With two weeks before the US Presidential election, nerves are frayed. The horses are kicking in their stalls. Cumulonimbus clouds on the horizon and a country sharply divided. Oscar season had no choice but to start early this year. With ballots being turned in very early in January, there are just two months left to lay it all out. At the end of November and early December we’ll get our critics top ten lists. After that, the critics awards. Then the guild awards followed by the Oscars. That means that a consensus will be forming soon. Usually by the beginning of December the race seems to be about a handful of films that have run the gauntlet and come out the other side with a consensus vote. Some of these movies have been preordained, their places in line held firm. They only have to meet or surpass expectations to fortify their position.

Oscar pundits are busily making their lists, putting certain names at the top of the list because they deserve to be there, or because they hope they will be there. Oscar voters are preparing for the all-out assault of ads and screeners, parties and interviews. Through the noise they’ll lift their fingers and point, “that one. I like that one.” It’s enough to drive any sane person off the cliff, that is, if the election hasn’t done that already. But at this stage of the game, there isn’t a lot more we can know because four of the biggest movies of the year have yet to be seen: Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hobbit. Any one or all or none could shift the race from where it stands right now.

There is one thing we do know, however. A surprise awards nomination or win can make all of the difference to any struggling film. Making strides this week — Middle of Nowhere, which showed up at the Gothams, and Beasts of the Southern Wild continuing its winning streak at the London Film Festival, along with Rust and Bone, which took their top prize. Both films have been chugging along powerfully since Cannes. You would have expected they would have been supplanted by other titles but they haven’t. Beasts of the Southern Wild, despite the hype, despite the lowered box office numbers, remains a one of a kind tiny masterpiece. Whether Oscar voters will be able to make room for it or not amid the bigger storms headed their way is a different question. Be that as it may, both Rust and Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Middle of Nowhere are female-driven narratives, a quality vastly lacking in the major Best Picture contenders here.

Despite somewhat downbeat forecasts for Lincoln by a few of my fellow Oscar pundits, like Steve Pond who just wrote a perfectly Pond “not so fast” piece,  saying Lincoln’s reception has been muted on the left coast, Lincoln is Argo’s most formidable challenger. Even the likewise cautious Kris Tapley  had to admit as much in his column. Since the film has yet to be reviewed by the major critics, caution is appropriate.

Argo has passed the test of critics and audiences — Phil Contrino of Box Office says that Argo will sail to $100 million without breaking a sweat. Lincoln is a tougher sell; as one of Spielberg’s very best films it doesn’t have the double punch applause moments that Argo has. It is quieter, deeper. But unless it is savaged by the critics, Lincoln is Argo’s biggest challenger at the moment. You can go by what people are saying after screenings, you can go with the rumblings from bloggers and critics, you can go with Jeff Wells’ ongoing objection to Spielberg and Lincoln, or you can go with the way the wind blows. The wind is most definitely blowing Spielberg’s way, as it would with any directorial icon who has reached past his comfort zone. Can Lincoln beat Argo– that’s really the question. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Lincoln won’t do serious awards damage in the tech categories — cinematography, costume, art direction, score, editing, sound. In the beating heart categories — writing, directing and acting. That, my friends, adds up to a major Oscar contender. Can it win? Sure. Will it win? Who knows.

It’s hard not to see the pattern developing. Lincoln and Argo are both about pronounced American heroes — Abraham Lincoln and Tony Mendez. One saved the union, freed the slaves and set the country on the right path, even if it was the more difficult one. The other concocted a plan to rescue American hostages, took no credit for many years to come and is only now able to take some of that credit. The last two years, the Best Picture winner has harkened back to a more comfortable era. Nostalgia has been an ongoing theme lately in the awards race and to that end, Lincoln and Argo fit right in. Both films, though, are earlier echoes of present day America. Many of the conflicts then are still conflicts today. Racism is an ongoing problem in white dominated America, and Iran is at the forefront of our fears.

We don’t yet know the fate of our first black president. We don’t yet know what our relationship with Iran will be, either in the coming weeks, or after the election — another war in our future? Is it Iraq all over again? Ben Affleck subtly inserted a moment in Argo when one of the characters makes the switch to Iraq because back then it was the safer country. You see, these two films feel like electrical outlets that plug in to the same fears, passions, lightning rods of today. Is it any wonder, then, that they are heading straight to the core of this year’s Best Picture race?

Lincoln and Argo aren’t the only films that look back on who we once were and how that defines who we have become today. Fitting oddly into the mix is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which disassembles our notions of religion, insert’s our animal nature and leaves us with a question mark about what it all means. The Master, Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas are all films that grapple with the bigger meanings of our existence, which could come into play with baby-boomers who are nearing the age where it all starts to bob back up to the surface. But The Master is the antithesis of the other two — it does not seek to explain nor fill the void. The Master is ferocious art, abstract expressionism, pure vision. It sharply divides audiences, which is what makes it a tough sell for Oscar, who appears to be tired of making the bold moves and feels more comfortable sticking with the conventional form of movie making — as the strict and traditional King’s Speech, and the tried and true throwback, The Artist, both fulfilled. If the Academy was in the business of rewarding bold artistic visions it would have given Stanley Kubrick an Oscar.

The Master has made an indelible footprint on the art of cinema, and alongside it stand films like Holy Motors and Amour. But there have been enormous genre and sci-fi movies that have broken through this year. Christopher Nolan rewrote the rules of Hollywood by showing you could make blockbusters that were also uncompromising works of art, as he did with Inception and finally, closing out the Batman series with the Dark Knight Rises. Nolan and Warner Bros. faced down some pretty tough odds this year, having to endure the first ever mass shooting on the opening night of the Dark Knight Rises. Logic would assume that Academy voters therefore wouldn’t touch it. The collateral carnage was too great. The question of violence in films, the Joker, all of it too much to fit on their plate, especially when there are so many films to choose from this year. But one should never take lightly Nolan’s contribution to American film. His mutation has opened the door to other studio projects to perhaps feel more comfortable taking risks. Nolan, like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spielberg, shot on film. That all three made the best looking films of the year without 3-D is all the more impressive.

The Dark Knight Rises is so much about the turmoil of 2012 only most people aren’t feeling its zeitgeist so strongly. The politics, the economic changes in our country, what it represents in terms of how Hollywood is changing, and the overall accomplishment of the Dark Knight movies is worth rewarding. I write that knowing that the next thing people will say is “no way.” Okay, fine. No way. Because it won’t get rewarded doesn’t mean it shouldn’t.

The same would go for Looper, a film so surprising there doesn’t seem to be a place to put it — it falls out of categorization this year because it too breaks the rules. You aren’t supposed to have a movie be about what it’s not advertised as being about. And yet, 3/4 of the way into Looper, the movie becomes something wholly different. It is just one of the many great films of 2012 that will likely never get anywhere near the Kodak.

Beware the underdog, which could be laying in wait. Might that be Silver Linings Playbook? A scrappy, feelgood love story revolving every so slightly around mental illness? Might that be Life of Pi? A movie that has the power to alter perception? Might it be Zero Dark Thirty, the movie that is about American finally getting the bad guy, or the one that really isn’t like the others, the grand experiment, the epic musical directed by Tom Hooper, Les Miserables? Much potential remains unknown this year but there are two things we mostly know for sure: Argo and Lincoln.

As is always the case with Oscar, our identity rests on the shoulders of men. In all of these stories, we are turning to the central male figure to delineate our collective identity. There is nothing new in our Best Picture contenders revolving around a central figure. The only thing that’s new about it are the people who finally notice it.

There is also a pulse of innocence working through this year’s slate, a more universal world view of seeing our adult world through the eyes of the young’uns. Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Impossible offer an alternate, less jaded point of view. While The Impossible is based on a true story, it renders itself as magical realism because it really does seem like an impossible story only a child could imagine. Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild really do take us away from reality completely, into the realm of the sublime and surreal.

But let’s take a moment and look at the contenders in Best Picture, what are their strengths and what are there weaknesses? I’m going to start with the most likely and work down from there.

1. Argo – Going for it: it’s a film that is deceptively entertaining. Dig beneath its layers and you will find a more intriguing glimpse into American intelligence. A frontrunner for editing, Argo moves along at a smooth velocity, smoothly oscillating from funny, insightful, suspenseful to satisfying. It should have no trouble hitting the number one spot on ballots, even with the potential for older voters not to take Affleck seriously. He’s delivered the goods this time around in a language they are all very familiar with.
Against it – if anything, Argo is lacking that ol’ song “gravitas.” It is more The Artist than The King’s Speech.
Predicted nominations: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Costume

2. Lincoln – Going for it: Spielberg’s best film in twenty years. A quality show from the ground up, with a killer opening shot and an unforgettable ending, Lincoln pays tribute at once to a great leader, a great writer and historian (Doris Kearns Goodwin) realized by one of the best writers in Hollywood (Tony Kushner), with a lead performance that will end the year heads and shoulders above the rest. It is about a pivotal moment in our nation’s history handled with the least amount of sentimentalism Spielberg could restrain. So dense and filled with memorable dialogue and ideas you can’t catch it all at once. It’s political and historical wonkery at its best — with every minute detail attended to. Spielberg famously asked Doris Kearns Goodwin about each of the characters, whether he was getting their physical bodies right. And then there are the performances. The three main ones are exceptional, but particularly Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Lincoln are equally magnificent. Can all three win? It’s certainly possible. But we’ve a ways to go yet. We’ve the critics to address yet. The fanboy-led demographic that will likely feel restless and bored during a movie that isn’t about blowing things up.
Against it: Lincoln asks that you sit up and pay attention. You can’t let it wash over you as you would a different kind of Spielberg film. Something tells me the critics will give it a hard time too. We’ll have to wait and see on that but my instincts are telling me they will, which is why I have Argo in the number one spot. It is currently the best reviewed mainstream movie of the year.
Predicted nominations: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume, Editing, Score, Hair and Makeup

3. Life of Pi – Going for it: it’s a sweeping, mesmerizing spectacle that takes you on an unforgettable journey through a writer’s wild imagination. Ang Lee has said that technology needed to catch up before Life of Pi could be made. To that end, it is like Avatar (although Avatar can’t be beat on the visuals) its story is far superior. David Magee’s script is sublime. By the time the rough and tumble of all the challenges life throws at you — literally and figuratively — Life of Pi leaves you with a conclusion about life, religion and our place in the world.
Against it: It’s one of those movies like so many in 2012, you’re either with it or you’re against it. Divisive films don’t often win the consensus vote. It doesn’t have any stars and Oscar likes him some stars. Will it earn any acting nominations and can it win without any?
Predicted nominations: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing, Score.

4. Silver Linings Playbook – Going for it – the ensemble somehow ends up working well together in the most beautiful of ways. It’s a love story that’s about letting go of the past and recognizing what is right in front you. It’s about accepting the weaknesses of others and learning to live together. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are much of the reason the film works. It leaves you with a jolt of feelgoodism that can really make your day.
Against it: romantic comedies don’t always fare so well with Oscar, especially in a really competitive year. But Silver Linings has already won two awards, the audience award in Toronto and the audience award at the Hamptons Film Fest. That is more than enough cred to keep it in the race. Never underestimate the Weinstein Co.

5. Les Mis – unknown, but if it hits the right notes, predicted nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Sound, Sound Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes, Hair and Makeup

6. Zero Dark Thirty – unknown but if it strikes the target, Picture, Director, Screenplay, Lead Actress, Editing, Sound, Sound Editing

If the Oscar story goes as planned, choosing a fifth slot best director is going to be tricky. Someone is going to get left off the list. Right now, it feels like the last two spots are: David O. Russell vs. Tom Hooper vs. Kathryn Bigelow. Or Ang Lee could be left off of Life of Pi, leaving a spot for Benh Zeitlin or Paul Thomas Anderson. I feel that only Affleck and Spielberg are mostly locked in at the moment.

7. Flight – Going for it – it’s a vivid picture of a man running away from the truth. He is buried behind a mountain of denial, and when he finally comes crashing down (like the plane he maneuvers to the ground so successfully) it’s quite something to watch.
Possible nominations: Picture, Actor, Director (possibly), Supporting Actor (possibly), Screenplay (possibly), Visual Effects

8. The Master – sorry I left this off earlier – if it goes, if voters are into it in the least, it will get picked for Picture, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress (and Supporting Actor?), Cinematography, Art Direction, Score. I could also see them snubbing The Master completely. You just never know how it will go.

9. Moonrise Kingdom – Going for it – it’s a very well reviewed money maker that really struck a chord with audiences.  A love story of two tweens who carve out an escape plan is delightful.
Possible nominations – Picture, original screenplay, costume, score

10. Beasts of the Southern Wild – Going for it – Benh Zeitlin rewrote the rules of cinema this year, even if it meant he did it within the realms of his own ouvre. A film told entirely through poetry – heartstoppingly beautifully written.
Potential nominations: Picture, adapted screenplay, actress, supporting actor, possibly cinematography, possibly score

11. Django Unchained – it is too soon to know. This could be a big fish or a small fish. It’s hard to imagine original screenplay without Tarantino, though, so at the very least you have to save a spot for him there until the movie is seen. But if it goes: Picture Director (he would have to bump someone else), Screenplay, Actor, Costumes, Art Direction, Editing, Sound, etc.

12. The Hobbit – another competing title for the tech nods. We’ll have to wait and see but it will give Life of Pi a run for its money in the visual effects department, at the very least.

The longer odds:

The Dark Knight Rises – something about this movie makes me not want to give up on it. I feel like history will remember Christopher Nolan’s trilogy more than it will remember many of the other films in the race so far.

The Sessions – it seems to be actor-driven but could get a surprise Best Picture nomination if it gets enough number 1 votes.

The Impossible – a true story that could end up becoming a sentimental favorite.
Amour – still hanging in there, though it is potentially going toe to toe with The Intouchables, a genuine crowd-pleaser and money maker.