With all due respect to ‘The Fifth Estate,’ the only real Oscar contender to open in theaters last weekend (in limited release) was Steve McQueen’s uncompromising, emotional '12 Years a Slave.’ Now that audiences are starting to gain access to this visceral commentary on American slavery, you can begin to understand why it is carving out a place on the top of several of our charts.

Over the past few weeks, though, more contenders have reached theaters, from ‘Captain Phillips’ to ‘Gravity’ and ‘All Is Lost.’ Have the charts changed? Are the shifts drastic? Let’s catch up on the latest frontrunners in our major Oscar categories.

  • 1

    Lupita Nyong'o, '12 Years a Slave'

    Last Week: 2

    Sometimes one scene is powerful enough to push a performer into the race. When you see Lupita Nyong’o’s devastating scene in McQueen’s ’12 Years,’ you’ll understand why she emerged from the Telluride/Venice/Toronto sprint with Oscar heat. Granted, her textured performance can’t be boiled down to one scene. Her character, Patsey, is a favored slave of Satanic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) … but that doesn’t mean her journey is soft. We’ll be talking about ‘Slave’ all Oscar season, and Nyong’o certainly will be at the heart of most discussions.

    Fox Searchlight
  • 2

    Oprah Winfrey, 'The Butler'

    Last Week: 1

    Part of me thinks Oprah Winfrey can get nominated for ‘The Butler’ simply because she’s Oprah. Her popularity can boost the ratings of a struggling television broadcast (and don’t think decisions like that don’t play into the nomination process). But then I saw ‘The Butler’ and realized Winfrey’s quite good as Gloria Gaines, wife to the title character who provides a support system – and a motivator – at home, away from the White House. Winfrey earns a spot at this table. Now we’ll just see who the Academy puts around her.

    The Weinstein Company
  • 3

    Julia Roberts, 'August: Osage County'

    Last Week: 3

    “Eat the fish, bitch!” John Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play has split critics. On one side of the debate, those who are intimately familiar with the original play feel the movie pulled punches in spots. The other camp (of which I am a member) appreciates the dark, soul-baring places ‘August’ ventured. There’s very little debate, though, about the merits of the cast, particularly Roberts and her co-star, Meryl Streep. Several ‘August’ cast members could find their way into the Oscar conversation if the film catches on. Keep your eyes on Julianne Nicholson and Chris Cooper in subsequent races. For now, though, I’m putting my eggs in Roberts and Streep’s baskets.

    The Weinstein Company
  • 4

    Octavia Spencer, ‘Fruitvale Station’

    Last Week: 4

    I was moved by Michael B. Jordan’s performance in Ryan Coogler’s ‘Fruitvale Station.’ It’s a tragic turn, playing a man doomed by fate. But I was blown away by Octavia Spencer’s raw power. Playing Jordan’s mother, she only gets a handful of scenes to convey a series of important emotions – disappointment at her son’s wayward decisions; hope that he’s back on the right track; quiet devastation when she loses him – and she nails each one. If ‘Fruitvale’ builds into a powerful Oscar contender, similar to last year’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ then Spencer can (and should) contend in the Supporting Actress category.

    The Weinstein Company
  • 5

    June Squibb, ‘Nebraska’

    Last Week: --

    Alexander Payne’s black-and-white road-trip drama is working the film festival circuit, so the passionate buzz on Squibb is quietly growing. Payne regularly writes Oscar-worthy parts for his actors, and the chemistry between Squibb and Bruce Dern – as a seasoned husband-and-wife pair – reportedly is electric enough to catapult each into their respective Oscar races. I see ‘Nebraska’ next week, and will have more on Squibb then, but her name is on the lips of every Oscar pundit at the moment.