Hollywood's Best in Close Race for Oscar Glory

The night's top prize, best picture, sees "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity" and "American Hustle" elbowing to get to the podium and grab the coveted statuette.

Balloting for the 86th Annual Academy Awards closed Tuesday evening, meaning the best picture race has already been decided. But viewers and those in attendance will have to wait until just before midnight Sunday to discover which film will get to bask in Oscars' gilded glow.

That presentation will mark the end of a long Hollywood award season that's seen a slew of worthy (and thankfully entertaining) movies receive widespread adulation. It's also a season that witnessed the tragic death of one of its leading men, the sordid accusations and denials between an adopted daughter and her famous director father, and high profile members of the acting community who no longer wish to participate in the media process that helps propel audiences to consume their creative output.

Host Ellen DeGeneres' light comedic touch will need to be in abundance as she ushers along a three-plus hour ceremony in front of an audience all too aware of the shadow cast by Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman's tragic death from an apparent drug overdose, the she-said, he-said war of words between Dylan Farrow and nominated "Blue Jasmine" director and writer Woody Allen, and the media-attracting antics of Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf, who profess that all they want is to be left alone.

Ultimately, such stories will serve only as a lurid sideshow to the main event: the handing out of those little gold men. And with a few of the highest profile categories sporting a tightly run field, audiences should be rewarded with the right amount of "Knew it would win," and "Didn't see that coming!" moments.

The night's top prize, best picture, sees "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity" and "American Hustle" elbowing to get to the podium and grab the coveted statuette. While the remaining six best picture nominees--''Captain Phillips," ''Dallas Buyers Club," ''Gravity," ''Her," ''Nebraska," ''Philomena," ''The Wolf of Wall Street"--are all worthy contenders, "Gravity" should take most of the early technical awards making it a possible best pic choice. But "12 Years" looks to finish the season strong after dominating the drama categories of prior award shows, in contrast to "Hustle," which has ruled in the comedy genres.

Overall, they are Oscars' three dominant films with "Hustle" and "Gravity" receiving 10 nominations apiece, while "12 Years" follows closely with nine.

Matthew McConaughey took home the Golden Globe for best actor for his role as HIV positive patient Ron Woodruff who, in the 1980s-set "Dallas Buyers Club," smuggled unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas in order to alleviate his symptoms and those of his fellow patients. McConaughey's transformative role - both physically and in regards to his career recognition - gives him the edge in Oscar's best actor field ahead of Christian Bale ("American Hustle"), Bruce Dern ("Nebraska"), Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Wolf of Wall Street") and possible surprise upset Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave").

Cate Blanchett's lock on the best actress trophy appears unbreakable. Her turn in Allen's "Blue Jasmine" has swept every prior award show this season. Worthy competition comes in the form of Amy Adams ("American Hustle"), Sandra Bullock "Gravity"), Judi Dench ("Philomena") and Meryl Streep ("August: Osage County"), but Blanchett's searing portrayal of a woman whose privileged, constructed existence suddenly unravels, forcing her to confront the harsh realities of everyday life will be the one to beat.

Like his "Dallas Buyers Club" co-star McConaughey in the best actor race, Jared Leto looks set to take the supporting actor competition. Leto's role as a transgender AIDS patient who teaches Woodruff lessons in life and respect, has made the actor a darling of the awards season, winning the SAG, Golden Globe and numerous critic circle trophies. Barkhad Abdi ("Captain Phillips"), Bradley Cooper ("American Hustle"), Michael Fassbender ("12 Years a Slave") and Jonah Hill ("The Wolf of Wall Street") round out the field.

While Jennifer Lawrence may have gained an early lead in the best supporting actress field for her work in "American Hustle," "12 Years'" Lupita Nyong'o has made a last minute dash thanks to be neck-and-neck with last year's best actress winner for "Silver Linings Playbook." Both adopt a fresh, yet-to-be-jaded approach to the Hollywood machine, both are major red carpet style stars, and both turned in talked-about performances.

Sally Hawkins ("Blue Jasmine''), Julia Roberts ("August: Osage County") and June Squibb ("Nebraska") are also nominated in the supporting actress category.

Unlike Ben Affleck and last year's best picture winner "Argo," every director named to that category saw their respective films make the list of best picture nominees. David O. Russell ("American Hustle"), Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity"), Alexander Payne ("Nebraska"), Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave") and Martin Scorsese ("The Wolf of Wall Street") make up the directorial field.

Presenter on the night include Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Kristen Bell, Jim Carrey, Glenn Close, Penelope Cruz, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Day-Lewis, Viola Davis, Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Sally Field, Jamie Foxx, Andrew Garfield, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Hemsworth, Kate Hudson, Michael B. Jordan, Bill Murray, Kim Novak, Gabourey Sidibe, Channing Tatum, Kerry Washington, Will Smith and Naomi Watts.

Bette Midler, Pink and Pharrell Williams are among the musical acts scheduled to perform.

The 86th Annual Academy Awards air live on Sunday Mar. 2 on ABC.

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