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State of the Race: “In weakness and fear, and with much trembling.”

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2012’s lineup for Best Picture brings to mind sober reflection.  As we redefine who we were in America, on the eve of President Obama’s second inaugural, our troubled past still haunts us.  Two films deal in very different ways with the subject of slavery. Two films deal with our volatile war with radical Islam.  Two films deal with choosing a more optimistic view of life, one remembers Hurricane Katrina, one remembers magical childhood love, one is a beloved musical just in time for Christmas.   Most of us will split on these, and the ongoing debate will rage: is it the movie that makes you feel? Or is it the movie that makes you think?

With Oscar ballots outstanding, it’s anyone’s game. The wind could suddenly change direction without warning.  What seemed like a sexy pick a week ago could lose steam. And everywhere, pundits, bloggers, critics and even celebrities are trying to control the unwieldy beast that is Oscar.

On Twitter, we Oscar bloggers fend off enthusiastic fans who really want their favorite musical to become a fully realized Oscar Best Picture winner, or leaders of a movement supporting one actress or actor to have their most loved performer recognized with an Oscar. Some of them beam in from foreign lands hoping that their favorite American star will at last be recognized. “What do you think Leo’s chances are?” “Do you think Naomi Watts can win?” “What are the chances for Holy Motors?” We can give our best guess but it is just a guess based on years of experience. That experience includes public humiliation, smug rightness, an “I told you so” or two, and a general assumption that we know how “they” will or won’t vote.

But nobody knows anything.

Some of us inside the bubble just want this to be one of those great years where the Academy remembers to really reward the best film of the year, not just the best right now, or the least offensive choice, but something worthy of the gold statue proclaiming its high achievement.

Some think Les Miserables is going to he “huge” with the Academy, that it will win the SAG ensemble and then take the Best Picture Oscar, even despite Hooper’s recent win and the mixed reviews. Some think it’s Zero Dark Thirty’s to lose, even though Kathryn Bigelow won as recently as 2009. Some have no choice but to settle on Silver Linings Playbook because it’s the only feelgood film in the bunch and would be a notable threepeat for the Weinstein Co. But one film continues to tower above the rest and it currently leads predictions on both Movie City News and Gold Derby. It has just passed Argo to become the highest grosser of the presumed frontrunners, currently at $108 million before Oscar nominations are even announced. It just broke Spielberg’s record for nominations at the SAGs and the Globes, and broke the Critics Choice overall nomination record. It isn’t winning critics awards like Zero Dark Thirty, The Master and Argo. Even Life of Pi has won more than Lincoln. But it is the elephant in the room, my friends, whether my fellow pundits are prepared to acknowledge it or not.

Today Spielberg is 66. It’s the same day that the 13th amendment was adopted. The critics and the Academy have both had a complicated relationship with Spielberg. The critics have really only liked Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and perhaps Empire of the Sun. The Academy only really liked Schindler’s List. They shut out The Color Purple and they only awarded him Best Director for Saving Private Ryan. War Horse squeaked through with a nod last year. The ones who don’t have a “problem” with Spielberg, though, are the ticket buyers, the ones he’s been entertaining going on 40 years.

For many of us, Spielberg has become part of our DNA. Much of my own childhood was spent buying tickets to Spielberg movies. But it was more than that to me. Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. defined my own American experience.  Except for Jaws, each earned Spielberg a Best Director nomination and each, along with Munich, earned Best Picture nominations as well. Spielberg films, for many of us, weren’t just movies you go to on a Saturday night. They are how we remember our childhoods. It is significant that at 66 years old Spielberg has undertaken such a behemoth as bringing the story of Abraham Lincoln back into the collective consciousness at a time when we really need him. To have wrung that performance out of Daniel Day-Lewis and the supporting performances of Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field — it’s not your everyday Oscar contender. Or, at least, it doesn’t seem so from where I sit.

Five years from now we might all look back and think, why did we ever doubt that movie could win? Except that many do still doubt it can win. Many doubted, around this time of year, whether Titanic could win too. They all thought the Oscar was LA Confidential’s to lose. Lincoln isn’t Titanic, of course. Pundits say they keep hearing the old “but they just don’t LIKE it enough.” Women, in particular seem to resist it — to explain why I’d have to launch into generalizations. Not enough emotion? Not exciting? No one to root for? Oh, just the future of African Americans, oppression, racism — but that isn’t … sexy?

If Lincoln is “too boring” for women, and Les Miserables is too intense, and Life of Pi “too spiritual,” what might the women choose? They’ll probably split between Silver Linings Playbook, which has emotion and wit and charm and sex, and Argo, which is funny and sexy and moving. Either of those could win. Lincoln could win.

But the Academy is mostly white, middle aged males — the steak eaters, as they’re called. They vote with their hearts too. Can Lincoln be moving enough to motivate them to vote it the winner?

It is too soon to say.

But that won’t stop many of us from declaring the winner right now. Why? Because we are Oscar bloggers. That’s what we do.

We all look to those 5,800 Academy members who are really just trying to make it through their lives, probably, as they are poked and prodded by eager publicists, stalked by executives who want their vote, talked about by people who think they really really know what Academy members REALLY think. At the end of it, a vote.  A moment where some Oscar voter, tucked into a three-story home on Coldwater Canyon over holiday break reaches for the screener pile to entertain the fam. And that is when they’ll decide if the movies everybody’s talking about are really that good, or if not, they really got it wrong this time.

If they’re lucky enough, perhaps gathered around a roasted beast with a twinkling Christmas tree or Hanukkah Menorah glowing pleasantly in the background. I see them sitting there, in their awkward Christmas sweaters, sifting through the selections this year. What will they choose? What can they tolerate? What will they love? What will the quirky assortment of houseguests like? What will they HATE? What will they argue over? What is the film they can ALL decide on and why?

Or are they really the kind who spread on some foundation, hoists their tired bones into a pantsuit to lumber joylessly down to the Samuel Goldwyn theater and endure three hours of something they really wish they’d waited for on screener. Or do they skip happily down to the Goldwyn, sit breathlessly for two and a half hours and emerge from the darkness ruddy faced and optimistic about their lives because wow, they just saw THAT movie?

We don’t really know, do we? We try to guess anyway. These are the rules of the game as we’ve all agreed to play them. We hope, always, to move the needle in the “right” direction — but our idea of right likely contradicts some other person’s idea of right. A consensus vote is a consensus vote.

Still, the three strongest films this year confront our American fears and truths like we haven’t seen in the Oscar race in quite some time. The heart still wants what it wants, which means one of them might not win.  All the same, it’s important to remember that winning the Oscar isn’t everything. It doesn’t mean much except to show how a group of people felt once, in 2012, with so many bright stars shedding light in the darker corners, making it even harder to see.

Cheat Sheet December 18, 2012

UP

Naomi Watts, The Impossible – When Reese Witherspoon writes to EW on your behalf, and you have many celebrities turning out to help get your film, The Impossible, some notice, and then you get a Globe nod and a SAG nod, you’re probably in.

Argo – Even though it trails Zero Dark Thirty in critic awards wins, buzz is picking up now that Argo turns out to be a film many people can agree upon is likable and satisfying.

Django Unchained – The movie industry never saw anyone like Tarantino and his films are events unto themselves.  Certainly far from perfect, Django displays Tarantino’s undeniable talent behind the camera. But it also features a mesmerizing, unsung performance by Jamie Foxx.

Lincoln – Tthe awards nominations records racked up and the continuing box office success means Lincoln remains a force to be reckoned with. It is now Daniel Day-Lewis’ highest grossing film.

Kathryn Bigelow – up or down depending on your definition but there is no doubt that wherever Bigelow goes this year, controversy seems to follow. In her defense, many critics have been speaking out against the accusations that it glorifies torture, though critics might not be enough to remove the notion. On the other hand, this is only the nominations phase. Winners are to be determined later.

Predictions

Best Picture

1. Lincoln
2. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Silver Linings Playbook
4. Argo
5. Life of Pi
6. Les Miserables
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild
8. Moonrise Kingdom
9. Django Unchained
10. Flight

Best Actor
1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
2. Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
3. Denzel Washington, Flight
4. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
5. John Hawkes, The Sessions

Best Actress

1. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
2. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
3. Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild 
4. Naomi Watts,The Impossible
5. Marion Cotillard, Rust & Bone

Supporting Actor
1. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
2. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
3. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
4. Alan Arkin, Argo
5. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

Supporting Actress
1. Sally Field, Lincoln
2. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
3. Helen Hunt, The Sessions
4. Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy
5. Amy Adams, The Master

Director
1. Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
2. Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
3. Ben Affleck, Argo
4. David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
5. Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Alt: Tom Hooper, Les Miserables, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master

Original Screenplay
1. Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
2. Michael Haneke, Amour
3. Ava DuVernay, Middle of Nowhere
4. Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
5. Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Alt: Rian Johnson, Looper, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master, Nicolas Jarecki, Arbitrage

Adapted Screenplay
1. Tony Kushner, Lincoln
2. Chris Terrio, Argo
3. David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
4. David Magee, Life of Pi
5. Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Alt: Stephen Chbosky – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises

Editing
1. William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor, Zero Dark Thirty
2. Michael Kahn, Lincoln
3. William Goldenberg, Argo
4. Tim Squyres, Life of Pi
5. Jay Cassidy, Silver Linings Playbook
Alt: Melanie Oliver, Chris Dickens, Les Miserables

Cinematography
Greig Fraser, Zero Dark Thirty
Cloudio Miranda, Life of Pi
Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln
Roger Deakins, Skyfall
Rodrigo Prieto, Argo
Alt: Danny Cohen, Les Miserables, Mihai Malaimare Jr, The Master

Art Direction
Lincoln
Life of Pi
Anna Karenina
Les Miserables
The Hobbit
Alt: The Master

Sound Mixing
Zero Dark Thirty
Les Miserables
Lincoln
Skyfall
The Dark Knight Rises
Argo

Sound Editing
Zero Dark Thirty
Skyfall
Lincoln
Brave
The Dark Knight Rises

Costume Design
Anna Karenina
Les Miserables
Lincoln
Cloud Atlas
Hitchcock

Original Score
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Argo
Cloud Atlas
Lincoln
The Dark Knight Rises

Foreign Language 
Amour (Austria)
The Intouchables(France)
A Royal Affair (Denmark)
Barbara (Germany)
After Lucia (Mexico)

Documentary Feature
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
Searching for Sugarman
Bully
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Animated Feature
Frankenweenie
Brave
Rise of the Guardians
Wreck it Ralph
Paranorman

Visual Effects
Life of Pi
The Hobbit
Cloud Atlas
The Dark Knight Rises
The Avengers

Makeup
Lincoln
Les Miserables
The Hobbit