The Oscars ceremony on February 24 may seem like a long way off, but the Best Picture race is already beginning to take shape.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.