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.
The Nominees: "American Hustle," ''Captain Phillips," ''Dallas Buyers Club," ''Gravity," ''Her," ''Nebraska," ''Philomena," ''12 Years a Slave," ''The Wolf of Wall Street."
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."
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.
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."
Will Win: McConaughey. He ditched vanity and became the favorite. But DiCaprio may just pull through with the win here. The academy loves to crown excess, even if an actor's previous roles dug deeper. (We all remember Denzel's win for "Training Day" - and his snubs for "Malcolm X" and "Philadelphia.")
Should Win: DiCaprio may not have abandoned his good looks for this role, but he was aggressive, hilarious and the hedonism made him repulsive.
Should Have Been a Contender: Joaquin Phoenix, "Her." Carrying most of his scenes solo, since Scarlett Johansson didn't clock any physical screen time, he was the heart and soul of Spike Jonze's gentle romance.
Will Win: McConaughey. Hollywood loves a good comeback story.
Should Win: Ejiofor. "12 Years a Slave" finds its strength in his deep eyes and commanding dignity.
Should Have Been a Contender: Many were left out here, most incredibly Tom Hanks for "Captain Phillips." But Mads Mikkelsen's performance as a kindergarten teacher unjustly accused of molesting a friend's child in "The Hunt" was a haunting portrait of a small-town pariah.
The Nominees: Amy Adams, "American Hustle"; Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine"; Sandra Bullock, "Gravity"; Judi Dench, "Philomena"; Meryl Streep, "August: Osage County."
Will Win: Blanchett's modern-day Blanche DuBois is likely a shoo-in, so long as voters haven't turned against Woody Allen.
Should Win: Blanchett's performance is the most complex here, playing a bitterly unlikable socialite both before and after her life falls apart.
Should Have Been a Contender: The most naked (emotionally, though physically, too) performance of the year was Adele Exarchopoulos in the French drama "Blue Is the Warmest Color." But what about Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat"? Is anyone funnier right now?
Will Win: Blanchett, as an unraveling upper class dame, was so pure and direct that her neurosis seemed instinctive.
Should Win: Blanchett for her layered dethroned lady.
Should Have Been a Contender: Julie Delpy. In "Before Midnight" she was the French everywoman: Nurturing, sensual, feisty and vulnerable. Plus, she had a saucy way with words while arguing topless.
The Nominees: Barkhad Abdi, "Captain Phillips"; Bradley Cooper, "American Hustle"; Michael Fassbender, "12 Years a Slave"; Jonah Hill, "The Wolf of Wall Street"; Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club."
Will Win: Leto is exceptional and unforgettable as transgender Rayon.
Should Win: Returning to acting after a six-year hiatus, Leto left nothing behind when portraying a prostitute dying of AIDS. He's both bold and defenseless.
Should Have Been a Contender: Will Forte in "Nebraska." He plays a sweet and caring son, but those impromptu comedic chops (thanks, "Saturday Night Live"), which are punctuated by his dry delivery, are as solid as ever.
Will Win: Leto is the surest bet of the evening.
Should Win: Fassbender. He deserved nominations for Steve McQueen's first two films ("Hunger," ''Shame"), so his larger body of work deserves honoring. Plus, how many rising-star heartthrobs would opt to play such an ugly plantation owner without letting on (like DiCaprio in "Django Unchained") that it's just an act?
Should Have Been a Contender: James Franco, for his jaw-dropping, hysterical extremes in "Spring Breakers." Alternatively, an opportunity was missed to honor the late James Gandolfini, so gentle (and more like himself) in "Enough Said."
The Nominees: Sally Hawkins, "Blue Jasmine"; Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle"; Lupita Nyong'o, "12 Years a Slave"; Julia Roberts, "August: Osage County"; June Squibb, "Nebraska."
Will Win: Lawrence. This could very well go to the awards season breakout star Nyong'o, but few don't love JLaw, who would accomplish the rare feat of back-to-back years of Oscar wins.
Should Win: Squibb. "Nebraska" needs her bite.
Should Have Been a Contender: Carey Mulligan, for her foul-mouthed fury in "Inside Llewyn Davis."
Will Win: Newcomer Nyong'o's performance of tortured field slave Patsey was heartbreaking and haunting.
Should Win: Nyong'o. She is dauntless. Though both Squibb and Lawrence were irresistibly charismatic.
Should Have Been a Contender: Lea Seydoux for her passionate portrayal of a raw and tender lesbian in "Blue is the Warmest Color." Also, few actresses could play a figure as loathsome, yet unequivocally cardinal as Sarah Paulson in "12 Years a Slave."