A seemingly endless movie awards season finally concludes Sunday with the Academy Awards. By now, many of the front-runners have established themselves, but the night's big honor — best picture — remains a dramatic question mark.
Associated Press film writer Jake Coyle and Jessica Herndon both see "12 Years a Slave" eking out the win. But they have plenty to say about not only who will win, but who should win and who should have been a contender.
The Nominees: "American Hustle," ''Captain Phillips," ''Dallas Buyers Club," ''Gravity," ''Her," ''Nebraska," ''Philomena," ''12 Years a Slave," ''The Wolf of Wall Street."
Will Win: "American Hustle" feels too light — actors in wigs having a ball. And "Gravity," for all its galactic splendor, lacks the force of a solid story. So it must be "12 Years a Slave," the candidate with the heft of history. But make no mistake: There's no certainty in this close contest.
Should Win: "12 Years a Slave." It's an unforgettable odyssey, a reckoning of past movie portrayals of slavery and a uniquely unflinching tale of perseverance.
Should Have Been a Contender: Few movies capture boyhood like Jeff Nichols' soulful Mississippi River coming-of-age tale "Mud."
Will Win: Since "Gravity" stood out as an innovative prodigy advancing visual and 3-D possibilities, it'll clean up in the tech categories and will be crowned the night's big victor.
Should Win: "12 Years a Slave." With its disturbing subject matter and factual significance, it's the year's most epic and vital narrative.
Should Have Been a Contender: "Before Midnight." A deliciously candid look at the dark and deeply romantic evolution of love.
The Nominees: Christian Bale, "American Hustle"; Bruce Dern, "Nebraska"; Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Wolf of Wall Street"; Chiwetel Ejiofor, "12 Years a Slave"; Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club."
Will Win: McConaughey. He ditched vanity and became the favorite. But DiCaprio may just pull through with the win here. The academy loves to crown excess, even if an actor's previous roles dug deeper. (We all remember Denzel's win for "Training Day" — and his snubs for "Malcolm X" and "Philadelphia.")
Should Win: DiCaprio may not have abandoned his good looks for this role, but he was aggressive, hilarious and the hedonism made him repulsive.
Should Have Been a Contender: Joaquin Phoenix, "Her." Carrying most of his scenes solo, since Scarlett Johansson didn't clock any physical screen time, he was the heart and soul of Spike Jonze's gentle romance.
Will Win: McConaughey. Hollywood loves a good comeback story.
Should Win: Ejiofor. "12 Years a Slave" finds its strength in his deep eyes and commanding dignity.
Should Have Been a Contender: Many were left out here, most incredibly Tom Hanks for "Captain Phillips." But Mads Mikkelsen's performance as a kindergarten teacher unjustly accused of molesting a friend's child in "The Hunt" was a haunting portrait of a small-town pariah.
The Nominees: Amy Adams, "American Hustle"; Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine"; Sandra Bullock, "Gravity"; Judi Dench, "Philomena"; Meryl Streep, "August: Osage County."
Will Win: Blanchett's modern-day Blanche DuBois is likely a shoo-in, so long as voters haven't turned against Woody Allen.