Alfonso Cuaron, "Gravity." Though I know some are predicting "Gravity" for the top prize, direction is surely the category where this mind-blowing, mostly virtual achievement most warrants recognition. Cuaron delivers a visceral cinematic experience nonpareil, impressively managing to juggle existential themes alongside technological innovation. I was also impressed with the relative intimacy of Spike Jonze's sci-fi work on "Her" this year, but he's not on the ballot, so Cuaron takes the prize.
BEST ACTOR: Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club." If I ran the zoo, my write-in vote would go to "Inside Llewyn Davis" lead Oscar Isaac, who brought warmth and relatability to a superficially dislikable character. Among the nominees, McConaughey impressed me for much the same reason. The challenging physical transformation he underwent to play an emaciated 135-pound AIDS patient pales in comparison with the transformation his character experiences, evolving from a racist, homophobic bigot to an unlikely hero in the fight against HIV.
BEST ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine." Judi Dench and Meryl Streep always impress, while Sandra Bullock aces the mechanical complexities of acting in a void, but the winner here is Blanchett. The Aussie star just may be the best actress of her generation, yet there are simply too few roles deserving of her talent. Thankfully, Woody Allen had the wisdom to think of her when casting this Tennessee Williams-worthy wreck, and Blanchett delivers, baring the vodka-soused social-climber's every insecurity.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club." From "Tootsie" to "Shakespeare in Love," the Academy loves to reward movie stars for cross-dressing, buying into the gender-bending charade with a wink. But Leto never feels the need to remind audiences that it's all an act, liberating the resilient Southern gal within, while erasing any trace of his real-world self. In contrast with the case of "The Crying Game's" Jaye Davidson, the shock isn't the character's true gender, but how easily we relate to her plight.
BEST ACTRESS: Lupita Nyong'o, "12 Years a Slave." I can't fathom a scenario in which Kenyan ingenue Nyong'o doesn't win. Like Patsey, who picks 500 pounds of cotton a day, the actress pulls far more than her weight in "12 Years a Slave." She's the face of unfathomable tragedy -- objectified and abused, yet dignified through it all. In the end, as Solomon Northup rides off to freedom, it is Nyong'o and the flash of a fainting yellow dress that leaves us wondering about Patsey's fate.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Spike Jonze, "Her." I have a hunch that "American Hustle" will take this statue, despite its eagerness to subvert writing with improvised anarchy. That would be a shame, as Spike Jonze ought to be rewarded for conjuring a relationship out of thin air in "Her," a film where the year's most enchanting character consists of little more than words.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: John Ridley, "12 Years a Slave." Historically speaking, there was so much riding on "12 Years a Slave," which elevates a rare first-person account of forced servitude to epic status. Had the result faltered, Hollywood would have happily swept the subject back under the rug, but the film succeeds due to the balance between director Steve McQueen's heightened, unflinching style and John Ridley's incredibly humane treatment of Solomon Northup's experience.
BEST DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron, "Gravity." Until the visual and sound effects were rendered and the music put in place, "Gravity" was little more than some silent shots of Sandra Bullock hanging inside a custom-built LED "light box," moving through imaginary space. The one place the completed movie existed was in the vast imagination of Cuaron, who both will and deserves to win for a stunning big-screen vision in the age of ever smaller screens.
BEST ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Wolf of Wall Street." Not a dud performance in this fiercely competitive bunch. The consensus seems to be that this is Matthew McConaughey's award to lose, as much for his excellent work in "Dallas Buyers Club" as for the transformative arc of his entire career over the past three years. It's DiCaprio, though, who gets my vote for an electrifying, full-bodied performance that revealed him to be an unexpectedly deft comedian. He leaves a pound of flesh on that screen. With any other actor, "Wolf" seems inconceivable.
BEST ACTRESS: Amy Adams, "American Hustle." This one's neck-and-neck for me: I enormously admired Cate Blanchett's schizophrenic high-wire act at the center of Woody Allen's recession-era morality play, and still believe she's got this one all sewn up, recent headlines notwithstanding. However, I'm casting my own imaginary ballot for the consistently remarkable Adams -- already a five-time nominee at age 39 -- who was the stealth weapon in "American Hustle's" finely tuned ensemble, deft and heartbreaking as the con woman juggling two men, and two personalities, until she begins to lose track of who she really loves, and who she really is.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club." Actors always get a lot of attention when they gain or lose a lot of weight for a role, or affect a disability, or appear in drag -- and often, no matter how good they are, you can still see all the architecture that went into building the performance. But appearing on screen for the first time in four years, Leto simply seemed to be Rayon from the first frames of "Dallas Buyers Club" to the genuinely astonishing scene when he dons a suit and tie to meet with his banker father -- the only moment in the film when we feel we're watching someone wearing makeup. He'll win this one, and deserves to.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Lupita Nyong'o, "12 Years a Slave." It's always thrilling to make a new discovery at the movies, and there were few in 2013 that could rival Nyongo, who walked right out of Yale drama school and onto the set of "12 Years," where she was utterly spellbinding as the literal love slave who begs Solomon Northup for her salvation. She gave an often austere, tough-minded movie about the economy of slavery its heart, and if anyone pulls off an upset in this category against favorite Jennifer Lawrence, it'll be her.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, "American Hustle." Because the Academy has often used its screenplay statuettes as consolation prizes for well-liked movies that aren't going to win anything else, Spike Jonze may well score here for "Her," and who's to begrudge him? But for the sheer musicality of its dialogue, volume of quotable lines, and sharply drawn characters each with his or her own inimitable patois, "American Hustle" was easily the most purely pleasurable movie to listen to since "The Social Network." Somewhere, Ben Hecht is smiling.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: John Ridley, "12 Years a Slave." Distilling Solomon Northup's sprawling memoir into a taut two-hour narrative was no mean feat, but Ridley ("Three Kings") managed to do so while crafting a distinctive, slightly formal and stylized language for the characters to speak, further pulling us into the film's vividly atmospheric world. Outside best picture, this is "12 Years'" best shot at the gold.