The Academy Awards race this year is shaping up to be slightly more exciting than last year, when “The Artist” surprised exactly no one by nearly sweeping the Oscars. By almost any measure, 2012 was a pretty good year for movies -- especially for the big studios, which enjoyed far more critical favor than they have in recent years. While almost every star-studded category has a front-runner or two, Anne Hathaway is the only (supposedly) guaranteed win -- upsets could happen in almost any other category.
Disclaimer: It’s difficult to put this list together in a completely objective manner -- having seen (and in some cases, reviewed) the bulk of this year’s Academy contenders, I cannot promise that there is not at least some degree of wishful thinking in this entirely non-empirical analysis.
A week or so ago, I was more confident about the odds for “Django Unchained." While I still believe the film and at least one actor (not the one you think) will be invited to the party, its elevated level of violence has placed it in the center of the gun-control debate, and its director, Quentin Tarantino, has pigheadedly fanned the flames of this argument. Hence, "Django" has become a bit of an awards season hot potato.
Speaking of controversy, “Zero Dark Thirty” continues to fall from grace with every new accusation of impropriety. Can a movie that so many feel rewrites history to justify torture take home an armload of Oscars? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it won’t at least be given the appearance of a fair shot.
For the Best Picture category -- which can include up to 10 nominations -- we predict there will be at least six, probably eight, but not 10.
Here are the sure bets:
“Zero Dark Thirty”
“Silver Linings Playbook”
If there are more than six, these could round out the category:
“Life of Pi”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Potential spoilers include “Skyfall,” “Cloud Atlas” (only because the equally dismal “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” may have established a new,' WTF?!' precedent by earning a nomination almost nobody could comprehend in 2012) and the lovely but nearly forgotten “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Unfortunately for those involved in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” its SAG disqualification (the film's producers did not follow Screen Actors Guild contract rules) and wholesale Golden Globes snub have conspired to dim the initial fervor surrounding this sleeper Sundance hit, which was released well ahead of Oscar-bait season. Otherwise, we would have included it on the definite list. And “Amour” is listed as a maybe only because it is all but guaranteed to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar.
If there’s a surprise snub, odds are it will be David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” whose early critical success (it won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival) gave way to a faint murmur of post-release disappointment and bewilderment. Still, the Academy has shown that it’s not afraid of giving further accolades to overrated movies.
This one’s pretty easy.
Ben Affleck, “Argo”
Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”
Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty”
Ang Lee, “Life of Pi”
Tom Hooper, “Les Miserables”
Alternate: Michael Haneke, “Amour.” Or Paul Thomas Anderson, for “The Master.” (Maybe it’s not that easy after all.)
This category is a little trickier than it might have been, politically, since our beloved crazy-but-sane Joaquin Phoenix said this fall that he has no time for silly golden statues (despite attending the Oscars when he was previously nominated for “Gladiator” and “Walk the Line.”) Later -- and no doubt with a publicist’s gun to his head -- he offered a lukewarm retraction, saying that he did respect the Academy, but that he wanted to “free [him]self from the artifice.”
Will Academy voters punish him or reward him for bringing a touch of controversy to this year’s awards? It’s anyone’s guess. Ours is that he will get the nomination, but certainly not the win. Aside from a couple of locks, this year’s Best Actor lot is not the most competitive -- the fifth spot is a bit of a wildcard. This is what we expect to see, and it's the only category we’ve listed in order of who deserves it most:
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”
Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”
John Hawkes, “The Sessions”
Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”
Hugh Jackman, “Les Miserables”
(Yep, pretty boring.)
It’s a totally different ballgame when it comes to the female leads. Jennifer Lawrence is widely considered the front-runner in this category (with Jessica Chastain right behind), but we’re guessing that at least some members of the Academy will recognize that as much as we love to love her, the girl was miscast in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Still, we think she will land in the nomination pool -- along with perhaps a surprise or two that can result from inconsistent voting. “Hello I Must Be Going” came and went without much impact, but Melanie Lynksey’s performance is undeniably one of the year’s best. We also don’t think voters will be able to resist the heartbreakingly adorable Quvenzhané Wallis -- but for both to get a nod, more established and favored actresses like Lawrence, Chastain and Naomi Watts will have to be slighted. It’s an odd and frustrating category this year, as the two front-runners were simply outshone by the so-called dark horses. The closer you look, the harder it is to predict, but here goes:
Naomi Watts, “The Impossible”
Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Emmanuelle Riva, “Amour”
Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”
Marion Cotillard, “Rust and Bone”
Melanie Lynskey, “Hello I Must Be Going”
Best Supporting Actor
The Best Supporting categories are always the most fun to consider, and this year the Best Supporting Actor pool has far more than five likely candidates. Still, having looked around at some other Oscar predictions, we are baffled by how infrequently we have seen Christoph Waltz’s name on the list. Of course he is going to get the nomination! We knew that five minutes into “Django Unchained.” If we are wrong and he doesn’t get a nod, it will only be because his role is a bit robust for the supporting category – more often than not, “Django Unchained” feels like it’s more about his Dr. Shultz than the title (and official lead) character. Since it’s very unlikely that two actors from the same film -- particularly this one -– will get nods in the same category, Waltz’s inclusion means Leonardo Dicaprio probably won’t make the cut. DiCaprio’s performance is certainly worthy of accolades. But, as we noted earlier, Oscar voters are probably a bit gun-shy about pouring too much gold on “Django Unchained,” which has been widely accused of promoting racist language and gratuitous violence, and whose director has rather ungracefully responded to the charges. It’s not only safe, but just, to nominate the man who played to perfection the good guy (in Tarantino’s twisted way); not the vile and abusive slave owner.
We really want to be right about this. And about Jason Clarke, the relative unknown who quietly nailed it in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Tommy Lee Jones, “Lincoln”
Robert DeNiro, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained”
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”
Jason Clarke, “Zero Dark Thirty”
Best Supporting Actress
Apparently it’s pointless to nominate anyone besides Anne Hathaway, who probably started rehearsing her acceptance speech while "Les Mis" was in preproduction. It’s almost too bad, because this year saw an unusual amount of excellent roles for and performances from actresses we don’t often see on the cover of magazines (at least not in recent years.) It would have been nice for someone over 40 -- besides Meryl Streep -- to take home the gold, but it doesn’t look likely at all.
And the nominees are …
Anne Hathaway, “Les Miserables”
Sally Field, “Lincoln”
Helen Hunt, “The Surrogate”
Judi Dench, “Skyfall”
Nicole Kidman, “The Paperboy”
Jackie Weaver is fully deserving of a nomination for her mascara-stained turn in “Silver Linings Playbook,” but it's unlikely she'll get a nod for a seemingly inconsequential character (especially if Jennifer Lawrence is somehow snubbed in the Best Actress category.) Blythe Danner did her best work to date in “Hello I Must Be Going,” but a nomination for her is more than a longshot.
Best Original Screenplay
The Best Original Screenplay category is the best (and perhaps only) chance for "Moonrise Kingdom" to win a trophy -- it's also an opportunity to include some lower-profile films that might otherwise be overlooked. That said, we'd be surprised if there were any big surprises, however deserving, like a nod for "Jeff Who Lives at Home" or, in an even longer shot, "Celeste and Jesse Forever." The screenplays for "Flight" and "Looper" both received somewhat unexpected WGA nominations, giving them a bit of an edge, but probably not enough to knock out both Paul Thomas Anderson and Tarantino (especially since Rian Johnson's "Looper" screenplay was really a bit of a mess.) If there is a snub, it will probably be for Tarantino's "Django Unchained," but excluding it would look like an obvious pander to Hollywood political pressure.
"Moonrise Kingdom," Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
"Zero Dark Thirty," Mark Boal
"Flight," John Gatins
"The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson
"Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino
Best Adapted Screenplay
This category is relatively easy to predict -- though there's always a chance that Academy voters will be sympathetic to the herculean undertaking that was adapting "Cloud Atlas" to the screen.
"Argo," Chris Terrio
"Lincoln," Tony Kushner
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower," Stephen Chbosky
"Silver Linings Playbook," David O. Russell
"Life of Pi," David Magee
There were a ton of great documentaries this year. Our personal favorite was “The Gatekeepers,” a remarkably prescient look at the Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service; if enough people see this film, it could explosively alter the American status quo attitude about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This is a highly competitive category, making it particularly difficult to predict. What we can say with confidence is that several very worthy projects will not make the cut. Here’s a stab at a guess:
“How To Survive A Plague”
“Searching for Sugarman"
"West of Memphis"
For predictions in additional categories, check out Indiewire.
The 85th Academy Awards ceremony will air on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 24. Seth McFarlane ("Ted," "The Family Guy,") will host for the first time.