It’s been a funny year for Oscar movies. The trial separation between critics and the industry has widened to a full blown divorce. The Artist and Moneyball are heading down the track to Oscar’s Best Picture with the most outstanding response from critics. Decent reviews have befallen most of the other top films, but only those two received near universal acclaim. It isn’t that the critics didn’t love any movies, it’s that the movies they seemed to love can’t get arrested in this year’s Oscar race. Signs and wonders. And so it was with this that the biggest surprise in the race so far was delivered yesterday by the Directors Guild, which giveth to David Fincher and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and taketh away from Steven Spielberg and War Horse.

It must be said that War Horse probably wasn’t conceived to be an Oscar juggernaut. It was made as and marketed as a family film. The studio’s concern is to make money, which it is doing. All of the Oscar bluster around it was self-generated inside the bubble movie writers inhabit. As the presumed defacto frontrunner there was simply no way it could win — the hype destroys even the best of films. All you have to do is place a film in the frontrunner’s spot and it is ripe for overtaking. Why, because we define ourselves by how we vote. And if we vote for what everyone else is voting for what does that say about us? People who vote just to be contrary or separate themselves from the herd annoy me to no end every year: pick the movies you love and be done with it.

Then again there are movies like Slumdog Millionaire that take the frontrunner’s spot and never lose momentum, partly because voting for the film is a way to express gratitude for having moved us, or to make things happen in the political world of Oscar, or to reward someone who has long since been overlooked. Either way, many will start offering up explanations as to why most people had Fincher and Dragon Tattoo way down on their lists. We still don’t know, incidentally, if Oscar voters will embrace the movie or if it will be a Christopher Nolan/Dark Knight situation where the director gets a DGA nod but the film is overlooked (or vice versa), ultimately, when Oscar voters lay it down, which, by the way, they are doing as we speak. The ballot deadline is fast approaching. Just three more days until that shakes down. Most likely many of them have already turned in their ballots and we really have no way of knowing whether that last slot will still be Fincher, or if it will be Spielberg or Malick or Bennett Miller. I suspect we are in for a few surprises.

The directors branch might want to scrape off some of the shame from last year’s fumble — really, but how can they ever? It wasn’t just Fincher they overlooked for the most middling, albeit most moving film of the bunch. Still, I don’t think penance alone would have been enough for the directors to hoist Dragon Tattoo into the race. What people who cover the Oscars seem to overlook here is how goddamned great that movie is, how entertaining it is, how much it stands apart from the other films in this year’s offering.

What we learned from yesterday’s announcement was two things: Dragon Tattoo is a lot stronger than most people were expecting, and War Horse is a lot weaker than many were predicting. Part of the problem is the echo-chamber of online chatter being dominated, as it were, by a specific demographic – and that demographic snowballs and picks up everything else in its path and thus, the thinking becomes monolithic. Narratives begin to form based only on those discussions and pretty soon you’re starting to believe the swill. Sometimes it’s right on the money. Sometimes it isn’t. While it looks very good that Dragon Tattoo will be among the Best Picture nominees this year, along with The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Help, Moneyball, and The Descendants, it is far from a done deal.

We also don’t yet know how many Best Picture nominees there will be. That suspense alone makes this a crazy year. In fact, War Horse could still make the Best Picture cut, as could Tree of Life, come to that. We don’t know if the nominees will swell upwards of nine or if they will pucker closer in towards five. It is an unknown situation. Therefore, let’s look at it two ways.

The first way, Best Picture if there were only five.

We have only one option here and that’s to follow the DGA five. That War Horse missed the ADG, the WGA and the DGA selects it out. The DGA loves them some Spielberg even more than the Academy. More women voters in the DGA mean they would be harder on War Horse. More male voters, more war fans and vets in the Academy means maybe they’ll go for War Horse more. I still don’t think it’s a total impossibility that it would get in. But if I were doing this year as a fiver instead of a ten or a random number, I’d go with the DGA five. I’d say that Best Picture would go something like this:

The locks:
The Artist – hit all of the guilds except the WGA, for which it was not eligible. Won the NYFCC. Has Weinstein Co. behind it. Celebrates old Hollywood beautifully – is a movie about movies.
The Descendants – the only one of the five so far to hit ALL of the guilds officially. An American story directed by a beloved writer/director who has yet to win an Oscar for Directing or Picture.
Hugo – another movie not just about movies but about the history of movies. Scorsese finally put his love for film preservation and film itself on the big screen — his most autobiographical film to date – it hit all guilds but the SAG ensemble (who expected that, though). We know actors rule the day but Hugo is giving The Artist the most heat right now, as is The Descendants.
Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen’s most profitable film to date. A no-brainer when it comes to falling in love. Like Hugo and The Artist it is a look at nostalgia itself. It also nabbed the crucial SAG ensemble nomination.

And then:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vs. The Help — if this were a five picture year, you’d have to rule out War Horse and put in The Help because of what it’s achieved thus far. But Dragon Tattoo is neck and neck with it. It reminds me of the Being John Malkovich vs. The Cider House Rules year, where Spike Jonze got the DGA but Cider House Rules got the Best Picture nomination. Under today’s rules, both films would get in. But if it were fiver I would say the safe choice would be The Help over Dragon Tattoo but given how much I personally love the film and David Fincher, I’d probably take a risk and predict Dragon Tattoo because, among other things, it’s some hot sauce with an otherwise sweet meal.

That would take out Moneyball, which would end up with a Best Actor and Screenplay nomination only as many of my colleagues foretold about that film. It still might not make the cut.

If it were a ten picture year, things open up considerably. You no longer have to worry about any of the films getting in. It would be very easy to call the ten:

The Artist
The Descendants
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Help
Moneyball
War Horse
Bridesmaids
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The last three of course are negotiable. We still don’t know if War Horse would get in. We don’t know if Bridesmaids would (although it looks like it would, given its WGA+SAG+PGA showing). I am not even sure about Tree of Life either, actually. Where it was expected to turn up it hasn’t. I don’t know if I would, in the end, predict it to even make the ten. I’d probably make a stronger case for a film like J. Edgar or Harry Potter to sneak in there. I’m also not sure about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, where that film would land. Right now it looks like voters, critics and guilds are staying away from it in every respect.

With ten open slots I also might make a stronger case for We Need to Talk About Kevin as being one film directed by a woman to get in there. With ten, the possibilities are a lot more open — there would be more diversity, more of a willingness to embrace films that weren’t so director-centric perhaps. With only five open slots you are always up against the same wall of five white guys and the films they directed. With ten, you can see a lot more color and gender and genre inclusion.

But the Oscar machine isn’t about diversity and it isn’t about affirmative action – it’s mostly about money and power in Hollywood. Blogging about the Oscars I am always reminded that it’s a lot like a political election. The outcome matters to the future of Hollywood, the shifts and balances of power. That is why it’s important to always note who and what controls it every year and who and what threatens the status quo every year.

Now we find ourselves settling in somewhere between 5 and 10, but probably closer to 5. And it’s still looking like this:

The Artist
The Descendants
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Help
Moneyball
War Horse
*Bridesmaids is the wild card. It might supplant War Horse, come to that.

But it is more than a little thrilling to see a film like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo shake things up a bit. It’s thrilling because it is a film people actually like to watch. It is thrilling because it features such an unusual heroine, a male protagonist in need of a fierce protector — for once, a girl who’s smarter than the guy. I don’t know if it’s faithful to the books or not. I know it is different from the Swedish adaptation. I know that Fincher and Zallian made it their own. I know that without Rooney Mara it wouldn’t have been nearly as good; in sticking with Mara despite the studio’s protestations Fincher knew what he had: someone who would commit fully, as fully as Jesse Eisenberg did in last year’s Social Network. How did he know that? He knows because the scene he filmed with her ended up using over 90 takes. He knew, even from that one scene, what Mara was capable of. He found the plug and he unleashed her power. I remain stunned that the DGA noticed.

When I listen to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ exceptional score to the film I remember how meticulously Fincher laid this thing out, how carefully he paid attention to the mood, the music, the sensibility of the thing. This is something most directors this year don’t bother with. Only Martin Scorsese and Michel Hazanavicius were as careful with every frame as Fincher was. And if people didn’t notice it the first time, they should watch the movie again. And if they still don’t notice it well, there is nothing I can say — you look and you see and that is all.

I also am well aware of what kind of blowback this will instill — the snotty tweets, the defensive rants against the DGA, etc. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote me a while back about the critics and Dragon Tattoo, pointing out how many of them are male and how ultimately threatening Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander is. While Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth had equal amounts of vulnerability and toughness, Mara’s Lisbeth is unlike any creature we’ve ever seen. Men don’t quite know what to do with her. Do they want to fuck her? Are they disgusted by her? All of this trumped up nonsense by male bloggers that she’s not empowered, that she’s a fanboy fantasy and all of that just echoes Gleiberman’s notion that somewhere deep down this Lisbeth Salander touched a raw nerve.

In the end we are left wondering what film and what director are going to win this year.  We don’t yet know how it will play out. Sure, you can say The Artist has always been in the lead and it will ride this baby home. And that would be a perfectly respectable opinion.  It is the general consensus, the status quo and what we’ve always known the Oscar race to be.  But to me it is not static. It is fluid, movable and ever-changing.  So we can’t even talk about winners until we see the nominees.