If the imaginary Oscars were held today, that is, if everything went as it’s expected to go, the Best Director category would look something like this:

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper, Les Miz
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

The next tier would be:

Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises
Peter Jackson, The Hobbit

Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Ben Affleck, Argo
Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Bob Zemeckis,  Flight
Terrence Malick, To the Wonder
Joe Wright, Anna Karenina
David O’Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Cloud Atlas

Hope Springs Eternal:

Michael Haneke, Amour
Nicolas Jarecki, Arbitrage
Ben Lewin, the Sessions
Dustin Hoffman, Quartet
Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives
Mike Newell, Great Expectations
Roger Michell, Hyde Park on the Hudson

Many of you will want to savage the main lineup but, to my mind, that is the main lineup. We don’t know how any of those movies will play. Maybe they’ll all be good. Maybe a couple will be terrible. The only thing we know for sure is to have faith in the publicists pushing various films. They are more reliable than critics because, even though they have to sell crap because that is their job, they usually won’t roll with a turkey if they can help it. So if they’re standing firmly behind one movie they’re doing so because they think it’s worth selling.

It’s the Oscar race backwards. Since they changed the date, and since the internet exploded with self-made critics and bloggers, it can no longer be — the movies open and, depending on how well they do with the public, that perception helps to determine their Oscar-ability. Now it’s publicists who choose movies they think they can push, as well, and they start pushing them long before they ever get to theaters.

Barring a great film popping up out of nowhere, when I look at the year I think, okay, what studio is pushing what film? and work back from there.  For the most part, the Oscar race runs like clockwork in that way.  But there is always room for some kind of surprise.

Last year around this time, Gurus of Gold went like this:

1. War Horse (sight unseen)
2. The Ides of March (sight unseen)
3. The Artist (seen at Cannes.)
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (sight unseen)
5. The Descendants (not yet seen? Telluride.) 
6. Midnight in Paris (seen)
7. J. Edgar (sight unseen)
8. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (maybe seen in the UK?)
9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not seen)
10. Tree of Life (seen at Cannes) 

Of all of these, three made it in sight unseen but had no chance of winning. It looks like it’s evenly split, though. Three seen, three not seen. Worth noting that The Help, Moneyball also placed but not in the top ten. Only one of the eventual BP nominees, Hugo, was not high on this list.  In that instance the studio especially and the director were horribly underestimated.

The year before it looked like this:

1. Inception (seen)
2. The King’s Speech (seen)
3. Toy Story 3 (seen)
4. The Kids Are All Right (seen, Sundance)
5. The Social Network (seen)
6. Black Swan (not seen)
7. True Grit (not seen)
8. Another Year (seen, Cannes)
9. 127 Hours (not seen)
10. Winter’s Bone (seen, Sundance) 

That was an especially easy year to call.  Most of the films were seen by now.

To my mind, it is always better to go with seen than unseen.  But I put my faith in publicists who generally know whether their dog will hunt.  I feel strongly that Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom are the two strongest right now heading into the festival season. Venice and Telluride will happen at exactly the same time.  Toronto shortly thereafter and then the New York Film Festival.  We will know by the end of it what the Oscar year will (mostly) look like, unless the Big Oscar Movies won’t go to the festivals.  And then, we’re all going to be fumbling around in the dark.