Club made in the first place. When you champion a passion project and deliver a stellar performance, you know what that makes you? Golden.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett

Another case of will win/should win, no matter what residual dirt may have fallen on her as a result of the Woody Allen controversy. None of the director’s travails should affect Blanchett, who delivered the most vivid, captivating performance of any actress this year. She’s be squaring off against Amy Adams (American Hustle), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County). (Given the fact that the Best Actress nominees have 38 past and present Oscar nods between them, that’s saying a great deal.) In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett takes an entirely unlikeable character and makes her sympathetic, with a turn that’s somehow delicate yet snatches the film by its throat. In short, she steals Allen’s movie from him.

Best Director

Alfonso Cuarén

I’m splitting my vote this year. Cuarén excelled at achieving a singular vision for Gravity, a film that relies far more on the man behind the camera (and his peerless technical team) than it does on tight dialogue, effective costumes, cool makeup, or even – gasp! – great performances. (The other nominees include David O. Russell for American Hustle, Alexander Payne for Nebraska, Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave and Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street.) It’s as close to one man telling a story as big-budget action movies get, even if there’s so much CGI going on that it technically qualifies as an animated film. With that said, though

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Best Picture

12 Years a Slave

There’s no doubt in my mind that 12 Years a Slave should win best picture. As a fully realized cinematic experience, 12 Years is the most satisfying film of the year. (This year’s nine-way race also includes American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street.) Yes, it’s also the most painful – but then, shouldn’t it be? Shouldn’t we be gutted watching the rape, torture and murder of Americans on our own soil? Shouldn’t we own that experience, nonetheless? Don’t we owe it to the people who were turned into commodities to bear witness?

Yes, 12 Years is an important film (and all that that implies), but it’s also an exquisitely made piece of cinema, with the kind of exceptional dialogue and performances that Gravity, quite frankly, lacks. Speaking of the actors, there isn’t a disappointing one in the bunch, from the nominated stars, like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender, to those who were overlooked – from Paul Giamatti as a brutal slave trader bereft of empathy, to Adepero Oduye as a mother subsumed by grief over the loss of her children, to Sarah Paulson as the vicious Mistress Epps, possessing a political scientist’s mastery of soft power. In concert, they deliver a work that not only paints a haunting portrait of our nation at its ugliest, but that will also change the way we talk about race onscreen. That’s the power of an amazing film.

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