I was looking back at the Best Picture nominees from last year and I was reminded how lousy a year 2011 was for movies. Thankfully, 2012 was much, much better, to the point that it looks positively transcendent when compared with 2011 (and a fairly mediocre 2010, just to pile on).
The field is so strong, in fact, that most of last year’s nominees, including Best Picture winner “The Artist,” would be hard-pressed to even enjoy the honor of being nominated this year.
So how will Oscar night shake out this year? Once again, there’s not a lot of drama in the acting categories aside from Best Supporting Actor, which seems fairly wide open. Not to disappoint you sound editor enthusiasts out there, but let’s just focus on the meat of this thing and try our lot at handicapping the Best Picture field.
Too artsy to win: “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Both of these movies are smaller, bolder films that are the least accessible entries on this list. Their chances aren’t good. The former, a heart-breaking look at the relationship between two elderly Parisians, is too French. The latter, a young girl’s fanciful trials and tribulations in a backwater Louisiana community, feels a little too much like an ambitious film school project.
Both movies boast entries into the Best Actress category with 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva nominated for “Amour” and 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis nominated for “Beasts.” That gives the category a historic 76-year age range. Unfortunately, their chances are about as good as their respective movies’.
Outside looking in: “Les Miserables,” “Life of Pi”
These are two very solid movies that just don’t have a ton of support in the Academy. Musicals are a pretty tough sell these days and even though “Les Miserables” is sprawling, epic, and star-studded, French revolutionaries bursting into song are just too much for some people. Anne Hathaway is the favorite to snag the Best Supporting Actress Award for her brief, but power-packed performance, so all you drama club kids will have to be happy with that.
There’s no dispute that “Life of Pi” is the most visually stunning movie of the year, but the strangely beautiful spiritual journey of an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger adrift at sea on a lifeboat just isn’t feeling the Oscar love. Aside from some technical awards, this movie will just have to be happy with the nomination.
Too awesome to win: “Django Unchained”
In my humble estimation, this was the best movie of the year, but Quentin Tarantino’s stylized revenge flick set in the Antebellum South is way too violent and way too controversial to have much of a chance.
There is a shot that Tarantino might snag a screenwriting award or Christoph Waltz might get the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as a silver-tongued bounty hunter, but neither of those is a lock. “Django” may strike out on Oscar night, but of all the movies in contention, this is likely the one people will still be talking about in 10 years.
In the hunt: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Silver Linings Playbook”
“Zero Dark Thirty” was an early favorite as this warts-and-all retelling of the search for Osama bin Laden topped a lot of critics’ lists. It has since fallen back to the pack thanks to some controversy over the CIA’s use of torture and the Academy’s aversion to any kind of bad press. It’s still a heck of a movie and has a solid shot, although its best chance for an award might be for Jessica Chastain in the Best Actress category.
Chastain’s main competition just so happens to be Jennifer Lawrence, star of “Silver Linings Playbook.” This movie probably shouldn’t have as strong a chance as it does considering it is basically a romantic comedy on steroids. It does feature an outstanding cast, but what helps its odds considerably is the support of mega-producer Harvey Weinstein, who is more than willing to litter Hollywood with broken kneecaps to snag the big prize.
The favorites: “Argo,” “Lincoln”
When the nominations came out, “Argo” was almost immediately written off because its director Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated for Best Director, which nine times out of 10 spells doom for a movie’s Best Picture chances. Since then “Argo” has plugged away, snagging the top prize in enough preliminary awards shows to make it a credible contender.
Even still, it’s awfully hard to bet against “Lincoln.” It features a performance for the ages by Best-Actor-lock Daniel Day-Lewis, a glossy old-school veneer of gravitas and sentimentality applied by director Steven Spielberg, and it employed virtually every living character actor of note. That’s what is known as a juggernaut in Hollywood terms. If it had come out just one or two years earlier, “Lincoln” would be such a lock it wouldn’t even be funny, but this year the competition is stiff. Even though Spielberg may not like it, a battle royale between a bunch of great movies is a problem the Oscars wishes it had every year.