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As we head into Toronto, we still don’t have our presumed front-runner for Best Picture, unless it’s Argo, which it very well might be. Recent history has shown us that we’ve already seen our winner someplace by now. That makes it all the weirder that we’re headed into TIFF without one bobbing to the surface. Since 2007 when No Country for Old Men won, every BP winner has been seen before Toronto. The Hurt Locker was seen first at Venice, then Toronto, but not released until the following year.

The way it usually goes is that the movies everyone expects will do well, don’t. And the solid hits building buzz throughout the year and, to a degree, flying under the radar, tend to do better. Argo has a good chance because it is being underestimated by almost everyone. Ditto Beasts of the Southern Wild. No one expects either of those to win which automatically gives them the edge. Funny how that works but it seems to have all to do with expectations and very little to do with reality. If you expect a movie is going to blow you away chances are it won’t. Unless it does: Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, The Artist are three that were never diminished by their hype. Emotion drove them all the way to the win. With No Country, Hurt Locker and The Departed the slow and steady film won the race. These films didn’t win on emotion, but rather they stood out among lesser titles. Each of them can be argued as deserving or not but what I remember from those years is that they were the reliable steadies.

The Artist – Cannes
The King’s Speech – Telluride
The Hurt Locker – YYear prior but Venice (4 days before TIFF in 2008)
Slumdog Millionaire – Telluride
No Country for Old Men – Cannes
The Departed – October release… not on fest circuit.
Crash – TIFF 2004, US Premiere 2005
Million Dollar Baby – late comer

Really, Clint Eastwood’s win for Million Dollar Baby came at a year when another film was supposed to win. Actually, it often happens that the littler, more reliable film that makes voters feel like heroes discovering a hidden gem can often trump the bigger production, or the more highly praised film. The Social Network was supposed to win but they chose The King’s Speech instead. Avatar was supposed to win but they chose Hurt Locker instead. Benjamin Button was supposed to win but they chose Slumdog Millionaire instead. Brokeback Mountain was supposed to win but they chose Crash instead. The Aviator was supposed to win but they chose Million Dollar Baby instead. I lived through all of these years and remember them well.

To a degree what tips the balance for Best Picture isn’t always the film that wins but often the film that doesn’t. A vote against The Social Network was a vote for The King’s Speech. In a way, finding your Best Picture winner means finding the film they will actively vote against for whatever reason: it cost too much, we don’t like the director, it cost too much, it didn’t make enough money, it was badly written, it was cold, I didn’t feel anything. When you vote for a movie like The Artist or Slumdog Millionaire you are voting because it feels good, not because you should or because you believe one is better than the other — but voting for the impoverished Indian kids? Way better than a story about aging backwards (Oh Fincher, you genius). You could say Hugo should have made voters feel better last year but to feel better about Hugo they had to deal with their Scorsese issues, and the film’s budget compared to its profit. No such baggage attached to The Artist.

Avatar’s baggage was Jim Cameron, motion capture (actors would never vote for something that was going to replace their faces), and the terrible screenplay. The writing is so bad Avatar is almost impossible to watch now. And besides, voting for the first woman in 62 years to win Best Director and Best Picture? What could feel better than that. Many readers of this site will always say Avatar deserved to win. But no one will ever convince me that it is a better film than The Hurt Locker, a masterpiece I continue to stand behind (even though the critics that hailed it to the high heavens turned tail and ran when it came to compiling the Sight & Sound list, ditto The Social Network).

Crash and Brokeback Mountain is a can of worms in and of itself. To me, I’d have felt better voting for Brokeback Mountain. But I remember seeing Crash and crying at the end. I remember that it was a movie that might make voters feel better about the world by voting for it. It’s either that or their irrational fear of Brokeback Mountain prevented them from even seeing it — so how could they vote for it?

And if you were around for the Aviator vs. Million Dollar Baby you would have watched a car wreck. Then again, more people “out there” will name Million Dollar Baby as their favorite film compared with The Aviator. Best Picture winners, give or take a No Country for Old Men here or there, are almost always general audience movies: you can sit anyone in front of them and they will get it if not love it. The more complex the film the less likely it is that it will win. Which was why, after 13 years on the beat, I was stunned that there was that run of winners — The Departed, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker. Those wins were not “business as usual” but represented more thoughtful voting. Perhaps this was because the voters reacted to being savaged by the press after choosing Crash over Brokeback. The next mini-quake would come when they failed to nominate The Dark Knight for Best Picture.

But none of that means anything for this year because this is a new year. The Oscar race, I have always believed, is fluid, not static. It is movable, changeable, unpredictable. And it remains that way until the inevitable happens. But because I’ve seen big surprises happen I always leave that door open. Who knows what might walk through it. Who knows how this year will turn out.

To find Best Picture, though, you might have to start by finding that movie everyone thinks will win but won’t because A) everyone already thinks it will and B) it is too delicious of an option to not vote for it.

Films that have already been seen and are reliable contenders:
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Moonrise Kingdom
Amour
Ruse & Bone
The Master

Films that will be seen in Toronto that have not yet been seen
Cloud Atlas
Anna Karenina
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Silver Linings Playbook

Films that are already churning in the hype machine but haven’t been seen:
Lincoln
Zero Dark Thirty
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi (New York)
Flight (New York)
The Hobbit
Trouble with the Curve
The Promised Land

Total wild cards:
The Dark Knight Rises
The Avengers
The Sapphires

The only thing we know for sure is that this probably isn’t going to be a year like Slumdog Millionaire, The Artist or The King’s Speech, unless Argo or Beasts win. It might be like Million Dollar Baby or The Departed. Most would agree that, sight unseen, it’s a race between Les Miserables and Lincoln. The New York Film Fest might have our Best Picture winner in either Flight or Life of Pi.

Based on what I know about Oscar the winner will either be a runaway hit by a virtual unknown (King’s Speech, The Artist) or it will be one that is owed to a veteran of film who either hasn’t ever been acknowledged or is overdue for another Oscar win.

To that end, my instincts have me thinking of Best Picture this way:

  • Lincoln (Spielberg is overdue, written by the brilliant Tony Kushner, adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize winner, in an election year, a film about the greatest President who ever lived).
  • Les Miz (it could pack an emotional punch, plus help validate the Academy’s bet that Tom Hooper has the stuff)
  • Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino is one of the greatest American filmmakers yet to be honored with a Best Director or Best Picture win)
  • Flight (Zemeckis has been off course for a while now but will Denzel put him back on track?)
  • Joe Wright’s Atonement and Pride & Prejudice together have 11 Oscar nominations. Anna Karenina could conceivably rack up that many alone, combining literary pedigree with epic grandeur and promising to kick it all up a notch?
  • Life of Pi (the beloved Ang Lee might finally cash in on the Best Picture win his Best Director Oscar promised)
  • The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan is long overdue and this last film in the trilogy could finally give him the acknowledgement he deserves, but…)
  • Argo (just a really good film that might win because it isn’t the other movie that voters don’t want to win)
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (the film is so emotionally affecting it might be the only one voters LOVE).

If there are any potential winners beyond that they are off my radar. The Master, while being hailed as brilliant, will be too obtuse to win over the middle of the road voters. The Hobbit, Peter Jackson was too recently rewarded (though it’s possible, of course), Cloud Atlas is still a mystery, The Silver Linings Playbook will probably be too light, The Place Beyond the Pines will probably be too depressing, Moonrise Kingdom too obtuse, etc.

This is how it stands on Wednesday, September 5. Once anything changes I’ll be sure to let you know. And I do sort of hope it changes and keeps on changing. Those are the best Oscar years, when nothing is as it appears and the twists and turns come so fast you can barely keep track of them.