Oscar Odds for November: Best Picture Power Rankings

Well, folks. It’s that time of year again. The best of the best are being thrust out into theaters at a rate so rapid it’s almost impossible to keep up with–taking a work vacation from November through January is really the only way to see all these wonderful films.

Why do the studios wait until the last minute to release their best work? Were they all procrastinating school children who waited until the night before their science project was due and still haven’t kicked the habit? No. Unlike those irresponsible kiddies, these marketing moguls have a good reason for keeping their most artistic accomplishments hidden until the last possible moment.

The Oscars.

A few studios have positioned their films not only for a rewarding run at the box office, but also a successful nominations’ day at the Academy (and thus even more money from the ensuing extended theatrical run). The following 10 films currently have the best odds at scoring the coveted Best Picture nomination thanks to glowing reviews, big money at the box office, and/or savvy marketing campaigns.

#10: Django Unchained

Never count out Quentin Tarantino.

Many pundits are putting the ultimate movie geek’s latest magnum opus on the outside looking in, but I can’t discount the man after his strong showing with Inglourious Basterds three years ago. Many thought that movie was too violent, too fantastical, and too funny to earn a Best Picture nod.

Sound familiar? Many are saying the same thing about Django Unchained, the story of a slave-turned-bounty hunter seeking to save his wife from the clutches of an evil plantation owner. Tarantino is again rewriting history to fit his vengeful designs, and Django has a few elements in its favor the Basterds did not.

The film is lead by two Academy Award winners in Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz and features three Oscar nominees in supporting roles — Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jonah Hill. Just as importantly, its Christmas Day release puts it in a prime spot to be remembered by voters — not that anyone could forget a Tarantino picture anyway.

Django Unchained will need to score big at the box office early — not an easy feat for an R-rated movie on a family-oriented weekend — and garner Tarantino’s now typical great reviews if it wants to make the cut. It won’t be easy, but if any studio can get it in the race, it’s The Weinstein Company.

#9: The Sessions

I’m putting this one in over the indie contender Beasts of the Southern Wild for one main reason: Best Actor nominees usually result in Best Picture nods for their films, and John Hawkes is a virtual lock for a nomination.

It certainly helps Helen Hunt is building strong buzz in the Supporting Actress category, but the correlation between Picture and Supporting is much lower than Picture and Lead Actor. Dating back through 2008, at least three of the five Best Actor nominees were nominated for films that also were in contention for Best Picture. Expect that trend to continue.

The Sessions is also a festival darling and has put up solid numbers in limited release over its first month in theaters. The warm-hearted movie should hold better in voters’ memories than some of this year’s darker, less enjoyable entries. I’m not sure if it will get enough No. 1 votes to earn a spot, but it has enough positives going for it to merit consideration.

#8: The Impossible

This one comes as a bit of a surprise.

Yes, it’s a true story. Yes, it has two well-known and Academy-relevant actors in the lead roles (though this looks like another year Ewan will just miss out on a Best Actor bid). It even seems more relevant after the natural disaster that just hit the East Coast. As callus as that sounds, it will be in the minds of moviegoers.

The initial issue I had was when the trailer gave away the WHOLE STORY. If you haven’t seen it, avoid it. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. Is the distributor so confidant in the powerful storytelling they don’t care if people know the end?

From initial reaction, it certainly sounds that way. Early buzz is behind it, warning people to bring tissues and enjoy Naomi Watts’ heart-wrenching performance. We’re still more than a month out from its pre-Christmas release, so anything could happen. It’ll need to be as moving as they say, though, to get enough first place votes.

#7: The Master

Two months ago, this would have been in the top five, possibly even the top three. After its tepid box office totals and mixed reaction, though, The Master isn’t looking like a sure thing anymore.

At this point, I still think PTA’s latest uncomfortable opus will have enough ardent supporters to get it on the short list. The raves for Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix will also help considering the bulk of Academy voters are actors.

I see The Master as this year’s The Tree of Life. Both films lost a lot of the enormous buzz they had before their releases. Both are off-putting to general audiences. Both are helmed by extremely well-respected directors. The Tree of Life had enough juice to get a Best Picture nomination. The Master should, too.

#6: Zero Dark Thirty

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves to flex its diversity muscles, even if they’re usually a little late to the party (the genre-reinvigorating Moulin Rouge! got a nomination for Best Picture, but the bland, boring Chicago won; Brokeback Mountain also earned a nod, but the Academy couldn’t pull the trigger despite its elite status among audiences and critics).

I have no problem with Kathryn Bigelow’s victory for female moviemakers, but I do take umbrage with her prize for Best Director. No one’s talking about The Hurt Locker in 2012, but the technology first-used in Avatar is everywhere. Argue all you want over which film deserved Best Picture (I’d vote for neither), but James Cameron changed the game when he made Avatar, for better or worse.

Now Bigelow is back, Oscar in hand, with another dark military tale. This time she’s focusing on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and she even brought her screenwriter from The Hurt Locker along for the ride. What’s this mean for my personal anticipation level? Very little. What’s it mean for the film’s Oscar hopes? Quite a bit.

Oscar winners are always given an extra level of credence from the Academy, and we’ve also seen over the years how much they love rewarding what they see as “important stories” (The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, and, arguably, Crash). Zero Dark Thirty is absolutely loaded with Academy-grade importance. War story. True story. Female lead. Female director. Female lead in a war story.

I’m betting they won’t be able to ignore this one.

5 – 1

#5: Life of Pi

We’ve made it to the locks. The following five are all but assured placement in the Best Picture race, so it’s all about the order now.

Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s 3-D adaptation of the popular, Christian-themed novel, is the weakest of the bunch merely because of two factors: not many people have seen it, and its cast appears limited to a no-name boy and a tiger. Not many strictly visual stunners take home the top prize in an actor-heavy Academy (cough, Avatar, cough), and it’s hard to say this will prove the exception to the rule when it’s only played a couple of festivals.

That being said, the early reviews are outstanding. I have yet to read one negative remark about the picture, and many pundits are predicting the movie to be a huge hit internationally. Richard Corliss of Time went as far as to call it “the next Avatar“.

While I doubt audiences around the world will turn out to the tune of $2.7 billion to watch a boy trapped on a boat with a tiger, many people said the same thing about a bunch of blue dudes running through a jungle. That movie also earned nine Oscar nominations, a total that wouldn’t shock me for Life of Pi.

#4: Les Miserables

I expect this to be at the top of this list or completely off it by next month.

The Tom Hooper musical has a lot working for it, not the least of which is Tom Hooper. The Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech is back with a story as widely known as it is widely loved, and he’s assembled a dynamite cast lead by Oscar-nominee Anne Hathaway and Oscar-host Hugh Jackman. Oscar-winner Russell Crowe makes a gallant return to the awards race as well, and the much-touted on-set recording of the cast’s musical numbers is supposed to add a great degree of dramatic heft to the sprawling tale of Jean Valjean.

Yet there was another high-pedigree musical with excellent early buzz a few years back that turned out to be a massive flop upon its release. Do you remember Nine? I wish I didn’t. No one had seen that film before it debuted on Christmas day 2009, and thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, and Penelope Cruz, no one cared. Then it hit and the movie did not.

Will the same fate befall Les Miserables? I doubt it. Each trailer is better than the last, and the story is almost too good to mess up. If I had to bet on the winner right now, I might gamble on this one.

#3: The Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell’s follow-up to The Fighter has been making the most of its packed festival circuit. It started off on a high note by winning the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival–a marquee event for Oscar hopefuls that saw the likes of The Master, Argo, Cloud Atlas, and Amour in 2012.

It won again at the Austin Film Festival and was the opening night film for the St. Louis fest. Just as importantly, the critics flipped over it. Silver Linings looks like a serious indie contender thanks to its aforementioned early performance, and also its Oscar-friendly cast. Robert De Niro is still Robert De Niro, and Jennifer Lawrence shot up to the A-list after her Oscar nomination for Winters Bone in 2010 and the mega-hit The Hunger Games earlier this year.

The wild card is Bradley Cooper, who also happens to be the film’s lead. Cooper is an up-and-coming movie star thanks to The Hangover and Limitless, but there weren’t many critics who thought he could, you know, act. Now, though, he’s got a good shot at a Best Actor nomination.

If he gets it, Silver Linings Playbook could be the film to beat come February.

#2: Argo

Argo just won’t go away.

After a strong debut in early October, Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort has enjoyed small dips at the week-to-week box office and big gains in office Oscar pools. Actors like it. Techies love it. America is into it. Is there anything wrong with Argo?

Not really. There could be a small public backlash against it if people start seeing it as Hollywood patting itself on the back again–I think everyone’s had enough of that after The Artist and Hugo last year. Yet it hasn’t happened yet. The Academy could shy away from the man who was once in Pearl Harbor and Daredevil, but they also love a comeback story.

Right now, Argo is in the great position of making other movies live up to it. Good luck.

#1: Lincoln

As much as I loathed War Horse, the pedigree of this film is undeniably attractive to the Academy. It’s Steven Spielberg’s passion project. It’s got Daniel Day-Lewis as one of America’s most beloved historical figures. It’s written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright in Tony Kushner, and it has one of the most impressive casts ever assembled.

Tommy Lee Jones. Sally Field. David Strathairn. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (he’s in everything this year!). James Spader. Hal Holbrook. John Hawkes. Tim Blake Nelson. Jared Harris. Gloria Reuben. Michael Stuhlberg, and did I mention Daniel Day-Lewis?

The clout they collectively represent is undoubtedly enough to earn a Best Picture nomination, and it could very well be enough to win. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: actors make up the majority of the Academy’s voting body. Don’t expect them to vote against their friends in a tight race.

Lincoln has already earned enough glowing reviews. All it needs now is public support, and I can’t see that being a problem.

* * *

Check back next month for an updated list. Hopefully, it will include a late-charging Killing Them Softly. I can’t explain why there’s no buzz around that film.