If there were any doubts before, there are no doubts now.  The black and white silent French film, The Artist, has taken the lead in this year’s Best Picture race, according to we Gurus of Gold and of course, over at Gold Derby.  There is always that point in the year when you just know.  And there is no stopping this movie. If there had been any stopping it it would have happened months ago.  But the hype is not destroying it.  If anything, it’s helping it.  It reminds me of the Slumdog Millionaire year, where there was just this one movie that took everything in front of it.  If we go by Anne Thompson’s branch-by-branch theory, The Artist has it all: actors, check. Director, check. Writers, check. Art directors, check. Cinematography, check. Costume, check. Score, check. Editing, check.  Sound, mais bien sur! Well, let’s say imaginative sound mixers would nominate the Artist for its clever and specific use of sound.  What it’s missing: gravitas.  That old song Oscar requires so that something feels bigger and more “important.” Of course, Chicago didn’t have it and that movie had what the Artist had (yes, Weinsteins pushing it but also) it was just a good time to be had by all.  The universal appeal of The Artist is what has it winning critics, industry and audiences alike.

Universal appeal is what gets the big house votes, the 9,000, the 6,000, the 100,000 guild voting blocks – ain’t no way they’re going to grow a pair and pick something outside that realm of “you can sit anyone down in front of it and they will get it if not love it.” What can override that, of course, is love for the filmmakers (Coens, Scorsese), or the desire to push forth real change (Bigelow).  But mostly, yeah, you get the idea.  What pleases, massages, comforts the most people wins.  It’s as simple as that. As far as those kinds of movies go, if the Artist wins it will be one of their better choices.

The Gurus top ten hasn’t altered what we knew of the race a month ago, that’s the weird thing about Oscar – you always think the year-end films might make a difference and they almost never do – why, because they’ve been vetted by critics, sometimes by the public, sometimes both.  However, it’s worth mentioning a few things that are different about this year.  Maybe it will turn out that the race ends up exactly as we presume it will.  We judge the frontrunner status on reviews, word of mouth, “buzz” and how many awards and nominations that film is wracking up.  However, we assume that the Academy will then go the way they’ve gone for decades.  This year, though, they are doing things in such a way as they’ve never done before.  To that end, it’s conceivable that there might be some changes you’d see this year that you wouldn’t see last year.

1. Let Love Rule – for a film to get into the race, it has to be not LIKED but LOVED.  Passion is going to come into play.  The movies that voters LOVE will likely get the requisite votes to make it to the second round with a healthy amount of surplus votes (The Artist).  The next thing that happens is that they go top-down from there.  The number 2 and 3 votes will start to fill out the list.  But no film that didn’t get any number one votes can be nominated for Best Picture.   Also? Voters are only picking five films.  That is how they used to do it before they had ten.  So they’re used to picking only five.  The difference is what film are they going to put at number one?

2. Surprises Maybe on the Horizon – knowing that The Artist is a shoo-in for a nomination, voters might decide to throw their vote not for their favorite film, The Artist, but for a film they think needs their help, like — oh say — A Separation (my no guts, no glory pick for Best Picture).  They could also thrust Harry Potter in to the second round by sacrificing what would be their number one vote (The Artist) and give to a film that would ordinarily have a hard time getting there.  Tree of Life seems like it might fare well under these conditions.

3. The guilds aren’t going to match Oscar in terms of voting – what the DGA will tell us is probably more valuable than the PGA this year (as it is every year) because it will tell us what five films are the most popular right now with 9,000 industry voters.  I expect those directors will be:

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Steven Spielberg, War Horse
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Bennett Miller, Moneyball — or Terrence Malick Tree of Life or Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris, or Tate Taylor for The Help

That fifth slot is the most important.  There is wiggle room in that category — and if, say, Tate Taylor is nominated, well The Help’s chances just soared.  The only director who is vulnerable is Steven Spielberg for War Horse — but that’s if the movie is panned by the critics, which it shouldn’t be.  I saw it at a DGA screening and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

But the DGA tells us which five are popular. It doesn’t rank those five.  When all of the guilds ring in with their favorites we will do what we always do – wrack them up and see who is in the lead. There are usually two, sometimes three movies that hit all of the guilds.  I expect the two strongest are going to be The The Artist and Hugo, which should do well across the board.  Then, The Descendants and War Horse should also be strong with the guilds.  Moneyball, The Help, Midnight in Paris and Tree of Life will hover around the fringe.

And again, we should remember that the Oscar race isn’t about Ms. Right.  It’s about Ms. Right Now.  When we remember that, figuring out who will win becomes easier and easier.  As an Oscar watcher this year, since my heart was pulled from my chest and stomped all over last year, I have to just shut down this year and play it as it lays.