From Argo to Lincoln to Zero Dark Thirty, this year’s best picture race has seen the front-runner baton passed along more times than usual. Whereas The Social Network was generally seen as the frontrunner for Best Picture in 2010 (before running out of steam and passing it along to The King’s Speech) and The Artist maintained its momentum for the duration of the 2011-2012 awards season without losing a beat, this year has been particularly difficult to grasp what film is currently ahead of the pack.
Not knowing what’s ahead makes this one of the more exciting awards seasons to cover, which is partly because of the incredible caliber of films vying for a Best Picture slot. Films like Argo, Lincoln, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, and Silver Linings Playbook being in contention for a nomination is nothing short of incredible – and that shortlist is not including films that I have yet to see, including the aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables, and Amour. But with an awards season that is looking to take shape, the following films look to have built the most momentum into securing a Best Picture nomination and perhaps winning.
Zero Dark Thirty is currently poised as frontrunner following numerous critics circle wins (BostonI National Board of Review I New York Film Critics Circle). This is concurrently enforced by the fact that Kathryn Bigelow has won each circle’s Best Director prize. With the film still awaiting commercial release, the growing buzz and marketing for Zero Dark Thirty is in the advantageous position of simply riding a wave of hype for the ensuing weeks. Unlike its most direct competition, particularly Argo and Lincoln, the picture needs not to do anything other than ride and maintain the buzz surrounding it before its release.
The aforementioned Lincoln and Argo trail in second and third place for contention, respectively. Lincoln’s growing box office intake keeps it relevant, along with the much buzzed performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones. Argo’s positioning has jostled somewhat – a difficult spot given its earlier release date. However, it still remains a critically acclaimed picture, even securing a screenplay award from theLos Angeles Film Critics Association. The fact that it recently crossed the $100 million gross mark didn’t make much news given the unexpected box office legs of Lincoln, but it’s still a remarkable feat regardless.
David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables respectively secure fourth and fifth place for contention. Both films, despite their initial waves of critical adoration, have been compromised a bit by expectations and competition from the aforementioned Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. Despite winning the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (an award that went to prior Best Picture winners such as The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire), The Weinstein Company’s distribution of Silver Linings Playbook has led to a somewhat disappointing box office intake. While by no means a failure (in limited release, the picture has passed the $10 million mark), rosy expectations for the crowd-pleasing film haven’t quite been reached. Elsewhere, Les Misérables is faced with the initial reception of being a frontrunner, only to see critics allocate support to Zero Dark Thirty. Even the presumed lock in the Supporting Actress category (Anne Hathaway) is being rivaled by Sally Field in Lincoln and Amy Adams in The Master. With no Best Picture or Best Director citations yet in the early stages of the critics’ awards, along with a dismissive reviews coming in, the once grand adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel is looking less and less like a juggernaut in the category.
Michael Haneke’s Amour looks to be the director’s first foray in the Best Picture race, as his film took top honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and won several awards at the European Film Awards. To believe that Haneke, a director dealing in notorious difficult subject matter, may have crafted a film that can be embraced by Academy members is something of a delight – I currently have Amour positioned at sixth.
Expectations going into the critics’ awards were that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild would be receiving universal praise and recognition. Currently pegged at seventh and eighth respectively, the films haven’t quite achieved that universal praise – perhaps as a consequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s reportedly dense work in Zero Dark Thirty. As critics go in force supporting her film, citations for both The Master and Beasts of the Southern Wild have been somewhat scarce – Los Angeles came through big for both films though, bolstering their stock early on in the precursors. And with The Master topping Sight and Sound’spoll of the best films of 2012 (Beasts of the Southern Wild placed at five), Paul Thomas Anderson’s film may just secure enough votes from the same sort of voters behind getting Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life nominated last year.
Most pundits position Ang Lee’s Life of Pi a bit higher, but currently it’s in a precarious position – I currently have it at ninth. Its box-office intake has been modest. Critical response has been cool. And with virtually no citations from critics’ circles yet, it’s hardly looking like the sort of passionate play that many thought it would be. In a similar position is Robert Zemeckis’ Flight. My initial take on the film would be that Denzel Washington would make a strong Best Actor play and therein elevate Flight to a Best Picture slot. The idea of a Best Picture nominee only resonating in one other category isn’t particularly unique, as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close secured a Best Picture nomination with only Max von Sydow in play in Best Supporting Actor. Other examples include Best Picture nominee The Blind Side coupled with Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress play and A Serious Man with The Coen Brothers’ securing a Best Original Screenplay nomination. But provided that Denzel Washington has not quite resonated enough to pull a critics’ citation (beyond a notice by the Washington DC Area Film Critics) and Flight has yet to appear on Top Ten list, it’s barely clinging onto the tenth spot.
And what could potentially crack into the field? If the number of nominees is at ten, I can imagine Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom getting in. Numerous second-place notices by the Boston Society of Film Critics, coupled with a dominate showing at Gotham Awards and numerous Independent Spirit Award nominations keep the small film in play. Part of the problem rests in knowing where distributor Focus Features will be placing their funds - with Anna Karenina and Promised Land all failing to catch on critically, Moonrise Kingdom could make a substantial play if afforded the campaign.
On the other side of the spectrum is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. With the Weinstein Company having a difficult time focusing their campaigns behind Silver Linings Playbook and The Master, one has to wonder if their aspirations for Tarantino’s film extend beyond commercial. The film, being released on Christmas Day, looks to be something more substantial, but if it’s anything like Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds, it might take a bit of finesse to get people behind it as a Best Picture nominee.
Other films, ranging from the small (such as Ben Lewin’s The Sessions) to the robust (Sam Mendes’ Skyfall) are in play to a degree. But the aforementioned films are without a doubt the leading contenders.