'Hustle,' 'Slave' distancing from the Oscar pack

More than a month remains until the Academy Awards, but it looks as though Oscar will fete either a drama about American brutality or a comedy about American greed.

Over a critical four-day span last week, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle emerged as the frontrunners for the best-picture Oscar to be handed out March 2.

Hustle, the story of con artists and crooked politicians, picked up honors as best ensemble film at the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Saturday. The win followed its 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture, on Thursday, tying Gravity for the most nods.

Slave, the true story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, continues to counter with its own wins. It earned nine Oscar nominations, won theGolden Globe for best drama and took an acting win from the SAGs, turning the best picture and supporting actress races into possible nail-biters.

Both films were expected to do well at Sunday night's Producers Guild of America Awards in Beverly Hills. Barring upsets there, these nominees appear to have the early upper hand in the six major Oscar categories:

Best picture

This looks to be one of the tightest races since 2005's Crash edged out Brokeback Mountain. While academy analysts considered this largely a three-film race betweenHustle, Slave and Gravity, the outer space saga has been bumped from the conversation as Hustle and Slave break from the pack in what forecasters call a coin-flip call.

Best actor

With his win and eloquent acceptance speech at the SAGs, Matthew McConaughey is the one to beat for his turn as an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club. Chiwetel Ejioforis a close second.

Best actress

If there's anyone who can beat Cate Blanchett from Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, she hasn't yet appeared. Blanchett has collected about every piece of hardware this season, including the SAGs. The entire field is a distant second.

Best supporting actor

Like Blanchett, Jared Leto from Dallas Buyers Club is a prohibitive favorite. He, too, has had to revise his acceptance speeches this season so as not to sound repetitive. He'll need to have a fresh one March 2 because he's lapping the field.

Best supporting actress

This race is emblematic of the neck-and-neck sprint between Slave and Hustle. Lupita Nyong'o won the SAG for Slave, as well as best supporting actress from Thursday'sCritics' Choice Awards, a solid Oscar bellwether. Hustle's Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, took the Globe. Nyong'o has the slight edge, say forecasters.

Best director

While Gravity is coming to earth in the best-picture race, nothing is weighing downAlfonso Cuaron, who is earning plaudits for his technical mastery. Slave directorSteve McQueen and Hustle director David O. Russell are within striking distance, oddsmakers say, though Cuaron will have it wrapped up if he takes the Director Guild Award on Saturday.


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