Oscar ballots are going out to 5,856 in the Academy. Those ballots are then due back by January 3rd, the same day the Producers Guild announce their top ten for 2012. We are down to the thick of it, and believe it or not, a general consensus is forming. One line of thinking says all bets are off this year because of the date being pushed back, and the DGA not announcing until after ballots are in. And another line of thinking is, forget that, the stats will hold, the precedents usually hold. We still don’t know, though, if we’re up for a split year or not. We don’t know if there will be one ring to rule them all or the awards will be split up. The only guild the Academy voters will have heard from before their ballots have to be turned in are the SAGs. They also have the Globes and the Critics Choice to go by if they so choose. But for now, we have to let SAG mostly be our guide. At Gold Derby, Lincoln is now up by 11 people who think it will win Best Picture. The Gurus of Gold put out its predictions today. Only two of them are holding on to Les Miserables for the win. And they’re Kris Tapley and Dave Karger. Karger was known for hanging onto the King’s Speech when The Social Network was winning everything and then last year he held steady with The Artist. This year, he was a Silver Linings backer until he saw and was captivated by Les Miserables. Tapley is taking a different point of view. He is going by that elusive “what Academy members are saying,” which, in most of my years doing this has never reflected reality except once. Right before the final ballots were turned in and Crash was up against Brokeback Mountain, voters were talking about how much they loved Crash. Tapley is banking on Les Miserables being this year’s Crash: no Golden Globe nod, possibly winning the SAG ensemble and from thence towards Oscar. The others are split between Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. This year, there are three stronger movies than Les Miserables heading into the race. Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Argo. Only two have the requisite nominations so far — the Globe nod for director and the SAG ensemble nod. It is a far riskier bet to go with the movie that, at least on paper, has the most difficult chance to win but far be it from me to school my colleagues. They wouldn’t listen to me anyway. What Lincoln and Argo have going for them right now is significant. But predicting split years are difficult. You have to prove two things. 1) voters want to pay tribute to a “grand achievement” that they didn’t “like.” And 2) that one movie is more popular and “likable” than the others, including the “grand achievement.” This was Spielberg and Shakespeare in Love. Roman Polanski and Chicago. Warren Beatty and Chariots of Fire. Ang Lee and Crash. But your “grand achievement” can’t also be a likable movie because then your split theory is blown. Conversely, your presumed “likable” movie has to be genuinely “likable.” Decent reviews, lots of happy audience members, strong box office. Right now, those presuming Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty are the “grand achievements” and Les Miserables or Silver Linings Playbook are the more “likable.” Lincoln and Argo are already $100 million dollar earners. They are easy crowd-pleasers, neither of which (unless you’re Jeff Wells) inspires HATE. You don’t love it/hate it either of them. You think either “I liked it okay” or “I loved it.” People don’t huff and puff about how much they HATE Argo. How could they? Ditto Lincoln. Those are the kinds of films that traditionally win Best Picture. Add to that, all of the things that go along with those films — timely subject matter, important stories to tell, American heroes, and in Spielberg’s case, a beloved director with a thirty-year career behind him. Spielberg is one of the greatest American directors and that is not something you simply dismiss because of what you’ve heard a sample of Academy members might be saying. You’d have to talk to all 6,000 of them to know for sure. Zero Dark Thirty continues to take a pummeling for its purported stance, and now the critics are being taken to task for looking at the film merely as art and not looking at what it says about what we may or may not have done in order to capture Bin Laden. To my mind, it’s ludicrous to imagine they didn’t use torture — maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t but they used it. The protests about this revolve around our assertion that torture did not lead to the capture of Bin Laden. Maybe not directly. And if you believe that anyway I have a plot of land in Bakersfield to sell you. Whether that will ultimately effect the film is hard to say. But it has two strikes against it off the bat for the win anyway: no SAG ensemble nod and Kathryn Bigelow’s relatively recent win. Still, it could overcome both of those things if voters like it enough. Needless to say, I don’t think we’re headed into a split year. I think Director and Picture will align. The trick will be figuring out which one will. I think I know but I won’t say definitively until the DGA announces their winner. I will continue to predict Lincoln, as I’ve not seen any good reason yet why it can’t and won’t win. But let’s look quickly at where each movie stands and how, going by stats and precursors, things lay out. 1. Lincoln For it: Most SAG nods for a Spielberg film, most Globes nods for a Spielberg film, most Critics Choice noms for ANY film, a Chicago film critics nomination. Most likely headed for nominations from the DGA, WGA, PGA. If it’s going to be a split year, we’ll probably find out with those big guild wins. Should Lincoln get nominated by all of them (it seems like it will but you never know) it seems like it could handily win PGA and WGA. Zero Dark Thirty is an original screenplays so Lincoln has less competition in the adapted race. WGA – Tony Kushner is a big fish. He has never won an Oscar. He wrote the brilliant Angels in America, wimning an Emmy and the WGA award — as well as the Pulitzer Prize a decade earlier. He’s best known as a playwright but also wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s Munich. Kushner has written a dense, meaningful script with tiny flourishes you might not even get unless you really knew Lincoln’s story. For instance, one of saddest things about Lincoln’s untimely death was what it did to his son Tad. Afflicted with learning disabilities and mental problems (like Mary), only Lincoln could calm him down. And many nights, Tad would sit at the fire waiting for his dad to finish work and he’d fall asleep there. His tall father would hoist him up over his shoulder and carry him off to bed. When Lincoln died, Tad was destroyed and much of that was because now, no one could calm him down. This is so beautifully illustrated by Kushner, Spielberg and Day-Lewis is takes your breath away. He has outdone himself with Lincoln and if he doesn’t win Best Adapted Screenplay well, I might have to conclude I know less about the Oscar race than I think (always a possibility). PGA – The producers, Kristie Macosko, Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy. Kennedy is one of Hollywood’s most prolific and prominent producers who has yet to win an Oscar. Seven nominations for films like E.T., The Color Purple, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and yet, she was the Exec Producer on Schindler’s List and didn’t win an Oscar. Sure, the PGA maybe doesn’t vote like that. Maybe they vote for what they “like” best. Maybe we can count on them to “like” Lincoln, or maybe they’ll “like” something else. But right now, it’s hard for me imagine any other producer, or any other film for that matter, winning the PGA. Right behind Lincoln are the other big ones — Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook. SAG – When you think about an ensemble you see the films of 2012, all of which are fantastic ensembles, even the ones that weren’t nominated for the SAG and even, yes, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But Lincoln has such an enormous cast, even if they aren’t all going to win statues if it wins. When I think of the SAG ensemble for Lincoln I think about Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, S. Epatha Merkerson, David Oyelowo — a HUGE cast of union actors, known and unknown. And now think of everyone each of those individual actors is connected to. Sure, it isn’t going to help them against a bona fide weepy — the heart wants what it wants — but simple math would make you think, huh, that’s a lot of goddamned actors in one movie. A lot of VETERAN actors in one movie, you get what I’m saying here? Most will immediately call Les Miserables or Silver Linings Playbook to win ensemble but watch out for Lincoln. You heard it here first. DGA — To my mind, Lincoln is the best film of 2012. It is a film about doing the hard thing but the right thing. It’s a film about how difficult it is to change our culture, and how, despite our high opinions of ourselves and our cultural evolution, we have been perpetrators of some of the worst crimes against humanity imaginable. It is a film about our past that rushes back to our present and makes us contemplate our future. It is also a master work by a master filmmaker, one who has been making films for all of us for almost thirty years. It is a film about Spielberg’s evolution as an artist, storyteller and human being — a WWII enthusiast now a Lincoln enthusiast. His endless curiosity in the subject is infectious. But from there, a book that took a decade to write and six years to adapt made for rich soil. Spielberg has been nominated by the DGA 10 times. He’s won three times. That could mean they’re ready to give him another one or that they’re tired of giving him awards already. It tells you a lot, though, that they are so behind this man who is popular all over the place, TV, the art house, the multiplex, everywhere. It’s a no-brainer to me that he’s the favorite to win — and only if he doesn’t win I will rethink the race. Most Oscar voters are of an age — born and lived and worked before the target demo/branded generation of sequels and remakes wrung all of the intelligence, or most of it, out of the multiplex. Similarly-minded people from all over the country are making special trips out to go the movies to see Lincoln. So much so that it is making money — lots of money. Maybe Lincoln isn’t the “sexy pick” inside our bubble, but it is fast becoming a most beloved film outside the bubble, “out there.” Against it: Receiving the most critics awards at the BFCA or the Globes doesn’t guarantee a win. Whisper campaign in full effect now that it’s “homework” or a “history lesson.” People who love history will take offense to that. Spielberg has won big already with Schindler’s List and then Director for Private Ryan. It’s not “passionate” enough — meaning, it doesn’t make people weep hysterically in the theater or, conversely, send them out to their real lives with happy tears streaming down their faces. Yeah, sorry, too busy passing the 13th amendment to hand out thumbsucking lessons. 2. Argo For it: It is the only other film besides Lincoln to hit every marker it needs to so far. Critics Choice, Globes nod for director, Chicago critics nomination, even a screenplay win from the LA Film critics (neither New York nor LA, though, are deal breakers either way). It made $100 without breaking a sweat and is Ben Affleck’s best film. Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, it is fairly lightweight by comparison. It tells a partly serious story mixed parallel to an absurd one, blending Affleck’s own humor with his ability to build suspense. In short, it’s a hell of a ride. WGA – Chris Terrio’s tight-as-a-drum screenplay with quotable lines through and through, like “this is the best bad idea we have.” Another good one: “You’re an associate producer at best.” It is subtle in its message, ultimately, which I believe is partly to reevaluate President Carter’s enduring legacy as someone who did not succeed in getting hostages out of Iran, which cost him second term, among other things. But Argo is a story worth telling and Terrio’s script wouldn’t be all that if it didn’t dig a little deeper into the history. Like Lincoln, its messages are also about today as much as they are about the past. A WGA nod should be a walk in the park for Terrio, but they have to face down Kushner’s truly exceptional Lincoln. Needless to say, if Argo wins the WGA I think Argo could win Best Picture. PGA – Indeed, Argo has George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Affleck on board as producer. The film is enormously successful at the box office. It is reasonable to assume it could win the PGA and from thence, take Oscar. It is too soon to tell but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. SAG – sure, Argo could take ensemble. It isn’t the favorite but what a cast — John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Affleck, Bryan Cranston, just to name a few. Affleck is an actor’s director and that means they’re going to maybe favor his movie over a different one. You never know. DGA – Affleck will be headed in for his first DGA nomination. The last four winners were first-timers. Either the pattern holds, or the pattern will be broken but the first-timer precedent bodes well for Affleck. Against it: The only thing going against Argo are two other movies — Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty — that have come around after Argo and stolen some of its thunder. Well, you could also say it isn’t weep-inducing enough, or passionately loved enough. It is, however, “liked.” A LOT. Zero Dark Thirty For it: Harvey Weinstein’s theory about movies is to make sure yours is the last one they see. Coming in at the last possible second has so far worked out well for Zero Dark Thirty, which is still going strong on buzz. Many pundits are, in fact, predicting it will topple Lincoln and Argo and take home the gold. And it might. It has several things going for it. The first thing it has going for it is that it is brilliantly directed and written. It is a slow burn, a methodical hunt and the story of one CIA agent’s dedication to her job. It is HER singular dedication, in fact, her confidence and faith in the task at hand that ultimately leads to the successful mission to catch and kill Osama Bin Laden. It was thought that Bigelow and Boal having so much success with The Hurt Locker would eventually hurt Zero Dark Thirty but the opposite turned out to be true: the films are handsome companions. WGA-The final chapter for Best Original Screenplay is not yet writ. But it seems to me that it could be a repeat of 2009, with Zero Dark Thirty facing down Django Unchained. Also potentially causing trouble would be Michael Haneke’s Amour, since Amour isn’t eligible, what film could compete with Zero Dark Thirty? Moonrise Kingdom? The Master? The strength of Zero Dark Thirty as a Best Picture contender makes it automatically the favorite to win in this category. SAG – if Jessica Chastain can win in Lead Actress that might help make up for not having an ensemble nomination. Rules are made to be broken — no silent film ever won, no film directed by a woman ever won. You can slice it up any way you choose but some rules are reliable for a reason. The dominating branch of the Academy are actors. They have to really really REALLY like your movie, like Slumdog Millionaire, to make up for them not knowing many of the film’s actors. Zero Dark Thirty, though, is still in the running with Lincoln and Argo despite its lack of SAG ensemble nomination because it has won so many other awards already and is topping top ten lists and causing a stir everywhere. It needs strong box office (though the Hurt Locker famously didn’t) and Bigelow needs to win the DGA. To do that, she has to beat Spielberg — he’s Steven Fucking Spielberg — and Affleck, a first-timer. If David O. Russell is nominated or Tom Hooper and they win, then what? The race is thrown into flux. Right now, I can’t envision a scenario where Les Miserables can compete with these three. But that might change. This is the state of the race as I see it today. And I think the film with the best chance right now is the one that also resonates outside our bubble. The only possible spoiler I can envision right now — and it would be better if the director had gotten a Globe nod — is David O. Russell and Silver Linings Playbook. Both Les Mis and SLP have their best chance to stir up some split category action by winning the SAG ensemble award. If either of them can do that, either might win.