- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A seemingly endless movie awards season finally concludes Sunday with the Academy Awards. By now, many of the front-runners have established themselves, but the night’s big honor - best picture - remains a dramatic question mark.

Associated Press film writer Jake Coyle and Jessica Herndon both see “12 Years a Slave” eking out the win. But they have plenty to say about not only who will win, but who should win and who should have been a contender.

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The Nominees: “American Hustle,” ”Captain Phillips,” ”Dallas Buyers Club,” ”Gravity,” ”Her,” ”Nebraska,” ”Philomena,” ”12 Years a Slave,” ”The Wolf of Wall Street.”

COYLE

Will Win: “American Hustle” feels too light - actors in wigs having a ball. And “Gravity,” for all its galactic splendor, lacks the force of a solid story. So it must be “12 Years a Slave,” the candidate with the heft of history. But make no mistake: There’s no certainty in this close contest.

Should Win: “12 Years a Slave.” It’s an unforgettable odyssey, a reckoning of past movie portrayals of slavery and a uniquely unflinching tale of perseverance.

Should Have Been a Contender: Few movies capture boyhood like Jeff Nichols’ soulful Mississippi River coming-of-age tale “Mud.”

HERNDON

Will Win: Since “Gravity” stood out as an innovative prodigy advancing visual and 3-D possibilities, it’ll clean up in the tech categories and will be crowned the night’s big victor.

Should Win: “12 Years a Slave.” With its disturbing subject matter and factual significance, it’s the year’s most epic and vital narrative.

Should Have Been a Contender: “Before Midnight.” A deliciously candid look at the dark and deeply romantic evolution of love.

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The Nominees: Christian Bale, “American Hustle”; Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”; Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club.”

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