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Tonight's telecast of the 86th Academy Awards is supposedly structured around the theme of "movie heroes." 2013's Oscars were one of the highest-rated awards show of recent years. However, Seth MacFarlane's hosting of last year's show was very polarizing, and the producers have gone in a different direction this year with Ellen DeGeneres, who hosted the show in 2007.

Things to watch for tonight: Not only will Bette Midler be performing, but all four nominated songs ("Happy," "Let It Go," "The Moon Song," "Ordinary Love") will be performed by the artists who made them famous (Pharrell, Idina Menzel, Karen O and U2). The Oscars are still trying to appeal to the 18-49 ratings demo with young presenters like Zac Efron, Andrew Garfield, Chris Hemsworth, Michael B. Jordan, Anna Kendrick, Channing Tatum and Emma Watson, but will also feature appearances by Sidney Poitier, Kim Novak and Bill Murray. This year's show will also feature an In Memoriam honoring Shirley Temple, Maximilian Schell, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis.

You can see the entire list of nominees by clicking here. But after the jump, a little bit more analysis on the six major categories, with some Las Vegas odds on who will probably win, critics' arguments for who should win, and a review of past Oscar history for some of the more controversial wins and snubs.

Here are the nominees for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Beside each nominee is the Las Vegas odds for their chance of winning.

Best Picture:

  • 12 Years a Slave - 2/11
  • Gravity - 4/1
  • American Hustle - 15/1
  • The Dallas Buyers Club - 20/1
  • The Wolf of Wall Street - 35/1
  • Captain Phillips - 150/1
  • Her - 150/1
  • Nebraska - 200/1
  • Philomena - 200/1

From 1945 to 2010, the Best Picture winner was the film that received the most votes. When the Academy adjusted the rules for the category to include up to 10 nominees, they also changed the voting procedure to an instant run-off wherein voters rank the films from best to worst. Although there's some argument over whether this expansion has actually led to a more diversified field of films. For example, the top six Oscar categories—picture, director, and the four acting races—comprise a total of just 11 films this year.
From Peter Travers at Rolling Stone:
Sure, there are nine movies nominated for Best Picture, but if you're not Gravity, American Hustle or 12 Years a Slave, consider yourself A-Rod: You're not playing this season. Ever since the Academy started increasing the number of contenders from five to as many as 10 (to spread, what, the wealth of chances to boost your box office?), the unwieldy list of nominees has cheapened the process. So let's cut it down for you. When the Best Picture Oscar is doled out on March 2nd, the odds will favor Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, the acclaimed space epic with a gross ($262 million) that's more than its two top rivals combined. The downside is that, with the exception of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the Academy traditionally shafts fantasy and sci-fi for the big prize. From 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars to District 9 and Inception, fantasy spells defeat. Cheery news for David O. Russell's wildly entertaining and expertly acted comedy, American Hustle. But wait, comedy is a genre Oscar sniffs at nearly as often as sci-fi. The Woody Allen win for Annie Hall was almost four decades ago. Enter Steve McQueen's brilliant and brutal 12 Years a Slave, which radiates Oscar-friendly gravitas. The catch is that the film's violence turns off Academy blue-noses, some of whom may never allow such suffering to stream into their consciousness. There you have it: 6,000-odd (I use the term advisedly) Oscar voters trying to pound their prejudices into a consensus. No wonder it's such a bitch to get all categories right in the office Oscar betting pool.

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave, because no 2013 film cut deeper, resonated longer or felt readier for a permanent place in the cinema time capsule.

Will Win: Gravity, because when voters wonder if American Hustle is too much about the actors and 12 Years a Slave is too much on the nerves, Gravity makes the easiest compromise. That's Oscar for you.

Upsets: I suppose it's possible that one of the other nominees could sneak in. Maybe the Weinstein Company's campaign to sell Philomena as the people's choice will pay off. Nah. Stick with the top three.

Snubs: How the hell do you not nominate Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, the end of the best romantic trilogy on film? And a plague on voters' houses for ignoring the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, a folk ballad that strikes haunting chords about identity and the nature of art and commerce.

Best Achievement in Directing:
  • Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) - 1/20
  • Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) - 7/1
  • David O. Russell (American Hustle) - 25/1
  • Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) - 40/1
  • Alexander Payne (Nebraska) - 100/1

The winner of Best Director is usually a portent of Best Picture, since the director of the film that wins best picture almost always wins this award. Although, it's not a given, and especially this year if a split occurs in voting between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.

From A.A. Dowd at the A.V. Club:

Prediction: Gravity’s Best Picture victory may still be up in the air (or in the cosmos, har har), but everyone seems to agree that this award is Alfonso Cuarón’s to lose. He’s certainly racked up all the necessary prerequisites (the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, the DGA). Besides that, Gravity is nothing if not a directorial achievement; if Ang Lee can win for the much-less-beloved CGI spectacle of Life Of Pi, Cuarón should be considered a shoo-in for this groundbreaking experiment.

Preference: Gravity is a remarkable technological achievement, a triumph of blockbuster orchestration from a true visionary. We’ll neither blink nor scowl if its director wins, but we will be pleasantly surprised if Steve McQueen somehow pulls the upset. No, his film isn’t as plainly awe-inspiring as Cuarón’s. But there are intangibles in directing, and McQueen’s accomplishments—the elegant compositions, the atmosphere of dread and despair he sustains, the astounding work he coaxes out of his actors—are every bit as impressive as the eye candy of Gravity.

Overlooked: Every shot, every frame, every second of Upstream Color pulses with the artistic personality of its creator, Shane Carruth, a filmmaker so devoted to getting the movie in his head up on-screen that he handles the lion’s share of the responsibilities himself. He’s DIY to the expressionistic extreme, and should have been recognized for it.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
  • Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) - 1/5
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) - 5/1
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) - 6/1
  • Bruce Dern (Nebraska) - 40/1
  • Christian Bale (American Hustle) - 75/1

While not exactly predictive, the SAG awards can give you an indication of which way the wind is blowing for the Academy Awards, since actors make up the largest block of Oscar voters (around a quarter of all voters). Since 2005, the Best Actor Oscar has matched the SAG Best Actor winner.

This year's SAG Best Actor winner was Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club.

From Justin Chang at Variety:

First-timer status seems far more likely to favor Matthew McConaughey, whose warts-and-all work in Dallas Buyers Club would have seemed mighty impressive even if it hadn’t been preceded by his astonishing career turnaround with The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Killer Joe, Mud and Magic Mike. It’s a streak any actor would be proud of; coming from the actor who had become little more than a walking punchline after Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, it’s off-the-charts extraordinary. In some ways, McConaughey’s journey to the podium couldn’t be more different from that of his fellow nominee and (I suspect) closest rival for the honor, Leonardo DiCaprio. Now here’s a Hollywood golden boy who showed his promise early and never relinquished it: DiCaprio earned his first Oscar nomination at the age of 19, and since then he’s racked up three more, worked steadily with some of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors (repeatedly, in the case of Martin Scorsese), and in picture after picture he has been unflaggingly, reliably excellent without quite hitting it out of the park — all of which has conspired to turn him into one of the most underrated yet consistently bankable faces in American movies.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, he hits it out of the park. I know we’re in agreement on this one, Scott, and it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, which is not something I could say about the performance itself. Whether he’s holding court with his stockbroker acolytes like a monetary Mussolini, or crawling on all fours in perhaps the most unhinged, go-for-broke O.D. comedy sequence since Uma Thurman took a needle to the heart in Pulp Fiction, DiCaprio throws caution utterly to the wind — but crucially, not technique, timing or smoldering charisma. That preternaturally boyish quality DiCaprio has, which marred his worthy attempts at biographical impersonation in films like The Aviator and J. Edgar, could not be more effectively suited to the role of Jordan Belfort: In a performance whose supple dramatic progression has been largely overlooked amid all the coke-snorting, wife-punching antics, we see this talented but untested young trader begin to make a name for himself, we see him swindle and seduce his way to the top, and finally, we see the ferocious, borderline-irredeemable monster he becomes. This might not have been such an easy call for me if Redford were in the race, but DiCaprio’s work is simply smashing — and no less career-crowning.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
  • Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) - 1/30
  • Amy Adams (American Hustle) - 12/1
  • Sandra Bullock (Gravity) - 15/1
  • Judi Dench (Philomena) - 35/1
  • Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) - 40/1

This category seems like Cate Blanchett's to lose, with Amy Adams and Sandra Bullock having outside chances of an upset.

From Anthony Breznican at Entertainment Weekly:

Cate Blanchett is this year's Best Actress. That's what practically every Academy member has been saying since Blue Jasmine debuted last summer, and it's what you'll hear again on Oscar night when the winner is finally revealed. The uproar over the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow abuse allegations has divided Oscar voters, but even those siding against Allen don't blame Blanchett for what may or may not have happened. If anything, voters say they are more sympathetic to her for having been dragged into it.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
  • Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) - 4/7
  • Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) - 5/4
  • June Squibb (Nebraska) - 33/1
  • Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) - 40/1
  • Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) - 40/1

This category seems to be a battle between Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence. But as our very own Trix has pointed out to me, June Squibb is very good in Nebraska, and steals every scene. So if you want to bet on a long shot upset, bet on Squibb.

From Kyle Buchanan at New York magazine's Vulture:

Jennifer Lawrence came on strong earlier this year with a high-profile win at the Golden Globes right at the top of the show, but Lupita Nyong'o has since collected awards from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and at the latter ceremony, she managed the near impossible: She proved that she can deliver an acceptance speech that can outdo even J. Law. When I talked to Nyongo's 12 Years co-star Sarah Paulson at a party last night, she confidently predicted to me, "The world is clearly ready for Lupita Nyong'o. She's gonna take home the gold." I hope the first bit is true — certainly, Nyong'o has become a very exciting fashion icon and magazine muse — but she hasn't yet booked a part since 12 Years was released (what is it going to take for J.J. Abrams to cast this ethereal beauty in Star Wars like you just know he wants to?), and I hope that's simply because she's been too busy promoting it. But that second thing Paulson said, where she laid Oscar odds on Lupita? Well, that I can't argue with.

Likely to win: Lupita Nyong'o
Dark horse: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
  • Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) - 1/10
  • Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) - 9/1
  • Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) - 10/1
  • Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) - 22/1
  • Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) - 45/1

This is another category where one nominee is considered by most to be a lock; Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club. His closest competition is probably Michael Fassbender and Barkhad Abdi.

From Scott Feinberg at The Hollywood Reporter:

Talk about a comeback: After six years away from the film business -- focusing on his other career as a rock star -- actor Jared Leto dropped 40 pounds, brought moving humanity to the part of an HIV-positive transgender woman and has won almost every award to date. His only hiccup was at the BAFTA Awards -- he wasn't nominated by the Brits (neither was his film or McConaughey) and Captain Phillips' Barkhad Abdi, who has a feel-great personal story, won -- but I wouldn't read very much into that.
Will any of this year's film be "classics" in the medium 10 or 20 years from now? Or will any of these films be ones where we look back and wonder how we thought it was so great? Whether or not a film "ages well" can factor into subjective film-geek debates over whether actors and movies actually deserved their awards. One of the biggest Oscar myths concerns whether Marisa Tomei's supporting actress Academy Award win for her role My Cousin Vinny was a mistake. (It wasn't, and her nomination for The Wrestler was thought of in many ways as a vindication of her abilities as an actress.) But beyond rumors and urban myths, reassessments occur.

1999's American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball, is an interesting example. It was released, the film was critically lauded and won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

However, the film has not exactly aged well, and it now has a tendency to show up on lists of the most overrated Best Picture Oscar winners of all time. It largely stems from the fact that when you sit down and watch it now, American Beauty comes off as a movie that thinks it's really "deep" in its cultural commentary when it's not (i.e. "You mean upper middle class people have dysfunctions and problems too?!?!"). Nothing exemplifies that more than a scene of characters watching and pontificating on the significance of a plastic bag floating in the wind.

On the other hand, the Oscars (like a lot of awards in different mediums) have preset biases built into them about what a winner "should be." There's long been a sense that the Oscars discriminate against animated films, and relegates them to the "Animated" category as a pat on the head. WALL-E was the best-reviewed film of 2008, and wasn't among the Best Picture nominees for the 81st Academy Awards.

Among some of the more argued about past best picture winners, that have instigated flame wars here and there across the net:

  • 2008: 'Slumdog Millionaire' won, with 'The Dark Knight' & 'WALL-E' not even nominated
  • 2007: 'No Country For Old Men' beats 'There Will Be Blood'
  • 2005: 'Crash' beats 'Brokeback Mountain,' 'Capote,' 'Good Night and Good Luck,' and some people argue for 'Walk the Line' which wasn't even nominated
  • 2004: 'Million Dollar Baby' or the un-nominated 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'?
  • 2003: 'The Return of the King' or 'Mystic River?
  • 2002: 'Chicago' beats out 'The Pianist', 'The Hours', 'Gangs of New York', and 'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'
  • 2001: 'A Beautiful Mind' beats 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,' and 'Memento' wasn't even nominated
  • 2000: 'Gladiator' beats 'Traffic' & 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and the un-nominated 'Requiem For a Dream'
  • 1998: 'Shakespeare In Love' wins over 'Saving Private Ryan'
  • 1997: 'Titanic' or 'L.A. Confidential'?
  • 1996: 'The English Patient' wins over 'Fargo'
  • 1994: Probably the most discussed and argued about Best Picture award for those who like to argue about this stuff. 'Forrest Gump' beats 'Pulp Fiction' & 'The Shawshank Redemption'
  • 1990: 'Goodfellas' is beaten by 'Dances with Wolves'
  • 1989: 'Driving Miss Daisy' defeats 'Dead Poets Society,' 'Field of Dreams,' and 'Glory,' & 'Do the Right Thing' weren't even nominated
  • 1985: 'The Color Purple' loses to 'Out of Africa,' and some people think an un-nominated 'Brazil' should have been in the fight
  • 1982: 'E.T.' or 'Gandhi'?
  • 1981: 'Chariots of Fire' beats 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
  • 1980: 'Ordinary People' defeats 'Raging Bull'
  • 1979: 'Apocalypse Now' & 'All That Jazz' are beaten by 'Kramer v. Kramer'
  • 1976: 'Rocky' defeats 'Network,' 'Taxi Driver,' and 'All the President's Men'
  • 1968: The win of the musical 'Oliver!' is not criticized as much for beating out the other nominees in its category, but for the movies the Academy didn't nominate against it that year. For example, '2001: A Space Odyssey,' 'Rosemary's Baby,' 'Once Upon a Time in the West,' 'Petulia,' and 'The Producers,' are among the films that could have & weren't nominated for Best Picture.
  • 1964: 'My Fair Lady' defeats 'Dr. Strangelove'
  • 1960: 'The Apartment' won, with 'Psycho' and 'Spartacus' not nominated
  • 1959: The winner 'Ben Hur,' or the un-nominated 'Some Like It Hot'?
  • 1958: 'Gigi' beats 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' with 'Vertigo' and 'Touch of Evil' not nominated
  • 1957: 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' defeats '12 Angry Men,' with 'Paths of Glory' not nominated
  • 1956: 'Around the World in 80 Days' beats 'Giant,' 'The King and I' and an un-nominated 'The Searchers'
  • 1955: The winner 'Marty' or 'Mister Roberts'?
  • 1954: 'On the Waterfront' or the un-nominated 'Rear Window'?
  • 1952: 'High Noon' & 'Singin' In The Rain,' which weren't nominated, lose out to 'The Greatest Show On Earth'
  • 1941: 'How Green Was My Valley' beats 'Citizen Kane', 'The Maltese Falcon', and 'Sergeant York'
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