“If you are losing a tug of war with a tiger, give him the rope before he gets to your arm. You can always buy a new rope.” – Max Gunther

A quick timeline:
January 10th
– Oscar nominations, Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow left off
January 10th – Ben Affleck wins Best Picture and Director at the BFCA
January 13th – Ben Affleck wins Best Picture and Best Director at the Globes

January 24 – PGA ballot deadline
January 25 – SAG, DGA deadline

You build momentum one win at a time, but particularly so if it is an unexpected win. What Ben Affleck’s double wins did on the heels of his presumed “snub” threw fire on gasoline and set into motion a narrative that would turn what was once a wide open Oscar race into one of those years where one movie wins everything — like Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, that was the last time a movie won as many awards as Argo is winning. The drama continues every step of the way because everyone knows that the one award Argo can’t win is Best Director. It was a blessing in disguise.

That it is up against evil Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln makes it all the more juicy. I just saw a headline yesterday that read “will Argo steal Lincoln’s Best Picture Oscar?” Even when it was clear Argo was going to win that narrative kept chugging away and will continue up to Oscar night. People love that kind of thing.  It makes us all think justice is being done. The good guys are winning against the bad guys.  It’s the nature of humans, and the nature of the Oscar race.

For me, watching the Oscar race all of these years has been like Timothy Treadwell entering the Grizzly Maze. He starts out kind of observing them as photojournalists might – with healthy objectivity – observe them but keep a safe distance. Over time, he becomes too involved and eventually, falsely, believes he can influence the outcome of the cold, indifferent natural world. As we watch his narcissistic personality disorder take over his more gentle nature, he loses perspective and then gets eaten by one of the bears he sought to protect.

I have always envied people who can stumble into the Oscar race and not really care about the outcome.  They slip in and out of them easily, never taking them too seriously, showing up to do the job but never taking a particular side, loving being on the winning side but not really thinking any of it matters much. It’s just a dumb contest, after all, who cares.  I did that, or tried to, for the few years of Oscar watching. When I first started I wanted to know why some great films never won Oscars.  I set out to track them from the beginning of the year on through to Oscar night.  I thought if I could show people how it went down they would not forget the best ones and they would think about their vote more seriously.   Sometimes it seemed to make a difference, like when Adrien Brody surprised in the Best Actor category.  But it was impossible to think any of it meant something after Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash and then later, when The Social Network lost to The King’s Speech, and now when Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Life of Pi are losing to Argo.  None of these winners are bad films. They are the consensus choice that said we liked this movie better than all of the others.

It is really not the problem of the race itself but those who become too invested in it.  If you keep track of the things that generally define greatness and see in the end that those things don’t matter it can become as frustrating and maddening as Timothy Treadwell watching the bears starve to death because there is no rain.  And if you care too much people start to wonder about you.

Even still, I applaud Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Gran Heslov and Chris Terrio for their marvelously entertaining Argo. And yes, it is all of those things. Who can’t be happy for Terrio, in particular, a nice guy and a talented writer who wrote something that a lot of people really love? Or Affleck, for that matter, smartly put front and center during the awards race. They’re on the winning side and they can’t be stopped. Might as well hop on their hay wagon, crack open a cold one and sing along. Or you can  sit on the sidelines being miserable about the outcome not being what you’d hoped, what you’d imagined or what, in your darkest moments, never thought possible. It’s a choice to make at the end of the slog.

And so I remember back to 2010 when at least the Social Network had won every critics award it went up for – and it was rejected by the industry — Best Picture was read by Steven Spielberg:

This year isn’t ending in a tragedy. Voters found a great movie that they liked. It has transformed the careers of Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio. I have not regretted one minute of this year. Who could not have been inspired by these great movies this year.   The endgame is, well, the celebration.

I think I’ve survived the grizzly maze for another year. And as Timothy Treadwell said moments before being eaten alive, “There is no, no, no other place in the world that is more dangerous, more exciting than the Grizzly Maze. Come here and camp here. Come here and try to do what I do. You will die. You will die here. You will frickin’ die here. They will get you. I found a way. I found a way to survive with them. Am I a great person? I don’t know. I don’t know. We’re all great people. Everyone has something in them that’s wonderful. I’m just different. And I love these bears enough to do it right. And I’m edgy enough and I’m tough enough.”

As we close down shop for this bizarre season which started in Telluride with Argo and ended in Los Angeles with Argo, it’s a good time remember once again that the films that get out there early often have the staying power to go the distance. This is the combination of being underestimated (Argo was seen as an also-ran heading into the race) and to have proven staying power to run the gauntlet. Argo stood back while the other films got trashed.  This has been true going back many years now: The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash all came out early in the year or around the time of Toronto/Telluride.  You have to really go back to Million Dollar Baby to find a late-breaking Best Picture winner.  Remember that for next time.

Also remember that the least offensive really does win the day.  All of the most recent Best Picture winners had the least or nearly the least negative reviews.  To win these days you have to be a Teflon movie with Teflon filmmakers – meaning, you can’t hate them. Hating them is like kicking a puppy.  The more you hate on them, the more lovable they become.  Remember that too.

But there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the ones that won’t win.  They are beautiful losers that are made better because they don’t appeal to the consensus.  Great art, by definition, has trouble doing just that. Oh sure, sometimes you get lucky and the consensus manages to get behind great art.  But it doesn’t happen often. Usually Best Picture is Ms. Right Now.  The first flush of unbreakable love that has a shelf life.  Chocolate only stays sweet for so long.

But I have to also say that what made this year for me were the best readers and commenters on the web. The community of Oscar watchers drives this site — it did back in 1999 and it does now.  So I am not alone in the Grizzly Maze.

In one week we’ll watch George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Grant Heslov make Oscar history.  It will be a joyous occasion.  I keep remembering Ben Affleck and Matt Damon scrambling to the state on their surprise win for Good Will Hunting. They were so stunned to be there, so surprised by their win because they looked like kids who just got let out of high school for the summer. Now Affleck’s back to take the big prize.  He’s come a long way, baby.  We can be on his winning side on Sunday.  It’s either that or get eaten by one of the bears.

***

It’s worth mentioning that this is the fourth consecutive year where the major guilds will dictate how the Academy votes. That’s been so, really, since they changed up to ten. I don’t think it’s really possible now, with so many movies in the mix, for there to be any surprises on Oscar night.

Here are the categories I think are up for grabs — meaning, any name could be read because they have no official frontrunner.

Best Director (leaning Spielberg or Ang Lee or David O. Russell). 
Best Actress (leaning Emmanuelle Riva or Jennifer Lawrence)
. Best Supporting Actor (leaning Christoph Waltz, Tommy Lee Jones or De Niro). 
Best Original Screenplay (leaning Zero Dark, Amour or Django)
. Sound Editing (leaning Skyfall or Argo or Life of Pi). 
Animated Feature (leaning Wreck-it Ralph or Brave). 
Cinematography (leaning Life of Pi or Skyfall). 
Art Direction (leaning Anna Karenina or Life of Pi). 
Score (leaning Life of Pi)
. The shorts (leaning Curfew, Open Heart, Paperman).

Seem Locked: 
Picture-Argo
, Adapted Screenplay-Argo, 
Supporting Actress-Anne Hathaway
, Editing-Argo, 
Foreign Language Film-Amour, 
Best Actor (perhaps)-Daniel Day-Lewis
, Costumes-Anna Karenina
, Sound-Les Miserables
, Visual Effects-Life of Pi, 
Documentary–Searching for Sugar Man, 
Makeup-Les Miserables
, Song-Skyfall.

On these charts you can see how once Oscar changed up to more than five Best Picture nominees the guilds and Oscar have been uniform: one winner all of the time.

Producers Guild | Best Picture
Won Guild | Won Oscar

2011

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Argo Argo Argo Argo
Lincoln Lincoln Lincoln Lincoln
Les Mis Les Mis Les Mis Les Mis
Zero Dark Thirty Zero Dark Thirty Zero Dark Thirty
Life of Pi Life of Pi Life of Pi
Silver Linings Silver Linings Silver Linings
Django Unchained Django Unchained
Beasts of the Southern Wild Beasts of the Southern Wild
Amour Amour

2011

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

The Artist The Artist The Artist The Artist
The Descendants The Descendants The Descendants The Descendants
Midnight in Paris Midnight in Paris Midnight in Paris Midnight in Paris
Hugo Hugo Hugo
Dragon Tattoo Dragon Tattoo Extremely Loud
The Help The Help The Help
Moneyball Moneyball
Ides of March Tree of Life
War Horse War Horse
Bridesmaids Bridesmaids

2010

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

The King’s Speech The King’s Speech The King’s Speech The King’s Speech
The Social Network The Social Network The Social Network The Social Network
Black Swan Black Swan Black Swan Black Swan
The Fighter The Fighter The Fighter The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right The Kids Are All Right The Kids Are All Right
Inception Inception Inception
True Grit True Grit
Toy Story 3 Toy Story 3
127 Hours 127 Hours
The Town The Town

2009

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds Inglourious Basterds Inglourious Basterds Inglourious Basterds
Avatar Avatar Avatar
Precious Precious Precious Precious
Up in the Air Up in the Air Up in the Air
An Education An Education An Education
Invictus District 9
District 9 The Blind Side
Up Up
Star Trek Nine A Serious Man

2008

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire
Benjamin Button Benjamin Button Benjamin Button Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight Doubt The Dark Knight The Reader
Frost/Nixon Frost/Nixon Frost/Nixon Frost/Nixon
Milk Milk Milk Milk

2007

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood There Will Be Blood There Will Be Blood There Will Be Blood
Diving Bell American Gangster Diving Bell Atonement
Juno Into the Wild Juno Juno
Michael Clayton 3:10 to Yuma Michael Clayton Michael Clayton

2006
PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

The Departed The Departed The Departed The Departed
Babel Babel Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Babel
Dreamgirls Dreamgirls Bill Condon Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine Little Miss Sunshine Jonathan Dayton/Valeri Faris Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen Bobby Stephen Frears The Queen

2005

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain
Crash Crash Paul Haggis Crash
Capote Capote Bennett Miller Capote
Good Night, and Good Luck Good Night George Clooney Good Night
Walk the Line Hustle and Flow
Steven Spielberg Munich

2004

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

The Aviator The Aviator The Aviator The Aviator
Million $ Baby Million $ Baby Million $ Baby Million $ Baby
Finding Neverland Finding Neverland Finding Neverland Finding Neverland
Sideways Sideways Sideways Sideways
The Incredibles Ray Ray Ray
Hotel Rwanda

2003

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

The Last Samurai In America Sofia Coppola Lost in Translation
ROTK ROTK ROTK ROTK
Mystic River Mystic River Clint Eastwood Mystic River
Master and Commander The Station Agent Peter Weir Master and Commander
Seabiscuit Seabiscuit Gary Ross Seabiscuit
Cold Mountain

2002

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Adaptation Adaptation The Pianist The Pianist
Chicago Chicago Chicago Chicago
Gangs of New York Gangs of New York Gangs of New York
Two Towers Two Towers Two Towers Two Towers
My Big Fat Greek Wedding Greek Wedding
Road to Perdition The Hours The Hours The Hours

2001

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

A Beautiful Mind A Beautiful Mind A Beautiful Mind A Beautiful Mind
The Lord of the Rings The Lord of the Rings The Lord of the Rings The Lord of the Rings
Harry Potter Gosford Park Memento Gosford Park
Moulin Rouge Moulin Rouge Moulin Rouge Moulin Rouge
Shrek In the Bedroom Black Hawk Down In the Bedroom

2000

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Gladiator Gladiator Gladiator Gladiator
Traffic Traffic Traffic (won director)
Erin Brockovich Erin Brockovich Erin Brockovich
Billy Elliot Billy Elliot
Almost Famous Almost Famous Almost Famous
Crouching Tiger Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Chocolat Chocolat

1999

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

The Cider House Rules Cider House Rules The Cider House Rules
American Beauty American Beauty American Beauty American Beauty
The Insider Magnolia Michael Mann The Insider
The Green Mile Frank Darabont The Green Mile
The Hurricane M. Night Shyamalan The Sixth Sense
Being john Malkovich Being John Malkovich Being John Malkovich

1998

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Waking Ned Divine Waking Ned Divine Peter Weir Elizabeth
Shakespeare In Love Shakespeare in Love John Madden Shakespeare in Love
Gods and Monsters Little Voice Terrence Malick The Thin Red Line
Life Is Beautiful Life is Beautiful Roberto Benigni Life Is Beautiful
Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan (director winner)

1997

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Titanic Boogie Nights Titanic Titanic
Amistad The Full Monty The Full Monty The Full Monty
L. A. Confidential LA Confidential L. A. Confidential L. A. Confidential
As Good As It Gets As Good as it Gets As Good as it Gets As Good as it Gets
Good Will Hunting Good Will Hunting Good Will Hunting Good Will Hunting

1996

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Fargo Marvin’s Room Fargo Fargo
Shine Shine Shine Shine
Hamlet Sling Blade Secrets & Lies Secrets & Lies
The People vs. Larry Flynt The Birdcage Jerry Maguire Jerry Maguire
The English Patient The English Patient The English Patient The English Patient

1995

PGA | SAG | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

Leaving Las Vegas Leaving Las Vegas Babe
Dead Man Walking Get Shorty Mel Gibson Braveheart
Apollo 13 Apollo 13 Apollo 13 Apollo 13
Sense and Sensibility Sense and Sensibility Sense and Sensibility Sense and Sensibility
Il Postino Il Postino Il Postino
The Bridges of Madison County How to Make an American Quilt
The American President Nixon

PGA | DGA | Oscar Best Picture

1994

Mike Newell for Four Weddings and a Funeral* Four Weddings and A Funeral
Frank Darabont for The Shawshank Redemption* Shawkshank Redemption
Robert Redford for Quiz Show Quiz Show
Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction Pulp Fiction
Robert Zemeckis for Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis for Forrest Gump Forrest Gump+

1993

Andrew Davis for The Fugitive* The Fugitive
Jane Campion for The Piano The Piano
James Ivory for The Remains Of the Day The Remains of the Day
Martin Scorsese for The Age Of Innocence In the Name of the Father
Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List Schindler’s List+

1992

Robert Altman for The Player Scent Of a Woman
Rob Reiner for A Few Good Men A Few Good Men
Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven Unforgiven+
James Ivory for Howards End Howards End
Neil Jordan for The Crying Game Neil Jordan for The Crying Game The Crying Game

1991

Barbra Streisand for The Prince Of Tides Prince of Tides
Oliver Stone for JFK JFK
Ridley Scott for Thelma & Louise Beauty and the Beast
Barry Levinson for Bugsy Bugsy
Jonathan Demme for The Silence Of the Lambs Jonathan Demme for The Silence Of the Lambs The Silence Of the Lambs+

1990

Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather Part III The Godfather Part III
Kevin Costner for Dances With Wolves Kevin Costner for Dances With Wolves Dances With Wolves+
Barry Levinson for Avalon Awakenings
Martin Scorsese for GoodFellas GoodFellas
Giuseppe Tornatore for Cinema Paradiso Ghost