Oscars Lowdown 2014: Best Picture – Is it really a two-horse race or will something shock the world?

In the lead-up to the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, HitFix will be bringing you the lowdown on all 24 Oscar categories with multiple entries each day. Take a few notes and bone up on the competition as we give you the edge in your office Oscar pool!

It all comes down to this. A Best Picture race at the tale end of a season that brought with it an intense competition boiled down from one of the best film years in recent memory. Predictions are mostly scattered between two films on the list, but really, a number of the nominees would make for handsome winners and in the end, the journey has really been the reward. Whoever takes the stage Sunday night, it's just epilogue, really. Not that that will stop people, on whatever side of the line they may fall, from getting bent out of shape about it. It's the Oscars! Misplaced passion is sort of a must. I, for one, will be excited to see whomever it may be win the industry's top honor, because this has been one for the ages.

The nominees are…

“American Hustle” (Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison and Jonathan Gordon, Producers)
The fact is, “American Hustle” could be a huge shocker at the end of the show Sunday. Yes, it looked pretty formidable when it lapped up a SAG win some time ago, but all the fire went away as two other films dominated the precursor circuit. That doesn't mean the simmering passion wasn't still there, and simmering passion can be a beast with a preferential ballot. The film has surely picked up plenty of #2 votes along the way and is really well-liked picture. That kind of broad acceptance is what this balloting system is all about, so watch out. (Check out our interview with Roven and Suckle here.)

“Captain Phillips” (Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers)
When the nominations were revealed, it seemed Paul Greengrass' “Captain Phillips” showed some weakness. Tom Hanks wasn't able to crack an admittedly stacked Best Actor field and Greengrass was left on the sidelines in Best Director. But then the circuit kept its course and the film landed big wins from the WGA and ACE. It's a hugely respected piece of work that will get its share of votes, no question. But as these things go this year, it feels like it's on the second rung of power plays.

“Dallas Buyers Club” (Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers)
If “Captain Phillips” showed unexpected weakness when the nominations were announced, “Dallas Buyers Club” showed unexpected strength. A makeup nomination is one thing (it was in the mix, obviously, given the bake-off list), but picking up a film editing nod was something no one saw coming. As a result, it has six nominations total and looks to win half of them. Best Picture is obviously a pipe dream, but the film is very fine send-off for Focus Features as we've known it, fully in that prestige factory's wheelhouse. Seriously, congrats to all involved. (Check out our interview with Brenner and Winter here.)

“Gravity” (Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers)
We at HitFix are placing our bet on Alfonso Cuarón's landmark emotional study “Gravity” for the Academy's top honor, largely because we haven't picked anything else all season, but also because the logic is there to back it up. It tied for the PGA, won the DGA, is clearly a bellow-the-line beast with lots of support there and, like “American Hustle,” will probably get lots of top-of-ballot support to help it through any additional rounds in balloting. If it happens, fantastic. If it doesn't, we won't cry. No one will ever forget it, no matter how much those with a weird bone to pick with it would wish otherwise. (Check out our interview with Cuarón here and with Heyman here.)

“Her” (Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers)
Spike Jonze's “Her” was obviously a huge critical success, winning prize after prize (well, those not gobbled up by “12 Years a Slave”) throughout the precursor circuit and serving as a rallying cause in the Oscar race. It made it to the Best Picture ranks, making Megan Ellison a double-dipping nominee this year (and Jonze a triple-dipper with original screenplay and song notices). But while it obviously has plenty of passion (which got it here), it seems like it could be the film with the least amount of #1 votes when the first round of voting is finished. So it's obviously not going to win, but the question is, what film(s) will be at #2 on all those ballot? Hmmm…

“Nebraska” (Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers)
“Nebraska” is a film very well-liked by the Academy, so don't sleep on its chances elsewhere. It was a “little engine that could” all year long, beginning its long journey at the Cannes Film Festival in May and keeping the pump primed through Telluride and New York before a mid-November release that drew raves. It landed six nominations and will certainly get some votes here, but a Best Picture win obviously feels like a tall order. Maybe it'll have better luck at the Independent Spirit Awards, but again, don't sleep on it in other categories. It could be a real shocker in Best Supporting Actress or Best Original Screenplay.

“Philomena” (Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers)
The film few predicted for a Best Picture nomination, even though we were all aware it had a passionate fan base, was Stephen Frears' “Philomena.” The film slid on through in the final analysis, and by some logic, may even have been one of five nominees under the former paradigm. It will get votes, probably quite a few, but the Oscar is out of its grasp here. Moreover, the film kept Harvey Weinstein from sitting out the Best Picture race for the first time in seven years.

“12 Years a Slave” (Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, Producers)
The question is in the air: can “12 Years a Slave” pull it off? To be honest, there have been a couple of steps along the way where the Oscar commentariat didn't expect it to pull through. The Golden Globe win was one. The BAFTA prize was another (though we saw that coming around these parts). But both of those wins felt curiously like afterthoughts, no? At the end of long nights that didn't bring too many other wins, if, in some cases, ANY. That could easily be the way things go down on Sunday, too, but come what may, the film doesn't need an Oscar to stand out for what it is: an engrossing achievement from one of the finest filmmakers working today. (Check out our interview with McQueen here.)

“The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland and Emma Tillinger, Producers)
Like “American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” hit the ground running at the last possible moment and that paid dividends. The film weathered the storm of accusation as some decided to take it to task for reveling in the debauchery it presented, but we all know that wasn't the case. The filmmakers defended it appropriately and moved forth, but it stands as a powerful document of our time regardless. It's also a love it or hate it kind of thing, meaning it's dead in the water with a preferential ballot. But getting here was the prize, really, making Paramount Pictures a double dipper with major studios like Warner Bros. and Sony this season. (Check out our interview with DiCaprio here and Scorsese here.)

Will win: “Gravity”
Could win: “12 Years a Slave”
Should win: “Gravity”
Should have been here: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

It's a real bummer that a jewel like the Coens' “Inside Llewyn Davis” got the Academy shaft this year, but c'est la vie. If that couldn't cut it, surely such brilliant efforts otherwise as “Mud” and “All is Lost,” etc., had no chance. At the end of the night, we're banking on “Gravity,” but that brings with it no confidence, mind. This will, refreshingly, be a bit of a nail-biter until the final envelope is opened.

What do you think deserves to win Best Picture this year? Vote in our poll below.

What should have been here instead? Have your say in the comments section.