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The State of the Race: Defining an Oscar Frontrunner

“I call to you, I call to you but I don’t call soft enough. There ain’t no cure for love.” – L. Cohen

The Oscar race, like an urgent search for “true love,” is rarely about finding Ms. Right, so much as it is about finding Ms. Right Now. Sometimes you get lucky and the voters lock onto something so deserving that its rightness reverberates through the hall of fame echo chamber for years to come. But more often, a well-positioned nowness is what propels a contender forward in the Oscar race. The breathtaking feat of seeing performers rise to great heights of popularity, beloved for one golden moment — achieving their place in the sun, their unequivocal fireworks burst of confirmed success.

We spend so much time looking for treasures with lasting value that we sometimes fail to appreciate the fleeting passion of the moment. When we make choices frozen in time, our immediate passions exposed for all to see, we reveal ourselves most truthfully. A passionate vote is an honest one. While it can’t be relied upon to define enduring greatness, our impulse decisions can tell us an awful lot about who we are — and when future observers look back on us years from now, it will show them who we were.

Recently on Twitter, Anne Thompson lamented the extraordinary pressure films and actors come under during the heat of the season. We can kid ourselves thinking it is just Oscar season, but the truth is, the Oscar race has swollen to such an enormous size it encompasses nearly every film that isn’t written off throughout the year. Genre films can be readily enjoyed, for the most part, without strict assessment of their artistic flair or flaws. The worse their reviews, the easier it is to separate them from the albatross of “best picture of the year.” Otherwise, we want our tastes validated by “them.” Those 6,000 or so Academy members who vote every year and seek to decide collectively, for all of us, what defines the year’s best in film.

We have alternatives to our Oscar obsession. We can blot them out, as Jim Rocchi attempts to do every year, protesting the very nature of caring about “them.” Film critics want to be above it. And for the most part they can sort of manage that. Until the end of the year comes and it’s time to start defining best. Do we ever settle for the verdict of one critics group to tell us what is best? No, we want the last big prize to decide definitively what will go down in film history as Oscar’s choice for best.

The Oscar frontrunners are those that have captured our hearts for the moment. We are blinded by love at first sight, unable to see flaws, unwilling to look at anyone else. We feel flushed at the mere thought of our favorites and, try as me might, we can’t betray our hearts. An Oscar win is rarely something carefully considered in advance. The critics groups may see themselves above it all, as they draw up decisive lists and sit around in heated discussions about what to call best>. But even these group primarily operate in service of one organ. It’s just that some of us are attracted by overt expression of emotion, some of us are attracted by cinematic genius. But it is still our heart that does the deciding. We are raised to trust our hearts and so we do.

Best Picture

The frontrunner mantle has clearly shifted now from Argo to Lincoln. It is a dangerous proposition to put a difficult film like Lincoln in that position but only someone who knows nothing about the Oscars — or those deliberately blinkered from reality — would fail to see the buzz for Lincoln building in momentum. Argo may still be the more well-liked movie across the board, but Lincoln has a few things going for it no other film can offer, at least, none that we’ve seen thus far. No doubt there will be many who dub the film boring. Many have. But the first-class filmmakers who vote for the Oscars aren’t usually the type who use the word “boring” in conversations. The reason being, thinking people have been ever so slowly squeezed out of mainstream film. They have been forced to take refuge at home on PBS, reaching for their Kindle for brain food. Not only have they just been given a film that doesn’t insult their intelligence, it is such a densely written screenplay there is much to chew on and ponder for days and weeks afterward. Although there will be a fidgety segment of the audience who kick the backs of chairs and twiddle their thumbs refusing to engage in what they see as a history lesson, many more of us welcome the history lesson and gratefully indulge in these shimmering gifts Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, Doris Kearns Goodwin and their stellar cast have offered us.

It’s been a while since there was a movie with this level of sophistication that’s been able to pack theaters. Few films anymore endeavor to represent such a carefully prepared array of talent. The effort is clear from the time it took Doris Kearns Goodwin to write her loving portrait of Abraham Lincoln (ten years) and Steven Spielberg’s own curious mind developing her book into a working film, historical fiction, he calls it. Daniel Day-Lewis appears to have done the impossible — gracefully avoiding any trace of familiar caricature of the president. How much you love the film Lincoln will depend on how much you know — or care to learn — about the 13th amendment, and Lincoln’s life. If you know nothing about Mary Lincoln’s mental illness, Sally Field’s complex agonizing brilliance will be lost on you. If you didn’t know that Lincoln would pace outside his home while Mary raged, or that their son did in fact eventually put Mary in a mental institution you might think Sally Field’s scenes are “unimportant.” If you didn’t know that Lincoln’s beloved mother died when he was young, or that Lincoln and his older sister would be left in the woods to fend for themselves for a long time before Lincoln’s father came home with a new wife, you might not get why Lincoln ponders the fragility of existence the way he does. If you didn’t know that his older sister, who was like a second mother to him, also died — you won’t know why the specter of death clung like a shadow over the the president’s emotions for much of his adult life.

If you didn’t know that Lincoln was famous for his kindness and sympathy toward animals — confronting children who put hot stones on the backs of turtles, for instance — you might not catch the minor moment when Lincoln says of the leather gloves he’s made to wear, “these would have been better left on the cow.” Tiny details like that reveal a thousand facets of research that went into writing Kushner’s brilliant screenplay. The collaborators on Lincoln knew Lincoln’s story well, and that is, ultimately, what makes this a masterpiece.

Despite all that, how do you translate the fervor felt for a film like Lincoln into the sort of unconditional love needed to get a consensus vote at the Oscars? Is it Ms. Right? Undoubtedly. Is it Ms. Right Now? That is hard to say — especially since right now that exists today is as yet unlinked to the right now voters will inhabit when the ballots are in their hands. The box office results so far tell us, yes, there are strong signs of enduring appeal. Some grumbling males out there say no (and a few were saying no long before they had any basis in fact). People who have become attached to other movies — seen and unseen — are also saying no.

Right behind Lincoln are two films, to my mind: Argo and Silver Linings Playbook. At the weekend I will be seeing two more possibilities — Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables. Django Unchained and The Hobbit are two more that can’t disregarded. Either of those late-bloomers could be Ms. Right Now. Directors of two of these frontrunners have not yet won an Oscar. David O. Russell, who came the closest to winning an Oscar with The Fighter is back, armed with the Weinstein Co and a formidable crowdpleaser. It’s a film that plays to the very sort of people who call Lincoln “boring,” and many are calling this one their favorite film of the year. That splits voters into two factions right off the bat. In the middle of those two is Argo, which may end up being the film most voters can agree upon as best. Lincoln and Silver Linings will divide audiences along lines of temperament and tone. Such is the nature of the Oscar race for Best Picture. Chasing elusive passions, merging shared emotions.

Many of us hold hope for the possibility that Ang Lee’s Life of Pi might rise to the inner circle. Riding 3D dazzle in an entirely different direction, deep into our internal lives and the spiritual realm, Life of Pi is the kind of movie that you don’t merely like, you LOVE. That is sometimes the stuff Oscar dreams are made of. Lee has won the Oscar for directing once and was awarded the DGA prize twice, and is well overdue for one of his films to win Best Picture. One obstacle to overcome is the assumption that Best Picture is often decided by actors. Actors who probably prefer to see films densely populated with actors. Actors they lunch with. If Life of Pi were to win, it would be like The Last Emperor winning — an example that proves it’s possible.

If you’re talking a three-way split between Lincoln, Argo and Silver Linings Playbook you might be more inclined to say that Lincoln and Argo are a thinking person’s movie where Silver Linings is a movie you feel. And that’s possible too. So far, though, the race between Argo and Silver Linings has been crashed by Lincoln, a film that will probably end up towering above both, winning a whole shitload of Oscars across the board, perhaps more than we’ve seen any film collect since Slumdog Millionaire or Return of the King.

Les Miserables could swoop down and take the passionate vote and Zero Dark Thirty could give Argo some zeitgeist heat. Whatever the next few weeks reveals, it’s easy to see we’re looking at a real race this year. It will be interesting to watch what the guilds foretell in the ultimate quest for the Best Picture of 2012.

As it stands now, the Best Actress race has Jennifer Lawrence way out front. No one else can touch her in terms of reviews. Moreover, a strong Best Picture contender always helps the actors win their categories. Lawrence would be a young winner at 22, but she would be 3 times older than her biggest competition right now, Quvenzhané Wallis. All eyes on Jessica Chastain, though, to see whether her role in Zero Dark Thirty has the substance and screen time to propel her forward.

The Best Actor field has one performance towering over all the others and that’s Daniel Day-Lewis on track, perhaps, to win his third Best Actor Oscar — thus making Oscar history since no actor has won three lead actor Oscars. His main competition are Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Denzel Washington in Flight and John Hawkes in The Session – all three incredibly powerful performances. These rivals are competing with President Lincoln, however, and Doris Kearns Goodwin has shown us how Lincoln handles his rivals. Also in consideration, Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Perhaps Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables, or Jamie Foxx for Django Unchained. Richard Gere could be looking at his first ever Oscar nomination for Arbitrage.

Supporting Actor is a tough call. If Lincoln sweeps, or near sweeps, it could carry Tommy Lee Jones along with it. But Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master and Robert De Niro for Silver Linings might also win. There is no clear frontrunner in this category at the moment.

Likewise, Supporting Actress doesn’t appear to have a clear frontrunner in spite of the fact that many are expecting Anne Hathaway to win, sight unseen. On the face of scant evidence, any blind prediction is a iffy proposition. But if anyone can do it, Hath can. If you remove Anne Hathaway from the equation you have a mightily strong performance in Sally Field. To my mind, you simply don’t see performances like this anymore since screenplays don’t often make room for them. Trained, experienced actors like Field who have been doing it for over 50 years, are few and far between. Most of the featured background player work is given to the pretty young ones. There are plenty of actresses in competition for nominations, and the best performance doesn’t always win, but right now it’s impossible to see anyone topping Field, except perhaps Hathaway.

Best Director signs also point to Lincoln. Although it’s still too early to see where the affection will go — if David O. Russell or Kathryn Bigelow or Ben Affleck start to win Best Director honors among the critics there may be no stopping them. A wave of enthusiasm for any of them will significantly alter the tone of the Best Director race. Right now, I see Spielberg winning the DGA and going on to win his third Best Director Oscar. Because Spielberg is Spielberg, I don’t see anyone objecting. I think the DGA five will be: Steven Spielberg, Ben Affleck, David O. Russell, Ang Lee and Kathryn Bigelow. I think Oscar will match. I reserve the right to change my mind later.

The Best Adapted Screenplay categories have a frontrunner in adapted and that’s Tony Kushner’s accomplished screenplay for Lincoln. You can see where we’re going with this: Screenplay, Director, Actor…I think the Writers Guild will reward Kushner and the Oscars will likely follow suit. His biggest competition would be the screenplay for Silver Linings Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi.

Original Screenplay is a little more fuzzy. I don’t see any frontrunner at the moment because two of the biggest fish, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained, hasn’t yet been seen. Many of us are championing Ava DuVernay for Middle of Nowhere for a well deserving nomination. A perennial strong contender for this category will be Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom.

Cheat Sheet for November 20, 2012

(for the full cheat sheet, which will go out later today, subscribe to our mailing list)

This is the time of year when everything is crammed in at the last minute in time for voting, which is coming up pretty soon. SAG voting starts tomorrow. December 17 is when Oscar voters begin. They will be allowed to cast their ballots online now — which could mean some kinds of shifts, we’re just not sure what they are yet. Will more vote because it’s more convenient or will not make much of a difference either way?

The big news this year, something that’s worth remembering, is that Oscar ballots will be turned in BEFORE the major guild precursors announce their nominations. So Oscar nominations won’t impact guild nominations and guild nominations won’t impact Oscar nominations. It is an odd construct, the outcome to be analyzed later. That puts more heat on any award nominations that are announced before the AMPAS ballot deadline (Jan 3): National Board of Review, Los Angeles and New York Film Critics, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and the Critics Choice. Traditionally, these award nominations came too early in the race and didn’t end up reflecting how the Oscars turned out. This year? The Oscar ballots are being turned in around the same time, thus it’s reasonable to assume that they too will reflect an earlier take on the race. Interesting, eh?

That little detail has shaken things up in the tiny pocket of the world that cares about such trivialities, but there it is.

Another big even will be happening concurrently with the Oscar race – and that’s President’s Obama’s second inaugural. Take that as you will.



Way way up with its strong box office in limited release, the recent Gettysburg dedication by Spielberg and Doris Kearns Goodwin — it feels like All Lincoln All the Time at the moment. Will its buzz die down or will it continue to rise?

Life of Pi

A publicity blitz has brought Ang Lee and the film’s star, Saraj Sharma to talk ato various outlets. The genius of Ang Lee is ultimately what drives Pi’s strength in the Oscar race. Like Cloud Atlas, without big risks you can’t reap big rewards, and like Cloud Atlas, there will be some that go for it fully and some that reject it fully.

The Impossible: with a push by Angelina Jolie, and plenty of screenings and screeners, voters will have to decide on The Impossible, whether the actors — Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland — have the stuff or not for a nomination.

Strongest Contenders so far:
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Moonrise Kingdom

Will need passionate support:
Anna Karenina
Cloud Atlas
The Promised Land

Coming next:
Les Miserables
Zero Dark Thirty
The Hobbit
Django Unchained

Best Actress


Jennifer Lawrence – Great reviews keep her in the number one spot.

Naomi Watts in The Impossible — a last minute passionate push could put her in the race.

The Strongest Contenders:
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Marion Cotillard, Rust & Bone
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina

Still to come:
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Needs passionate support:
Emayatzy Corinealdi, Middle of Nowhere
Emanuelle Riva, Amour
Leslie Mann, This is Forty
Meryl Streep, Hope Springs

Best Actor


Daniel Day-Lewis, who could be looking at making Oscar history with his third Best Actor win.

Richard Gere – The ads for Arbitrage hit the web, which serve as a reminder that, to date, no Oscar nomination for Gere.

Joaquin Phoenix – erased his previous bad press with a positive interview about the Oscars, explaining more what he meant about his feelings. Still an uphill climb for The Master because it is a hard sell to begin with. His performance is clearly one of the best of the year.

Strongest Contenders:
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Denzel Washington, Flight
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
John Hawkes in The Sessions
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Richard Gere, Arbitrage
Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

Still to come:

Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables,
Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actor


John Goodman — an honest, personal interview on CBS Sunday Morning revealed some of Goodman’s demons, alcoholism among them. The trick: figuring out which role Goodman should get a nomination for — Flight or Argo.

Strongest Contenders:
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Alan Arkin, Argo
Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild
John Goodman, Flight
John Goodman, Argo

Will need passionate support:
Matthew McConoughey, Magic Mike
Jim Broadbent, Cloud Atlas

Sight Unseen: Anyone in Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty or The Hobbit 

Best Supporting Actress


Sally Field – Her very personal stories on the Hollywood Reporter’s Actress roundtable serve as a reminder that Field may be a pro with 50 years of acting experience behind her but she also had to fight to play Mary Lincoln, and once had to hurl “chubby Sally Field” across the ceiling at the Golden Globes.

Anne Hathaway – that her mother played the same part Hathaway did in Les Mis is just the kind of “Oscar story” that voters eat up.

Ann Dowd – Dowd has been trying to do her own publicity push for her work in Compliance. It’s never easy breaking into the acting race but Dowd’s stellar work in a difficult film earned enough buzz to justify that push.

Strongest contenders:
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Amy Adams, The Master
Maggie Smith, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Will need passionate support:
Lorraine Toussaint in Middle of Nowhere
Doona Bae in Cloud Atlas
Ann Dowd, Compliance

Best Director


Steven Spielberg – his Lincoln has among the best review and box office of the veteran director’s career.

Ang Lee – Life of Pi reminds us how Ang Lee doesn’t ever rest on his laurels but is always stretching as an artist, exploring new mediums and genres. His latest round of interviews have been floating around the web and screenings of Life of Pi have been getting standing ovations around town.

Strongest Contenders:
Steven Spielberg for Lincoln
Ben Affleck for Argo
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom

Still to come:
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Will need passionate support:
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Michael Haneke, Amour
Joe Wright, Anna Karenina
Robert Zemeckis, Flight

Original Screenplay

Strongest contenders:
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere
Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage
Rian Johnson, Looper

Still to come:
Les Miserables
The Hobbit
Django Unchained

Adapted Screenplay

Strongest contenders:
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Chris Terrio, Argo
David Magee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Dark horse possibilities:
Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises

Still to come:
Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, The Hobbit
William Nicholson, Les Miserables

Oscar flashback:

Thirty years ago, in 1982, Steven Spielberg brought E.T. to theaters. It earned nine Oscar nominations, including Picture, Director and Screenplay. It won 4 – sound, sound editing, visual effects and score. That same year, Spielberg helped get Poltergeist made. It was the same year Blade Runner, The Thing, Fast Times at Ridgement High, Cat People, Frances, My Favorite Year, Sophie’s Choice, Tootsie, and the World According to Garp hit theaters. From among those, only Toostie was nominated for Best Picture.

Status Updates:

Les Miserables will be screening the weekend of November 24, 2012
Django Unchained had a private screening on November 12, 2012
Zero Dark Thirty will screen the weekend of the 25th, 2012
This is Forty starting to screen.

Upcoming Calendar Dates to watch out for

November release dates:
November 21
Life of Pi
Rise of the Guardians

November 23
The Central Park Five
Rust & Bone

November 30
Killing Them Softly

Award Dates

November 21, 2012
Nomination ballots mailed for SAG Awards, due December 10, by noon.

December 3, 2012
New York Film Critics Announce
Producers Guild starts voting

December 4, 2012
Directors Guild starts voting

December 5, 2012
National Board of Review announces

December 7, 2012
Los Angeles Film Critics announce

December 12, 2012
SAG nominations announced