“This train carries saints and sinners. This train, carries losers and winners.”Springsteen

So much of the Oscar race is built on the precarious ledge of hope. Audiences hope the movies are good. Publicists hope for many nominations and a big payday. Film fans hope for their tastes to be validated. Filmmakers hope people will love and respond to the project they’ve just devoted years of their time to creating, actors hope their emotional investment won’t have been fruitless, and Oscar voters hope the movies are good.  Finally, the year’s strongest Oscar contenders also depend heavily on hope.

Silver Linings Playbook is about the hope for a better life despite the many difficulties we are sometimes born with, Les Miserables is about the hope for the future of the impoverished underclass in France, that their suffering and bloodshed won’t have been in vain.  Zero Dark Thirty is the hope that all of our efforts to kill Bin Laden and cripple Al Qaeda will keep us safer. Argo is about the iffy hope that a half-cooked bad idea could free the hostages.  And Lincoln is about the hope for equality for all Americans, the hope that humanity will prevail even at a time when many people couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

While those films are probably the ones that would be nominated if there were still only five Best Picture nominees, the theme of hope extends past them to the other films that are pushing their way in — Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Flight and Moonrise Kingdom. 

In each of these films the characters strive to do what they fear can never be done. They risk humiliation, or they risk their lives all to keep hope alive.   They are all about hope, sacrifice and endurance.

Are there other movies that might squeeze in for Best Picture, like AmourAnna KareninaThe Promised Land, Django Unchained or The Hobbit?  A consensus will be forming slowly this week and next and by the time Oscar voters have their ballots on the 17th (!) there should be a good working knowledge of which films are the strongest heading into the race.

The Oscar race is usually decided by a combination of buzz, critics awards, guild awards, and public reception.  We are still mostly in the critics phase of the awards race so it’s a good time to look at whether they will have any impact this year.

It’s been said that critics don’t vote for the Oscars, and indeed, that’s true.  But not all critics write with equal insight  and not all critics groups are measured alike. The Critics Choice awards are filled with many people who aren’t mainstream film critics but  awards bloggers or  TV personalities. I don’t know how they can all be called critics but we’ll accept the title they give themselves.  There are many significant self-made critics in self-made groups so the best writers are usually found flocking together in sophisticated clusters around Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Phoenix.  Along with the Southeastern and National Society, there’s enough crossover to cover the map.

Other groups like the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Golden Satellites, and the Broadcast Film Critics are often seen to be more populist. All the same, 2010 proved you could win all of those, from snooty exclusive film critics to general audience populist and still lose the larger industry votes.

Bob Dylan said “you just want to be on the side that’s winning.” A winner is covered in  shimmer, whether they deserve it or not. If one win feels good voters might go in for a double dose, and so on, as long as the high lasts.

Kathryn Bigelow already made history when The Hurt Locker won the New York Film critics before going on to win the Oscar, thus becoming the first woman to ever win Best Picture and Best Director. Back then, the whispered narratives about her were that she only won because she was a woman, and that she could only win because her films were about men.   That was another myth Bigelow shattered yesterday when her Zero Dark Thirty won the New York Film Critics for Picture, Director and Cinematography.

The success of this film should dispel any notion that The Hurt Locker only won because it was directed by a woman. Despite the Sound & Sound critics turning their back on it, the film was universally well reviewed — and not because of Bigelow’s gender.  It won worldwide acclaim because the collaboration between Bigelow and Mark Boal resulted in an exceptional film about America’s involvement in Iraq.  Zero Dark Thirty is the next chapter, with the same crackling heat of the first Bigelow/Boal collaboration. You can’t give Bigelow credit, I don’t think, without also crediting Boal. His writing shines even brighter in Zero Dark Thirty than The Hurt Locker, much of which is bare bones dialogue and tense altercations.

If Bigelow wins this year she will only be the second person to win Best Picture and Best Director back to back for consecutive  films.  The only other director to do it was David Lean, who made Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia with a five year span between them. Bigelow would do it with a three year span between.

Bigelow also seems poised for a potential split.  Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg both won Best Director but then lost best Picture to Driving Miss Daisy and Shakespeare in Love, respectively.  Many will likely, and smartly, predict Bigelow to win Director and then something that squeezes the heartstrings for Best Picture, probably they will go for Les Miserables or Silver Linings Playbook in that instance.

Splits, though, are treacherous to predict. Had Driving Miss Daisy director Bruce Beresford been nominated,  it’s possible he would have taken director too. In the case of Saving Private Ryan, the film itself was seen as such an enormous achievement but it didn’t make voters FEEL good.  They wanted to honor Spielberg but liked another movie more.  You could make this argument each and every time there is a split: Warren Beatty for Reds and Chariots of Fire, Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain and Crash, Roman Polanski and The Pianist and Chicago.

We would then have to guess if Zero Dark Thirty or Lincoln fits into that pattern, or if there is another movie that captures the hearts of voters.  While I don’t think splits can be predicted and I am sort of opposed to them in every regard, this is one year that might happen because of the strength of Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty heading into the race.  Only one can win the top prize.  Each of them has a screenplay in different categories so theoretically it could be a nail-biter for the final two big categories.  If it comes down Bigelow vs. Spielberg, will be easier for voters to choose Bigelow? Or Spielberg? Will Les Miserables come along and be that sentimental weepy whose director won’t win? Is that movie Silver Linings Playbook instead?

That rasies the question of whether any film has been shut out of the New York Film Critics and still gone on to win Best Picture. The answer is, yes. Crash and Chicago both did, and both times it resulted in a split vote.  The truth is that the NYFCC had less of an impact before Oscar rules moved the awards back a month. That switched everyone up and suddenly critics groups became more influential, as did the awards bloggers.

This year, Oscar voters will ONLY have the critics awards to help them form their opinion. The SAG nominations will be the only guild awards announced before Oscar voters have to turn in their ballots. The DGA and PGA will come after, so any surprise winner that turns up on either of their list of nominees will get no Oscar bounce from them.  This has never happened since the time these guilds formed.

Oscar hopefuls nominated in a vacuum? Perish the thought. Sometimes you don’t want to know what the voters think, as was evidenced by this week’s documentary shortlist that effectively shut out many of the year’s best documentaries. It’s still a broken system, even after Michael Moore’s efforts  to fix it.

Because there is still a review embargo on Les Miserables, it’s impossible to put that film in context of the awards race. There are enthusiastic crowd responses in screenings in New York, and a lot of pundits predicting it to win but that’s it. Most of the time there needs to be more than critic’s enthusiasm to push that movie through to a win. Probably the strategy is to wait it out, hope for a lot of nominations and then strong box office to push it through to a win, with or without the reviews.  It’s a gamble that may or may not pay off.

Silver Linings Playbook is not following the pattern of The King’s Speech or The Artist so far — nothing from the New York Film critics. But that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. There are many more critics awards yet to come and a big win from any of them could give it a bump.   Unlike Les Miserables, Silver Linings has run the gauntlet and emerged with good to great reviews. Its box office is increasing and it still has the Toronto audience award.

That Argo came so close to winning the NYFCC is fairly significant.  It also could benefit from a big win from a critics group, though it is, so far, the only $100 million dollar baby in the bunch, with Lincoln on the verge of closing the gap.

To accurately see the Oscar race, though, you sometimes have to abandon hope. Like Red says, it’s a dangerous thing, and it can lull you into wanting something you can’t have, whether it’s to see the Oscars validate your favorite film, or to see them break a stereotype or make history; most of the time, they will break your heart.

In the Shawshank Redemption, one of the best films never to win the Oscar, the word hope is debated by two of the film’s leads. Red says “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” To which his friend Andy replies, “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” But Red isn’t convinced until the end of the film. The last lines echo his change of heart, “I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

But that shouldn’t keep us from hoping. I hope that voters recognize the height of achievement of Spielberg/Kushner/Day-Lewis reached. I hope I can decide which movie I liked better, Lincoln, Life of Pi or Zero Dark Thirty.  I hope that someone will give Emanuelle Riva some awards love. I hope that Cloud Atlas will be recognized for its unforgettable score — and even Jim Broadbent and Doona Bae for their versatile turns.  I hope that it will be a good year for Oscar.  I hope I live through this year. I hope.

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Zero Dark Thirty
Winning the New York Film critics, early rave reviews and a current topic at hand, not to mention maybe the only film in the race that centers on the arc of a female.

Lincoln.
Lincoln’s box office continues to surprise everyone — it just keeps climbing. It made $82 million in four weeks of release. Additionally, Lincoln just wracked up three New York Film Critics prizes, including two for acting, and Tommy Lee Jones was named one of the best performances of the year by TIME.  SAG ensemble is looking promising.

Life of Pi
Doing well at the box office, the film likely start to show up on top ten lists.  While it might not win any critics awards, it is one of the few nourishing film experiences of the year and the word of mouth has been great.

Les Miserables:  Now is when you feel the full force of a big studio that knows how to sell a movie. Whatever Les Miserables is, their marketing team is top notch.  Even though I’ve seen the movie twice (it got better for me the second time), the marketing is so good it makes me want to see it again.  It continues to be at the top of the predictions over at Gold Derby.  Lincoln still number one at Movie City News.

Argo: while the buzz might have dampened a wee bit, that it was so close to winning the New York Film Critics for Best Picture is significant enough to keep it high in the conversation.

Amour: Being named number one film of the year by TIME is a big deal. That means people will be seeking it out. Drenched with emotion, Amour is unforgettable.  I’m starting to think Kris Tapley might be onto something with his prediction of it in Best Picture.

The Dark Knight Rises: It’s looking up for the superhero caper, now that it was included on TIME’s Best Of list.

Strongest Contenders so far:
Lincoln
Zero Dark Thirty
Argo
Silver Linings Playbook
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Flight
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The Dark Knight Rises
Amour

Will need passionate support:
The Master
Django Unchained
Anna Karenina
Cloud Atlas
The Promised Land

Best Actress

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Rachel Weisz for Deep Blue Sea – while other actresses were expected to win Best Actress from the New York Film Critics – Weisz ended up taking it in the final round of voting (don’t ask).  She has a strong advocacy group behind her in the critics community and there’s a good chance she will start to dominate in that category. The reason I never had her as a contender is that I couldn’t make it through Deep Blue Sea. I am giving it another go this afternoon, however, and hopefully I can see what all of the fuss was about. But mea culpa for not having realized it sooner.

Emmanuelle Riva – Amour – being named the best performance of the year by TIME mag has finally boosted Riva into the forefront. But if voters are given the choice between Riva and Weisz, if you’ve been reading this blog a long time, whom do you think they’ll choose?

The Strongest Contenders:
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Rachel Weisz, Deep Blue Sea
Marion Cotillard, Rust & Bone
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Needs passionate support:
Emayatzy Corinealdi, Middle of Nowhere
Leslie Mann, This is Forty
Meryl Streep, Hope Springs

Best Actor

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Richard Gere – It’s starting to look like there’s a strong possibility Gere can actually pull out his first Best Actor win for Arbitrage.  The parties, the tributes, the support from the Hollywood community has been surprising. His performance is certainly worthy of a nomination, but if it wasn’t he would certainly deserve it for his long, brilliant career.

Daniel Day-Lewis, though TIME’s strange list didn’t include Day-Lewis, he did just win the New York Film Critics.

Strongest Contenders:
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Denzel Washington, Flight
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
John Hawkes in The Sessions
Richard Gere, Arbitrage
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Will need passionate support:
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock

Still to come:
Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actor

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Matthew McConoughey, for his stellar work this year. He’ll probably get in for Magic Mike, but there has been praise for his work in Bernie and Killer Joe. He also just won the New York Film Critics. I am currently predicting the actor not just to get nominated but to win the category.

Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln – named on TIME’s best performances list so he gets a shout out here.

Strongest Contenders:

Matthew McConoughey, Magic Mike
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Dwight Henry in Beasts of the Southern Wild
Alan Arkin, Argo
John Goodman, Flight
John Goodman, Argo

Best Supporting Actress

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Sally Field – If it turns out that Lincoln wins three acting prizes and not picture, Field will be one of the winners. Anne Hathaway was pretty close  during the voting, which keeps her very much in the game. If Les Miserables enters the race with a whole slew of nominations, Hathaway can’t lose.

Strongest contenders:

Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Sally Field, Lincoln
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Amy Adams, The Master
Maggie Smith, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Will need passionate support:
Kelly Reilly, Flight
Lorraine Toussaint in Middle of Nowhere
Doona Bae in Cloud Atlas
Ann Dowd, Compliance

  Best Director

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Kathryn Bigelow – A big win at the New York Film Critics makes history again.

Strongest Contenders:
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Ben Affleck, Argo
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Tom Hooper, Les Mis
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom

Will need passionate support:
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Michael Haneke, Amour
Joe Wright, Anna Karenina
Robert Zemeckis, Flight

Original Screenplay

Strongest contenders:
Marc Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Michael Haneke, Amour
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
John Gatins, Flight
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere
Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage
Rian Johnson, Looper

Adapted Screenplay

Strongest contenders:
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Chris Terrio, Argo
David Magee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild
William Nicholson, Les Miserables

Dark horse possibilities:

Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises
Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, The Hobbit