PEOPLE's Movie Critic Makes First Oscar Picks
02/22/2014 AT 06:00 PM EST
First up, my selections for animated feature, documentary feature, cinematography, adapted screenplay and original screenplay:
Oscar prognosticators are split between the fiendishly talented backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom and the stomach-churning "gangsters" in The Act of Killing, and so am I. Still, I have to tip the scale toward The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer's gut-punch of a film about the men who carried out the 1965 Indonesian genocide. Oppenheimer and his crew – many of whom were too afraid to be listed in the credits – get unforgettable confessions out of the killers, who remain unpunished.
Look for this to be one of several awards Gravity picks up on Oscar night, and deservedly so. Emmanuel Lubezki, who's worked with director Alfonso Cuarón since the beginning (as well as helping Terrence Malick find the visual style for Tree of Life and To the Wonder), gives space a forbidding beauty in Gravity. The "blue marble" of Earth has never looked more ethereal, or hauntingly far away.
Best Original Screenplay
This fight comes down to American Hustle and Her, if you believe the oddsmakers. As much as I love the wickedly funny Hustle script from Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell, I'm hoping Spike Jonze takes it for Her. His story about a lonely writer (Joaquin Phoenix) finding love with his phone's operating system (Scarlett Johansson) has a tighter narrative, plus it manages to be as emotionally vulnerable as it is cerebral.
Best Adapted Screenplay
For me, there's no race here. John Ridley's treatment of 12 Years a Slave is beautifully poetic, giving new life a century and a half later to Solomon Northup's wrenching book about his dozen years in bondage. Ridley captures multiple speech patterns in his dialogue, not to mention delivering soaring speeches, withering retorts and impassioned pleas. (Can anyone forget Lupita Nyong'o, as Patsey, begging Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, to kill her and end her torment?) Perhaps the most effective dialogue, though, is in those scenes where human beings are dispassionately assessed like workhorses and breeding cattle. Ridley finds brutal poetry there, too.
Best Animated Feature
Some years are frightfully weak for animation (this is how a creepy movie like Happy Feet becomes an Oscar winner), but this isn't one of them. The race boils down to two truly fantastic entries: Frozen, featuring one of the best female relationships in Disney history, and The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki's visually arresting ode to aviation, which the master behind Spirited Away and Ponyo vows will be his last film. But I gravitate toward a sentimental favorite, a Belgian delight called Ernest & Celestine, about an underappreciated mouse who goes on the lam with her friend, a bear. The story and the animation are utterly charming, and if your kids aren't into subtitles, the English-language version, starring Forest Whitaker and Twilight's Mackenzie Foy, hits theaters Feb. 28.
The 86th Annual Academy Awards will air live from Hollywood's Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, on ABC.