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Oscar Roundup: Best Picture Contenders

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It's time to take a look at all the contenders for Best Picture, as this week is the week that the critics awards will start rolling in, and the critics are the first stop on the way to the Oscar nominations in January. Next week will be the Golden Globe nominations, the Screen Actor's Guild nominations, and then in the coming weeks the rest of the guild nominations will follow, and all will serve to narrow down the field so that when the Oscars finally announce, the nominees will be from among those previous nominees and winners.

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We have to start off by explaining that the Academy now nominates anywhere from five to ten nominees, and this is only the third year that they've been using that system. Under this practice, voters mark down five favorites in preferential order, and then the movies are rounded off by placement in order to fill out the field. This has meant that for the past two years they've ended up with nine Best Picture nominees, and some say that this new system makes it mathematically impossible to get to ten- so we have to assume that it will probably be nine again this year as well.

The frontrunner for Best Picture has been 12 Years a Slave since it won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival. The movie is assured a nomination along with Best Director for Steve McQueen, and it has fared surprisingly well at the box office so far, bringing in $33 million at the moment- not bad for what is considered a very difficult and dark film for mainstream audiences to sit through. It's in a very good position right now, but the drawbacks are real, and almost entirely to do with the dark and disturbing subject matter. The Academy has a long history of preferring lightweight, feel-good movies that inspire passion and affection, rather than admiration. There are some exceptions to that rule of course, for example when No Country For Old Men won or The Hurt Locker, but more often than not they like a movie that makes them feel, especially in recent years. The King's Speech winning over The Social Network was a big one, Chicago over The Pianist, and most famous of all, Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. If there's no feel good alternative for the voters to rally around this year, that leaves 12 Years in a good position, but if there's something else out there to latch onto I would not be surprised to see that happen.

In second place as it's been all season is Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. The box office success story of the year, it's amassed $250 million so far, and received across the board stellar reviews from critics. Some say that Gravity could be the alternative to 12 Years, but it would have to overcome another longstanding Academy bias towards anything science fiction. No sci-fi film has ever won Best Picture, no matter how groundbreaking (Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind came up empty, and they even preferred Hurt Locker to Avatar). There's a first time for everything but I personally don't think that Gravity is the kind of movie they would ever vote for and I'd be very surprised to see that happen.

After those two locks it's a bit of a question mark on what will fill out the other seven slots. I think Captain Phillips is pretty safe, as it's another well-reviewed, very successful hit from a respected, previously nominated director in Paul Greengrass. After that, I would say that Alexander Payne's Nebraska looks very likely, as reports are that the film has played very well at Academy screenings, and seeing as it aims directly into that older, white male target demo of the Academy, it really should do well with them. The Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis has been a question mark all year long as to whether it could land a BP nomination- I think it probably will, because there's a solid bloc of Coen Brothers fans within the Academy that pushed A Serious Man into the final batch of nominees in 2009. If that movie, one of their smallest and most personal can manage a nomination, then I think this one, which is no less well received, certainly can as well.

As for other mainstream films, I truly believe that The Butler is going to make it in, and will do much better with industry recognition among the guild awards than many think it will. First of all, it's a movie backed strongly by The Weinstein Co., which always manages to get a heavy contender across. Second, the cast is made up of some very big insider names, who are all doing their part in heavy campaigning to get the movie recognized, and that includes people like Jane Fonda, John Cusack, and Oprah Winfrey for heaven's sake. Third, it was a well-liked, decently reviewed, mainstream hit ($115 million at the box office) that is exactly the kind of movie Academy voters prefer to recognize. Call me crazy, but this is the kind of film that actually could be the "feel-good" alternative to 12 Years a Slave, if it makes it in. The only problem with it is that director Lee Daniels is a long shot for a nomination himself, which usually kills a movie's Best Picture chances, but hey- it didn't hurt Argo last year. In this new group of nine nominees, it may be possible for a film to win without a director's nomination. So that's my theory anyway, but obviously we'll see what happens.

Other possible nominees include Saving Mr. Banks, All is Lost, Blue Jasmine, and American Hustle, not to mention Her. The odds for these films getting in are all over the place, and we're going to have to see what ends up getting the most love at the various critics and guild awards. The films that seem to have the most passionate fans (which is what counts in garnering #1 votes) look like All is Lost and Her right now. Saving Mr. Banks is about the history of Hollywood itself, which is always popular among the voters too. But my strongest feeling on another sure thing nomination is for The Wolf of Wall Street, which is just now starting to screen for industry insiders, and reports are highly enthusiastic. Martin Scorsese is beloved, and Wolf is supposedly a dark comedy in the vein of Goodfellas, but with a huge ensemble cast and a beloved icon behind the wheel, I really think it has a strong shot to get in.

My predictions right now:

12 Years a Slave
Gravity
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Butler
The Wolf of Wall Street
Saving Mr. Banks
All is Lost

I wouldn't be surprised to see several of those films replaced with something else, and it's such a great year for movies that there are still other long shots that could be in contention, like August: Osage County, Dallas Buyers Club, and Philomena. The picture will become clearer this week and I'm excited to see how it all shakes out. I'll come back with my firm predictions in January before the Oscar nominations are announced, and after the preliminaries have happened so be sure to check back then. Until then, everyone!

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