It was impossible to imagine that a movie year as superb as 2013 would turn into such an unholy mess of an Oscar race. But so it has. And maybe, in retrospect, that’s a competitive inevitability for such a strong movie year.

But all that wretchedness in the nomination process and ugliness afterward may yet result in a moment as dramatic as most of us have seen in recent Academy Awards.

The show begins at 7 p.m. tonight on Channel 7 with the red carpet fashion inanities at 5:30 p.m. on the E! Network.

When the Best Actress Oscar is given out near evening’s end, it is actually remotely possible that the most extraordinary performance, by far, of the movie year – Cate Blanchett’s in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” – could go unrecognized. The reason is the renewal of Dylan Farrow’s charges of vile sexual assault against Allen when she was a child in an open letter reprinted in the New York Times courtesy of Farrow family friend Nicholas Kristof. What Farrow said in that letter was a kind of moral extortion of the entire American film-making community: honoring Allen and his employees is tantamount to disbelieving her and, in effect, abusing her again in a different way.

In a case where there is, at the moment, no clear way to assay the truth of what happened, it almost seemed a kind of direct assault on the professional majesty of a great actress who doesn’t deserve it – one who until the roiling of some very black and treacherous waters was considered a shoo-in.

But then the superabundance of fine movies in this movie year resulted in a wretched bunch of nominations right from the beginning. Tough competition has left a very ugly wake indeed. Left out of the Best Picture nominations entirely were two of the year’s greatest movies by far – J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost” and the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” – as well as a small independent movie no one would have questioned in the top 10, “The Fruitvale Station.”

Left off the Best Actor final five were – astonishingly – Tom Hanks, whose final minutes in “Captain Phillips” were as arresting, in their way, as Blanchett’s entire performance, and Robert Redford in “All is Lost.” Add to them among the unloved were Oscar Isaac for his sublimely subtle performance as folk singer Llewyn Davis and Joaquin Phoenix as the lovesick computer owner in “Her.”

Because the foreign film Oscar nomination process continues to be methodological horror – countries nominate candidates, not a blue ribbon panel of film judges and critics – France was allowed to steer as clear as possible away from the two-and-a-half hour “lesbian sex movie” called “Blue Is the Warmest Color” despite the fact that it is, by far, the most moving film about young love, sexual awakening and the onset of emotional maturity that we’ve seen in many years (In that way, in fact, it was the sensitive early life equivalent of Michael Haneke’s devastating end-of-life Oscar winner “Amour” last year.)

Here, then, is one man’s 41st annual Oscar tip sheet. This one will be worth staying through to the end even if it’s a bitter end indeed (which is sadly possible.) Not only is Ellen DeGeneres likely to be a terrific host, but the top three awards – especially Best Actress – are fraught with drama.

Best Picture

The nominees are: “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

How could they have shoehorned in “All is Lost” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”? Easy, by my lights. “Dallas Buyer’s Club” is a performer’s movie, not an all-around triumph. “Philomena” was an audience favorite, particularly with women, but most of that audience’s love is, similarly, for its star Judi Dench. Its loss from a field of 10 wouldn’t have been tragic. Nor, frankly, would the elimination of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Scorsese be damned. It’s another film in which almost all of what makes it any good at all is the result of its lead performance, in this case by Leonardo DiCaprio.

As it is, it’s one of the tightest races in years to call. And frankly, I’m a happy camper, no matter how it’s likely to turn out, with one exception: I’d like to see David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” win for its aphoristic script, terrific performances and also its least discussed feature, which is its essential plot question: Who watches the watchers? In a society that admires righteous investigation so much, what happens when the investigators themselves are more corrupt and inhuman than the reprobates being investigated?

If, on the other hand, “12 Years a Slave” wins, I’ll be thrilled that after so much atrocious American cinema about race – even in such cinematic landmarks as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” – Oscar reparations to Black America have finally been made.

On the other hand, a best picture Oscar to “Gravity” would be the most gutless and mediocre compromise Oscar since “The Sting” won in 1973. The first half hour of “Gravity” is mind-bending, groundbreaking American cinema. After that the movie gets progressively smaller – an interesting cinematic structure but not a whole film worthy of a best picture Oscar.

My choice: “American Hustle.”

The likely Oscar: “12 Years a Slave.”

The Travesty Oscar: “Gravity.”

Best Actor

The nominees: Christian Bale for “American Hustle,” Bruce Dern for “Nebraska,” Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Chiwitel Ejiofor for “12 Years a Slave,” and Matthew McConaughey for “Dallas Buyer’s Club.”

“All is Lost” had one of the worst marketing campaigns of modern times. Assume that it hadn’t, though. How would you get Redford on THAT list of five? And Tom Hanks for “Captain Phillips”? Not easy but possible, I say. Just the sight of Bruce Dern again was wonderful, but his “old coot” performance isn’t that unusual. And if you remember that Christian Bale has already won an Oscar, you could have made room for both Redford and Hanks.

The likely winner will be McConaughey, who not only has won so much already but has been receiving the best possible advance publicity weekly for his magnificent weekly performance in HBO’s “True Detective.”

My choice: The un-nominated Tom Hanks or perhaps the nominated Ejiofor.

The Likely Oscar: To McConaughey, as an AIDS victim. Who, in Hollywood, doesn’t know someone who died of AIDS?

The Travesty: None. Dern doesn’t have a chance to win.

Best Actress

The nominees: Amy Adams for “American Hustle,” Cate Blanchett for “Blue Jasmine,” Sandra Bullock for “Gravity,” Judi Dench for “Philomena,” and Meryl Streep for “August: Osage County.”

The most dramatic award in years. All the ugliness dredged up to mitigate Blanchett’s classic performance probably won’t affect the Academy’s intuition that if past life wretchedness held final sway, at least half the Oscars ever awarded (not to mention Nobel Prizes) would probably have to be given back. Great artists are not, ipso facto, great people.

Blanchett, though, is probably both. Certainly, hers was THE great performance of 2013. The best guess is that she will pay brief but eloquent and graceful tribute to Woody Allen’s writing skill and leave it at that.

My choice and the likely Oscar: Blanchett.

The Travesty Oscar: Anyone else. All over America many things will be hurled at TV screens if it happens.

Best Director

Nominations: Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave,” David O. Russell for “American Hustle,” Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity,” Alexander Payne, “Nebraska,” and Martin Scorsese for “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

The award season champ thus far has been a perfect compromise – an Oscar for Cuaron for those astounding opening 30 minutes of “Gravity.” It’s a good way to give the movie something without being pusillanimous and ridiculous.

My choice: Russell for “American Hustle.”

The Likely Oscar: Cuaron.

The Travesty: Payne or Scorsese.

Best Supporting Actress

The nominees: Sally Hawkins for “Blue Jasmine,” Jennifer Lawrence for “American Hustle,” Lupita Nyong’o for “12 Years a Slave,” Julia Roberts for “August: Osage County,” and June Squibb for “Nebraska.”

My choice: Roberts. Yes, Roberts. She was, by far, the best thing in that movie. It’s nice of her to make a movie every now and then to remind us how good an actress she is.

The likely Oscar: To Nyong’o, a fine choice nevertheless and everyone’s favorite this award season for both good and bad reasons. She is, nevertheless, superb in the film and very promising for the future.

The Travesty Oscar: Squibb.

Best Supporting Actor

The nominees: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips,” Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle,” Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave,” Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyer’s Club.”

My choice: Cooper. Both he and Fassbender were terrific in their films, something not all that recognized in the hype.

The likely Oscar: Jared Leto for “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” a good and deserving prize nevertheless. The self-evident commitment of the film’s major actors was singular.

The Travesty: Hill. It would prove that money can buy anything.

Original screenplay

The Nominees: “American Hustle,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “Her” and “Nebraska.”

“Her” is so imaginative that it has done well in award season from people who desperately wanted to give the film something. This will be it. I’d give it to “American Hustle.” Thank heaven, Woody Allen was never really a contender for this, as good as “Blue Jasmine” is. That’s one awkwardness averted tonight.

Adapted screenplay

“12 Years a Slave,” “Before Midnight,” “Captain Phillips,” “Philomena,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

John Ridley for “12 Years a Slave” will be a popular prize. It’s not impossible that a late surge could sneak in Billy Ray for the under-nominated “Captain Phillips.” Not likely though.

Film editing

Expect most of the technical and artisanship awards to go to “Gravity” including this one, as well as Emmanuel Lubezki for cinematography. I’d have been happy to split the cinematography prize between three of its nominees, Lubezki, Phedon Papamichael for “Nebraska,” and Bruno Delbonel for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Truly great work was done by cinematographers this year.

Production design

“The Great Gatsby” was a production designer’s orgy, enough to make pros, for a second, forget “12 Years a Slave,” and “Her.” Among those three, though there would be no bad winner.

Visual effects

Surely you jest. No one else has a chance over “Gravity,” which will win the Sound editing awards too.

Original score

A surprisingly weak field. “Gravity” won’t make anyone mad. If, on the other hand, Alexandre Desplat wins for “Philomena,” it will remind a lot of people that his score for “The Monuments Men” was the worst many of us have heard in many years.

Best foreign film

My choice: The un-nominated “Blue is the Warmest Color” or the equally un-nominated “The Past.”

The Oscar in this field: Probably “The Great Beauty” from Italy.

Feature length documentary

It’s between “The Art of Killing” and “20 Feet from Stardom.” How can they resist “20 Feet from Stardom”? If ever an Oscar show needed a feel-good award, this one is it.

Original song

The smart money seems to be on the song from “Frozen.” But it seems to me that the combination of U2 and Nelson Mandela on “Ordinary Love” should be more than enough to whip anything that Disney Studios whipped up for “Frozen,” even with its avalanche of box office.


An Oscar show as dramatic as the films