With the 2013 Oscarcast moved up to Feb. 24, movie fans are already in a lather over the possible nominees, especially since again this year there can be "up to" ten finalists in the Best Picture category. I claim no inside knowledge (I'm still waiting to hear from my friend Deep Oscar), but it's never too early to speculate.
First, this caveat: I've still not seen three films said to be strong contenders, so it's too early to list these here: "Les Miserables," directed by Tom Hooper, who made "The King's Speech;" Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," about the killing of Bin Laden, and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," with Jamie Foxx as an escaped slave and Leonardo DiCaprio as a plantation owner.
Among the contenders I have seen, the most warmly-loved by moviegoers seems to be Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." In many seasons as a critic, I can't remember a film more universally applauded. I wrote a blog entry about it, and my often dubious readers embraced it all but unanimously. Will public affection influence the Academy? Maybe.
Another sure thing is Ben Affleck's "Argo," which is not only a terrific thriller but tells a true-life story sure to be enjoyed by Hollywood voters, about how the escape of a group of Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis was pulled off by a bold scheme involving the production of a fake sci-fi movie.
Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is this year's most prestigious candidate, and its title performance by Daniel Day-Lewis is sure to win a Best Actor nod. It is, first of all, a great film. Also important is that at Oscar time the Academy likes to nominate the kinds of films that reflect well upon the industry.
David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," is an offbeat comedy with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro as son and father who are both manic Philadelphia Eagles fans, although only the son has actually been hospitalized with bipolar disorder. The family is held together by Jacki Weaver as a resilient mom and wife who has long experience with such men.
Jake Gyllenhaal's image-transforming work as a very tough cop in David Ayer's "End of Watch" may help the film win a Best Picture slot, and Michael Peña is no less effective as his partner in a dangerous Los Angeles police district. They forge a relationship during a series of brilliantly-staged action sequences. Richard Gere should win a long-delayed Best Actor nomination for his focused, intense work in Nicholas Jarecki's "Arbitrage," a taut thriller about a financial wheeler-dealer who tries to escape his responsibility after a fatal car crash. This fine actor has produced high-caliber performances for year after year, and the Academy doesn't give him the praise he deserves.
"Cloud Atlas," by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, is considered a strong contender, although many audience members (including me) found it difficult to follow. Its story strands spanned centuries and traded genders, and I eventually realized it was the wholeness of the experience, not the plot details, that was important. It's an awesomely ambitious film.
The performances in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" are likely to win nominations for Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (welcome back!) but I'm not sure the purpose of the story (said to be based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology) was very clear. The Academy rarely singles out enigmatic films.
Few of the year's films had the emotional impact and courage of Ben Lewin's "The Sessions," with John Hawkes as a polio victim in an iron lung for years, who dreams of having sex with a woman, and Helen Hunt as the sex therapist who helps him. A supporting nod could go to William H. Macy, as his parish priest.
If I had my way, and I don't, a Best Picture nomination would certainly go to Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," with its extraordinary lead performance by Quvenzhané Wallis as a young Louisiana girl named Hushpuppy. She lives in an isolated community in the New Orleans bayou called the Bathtub, which is threatened by Global Warming.
This film, which will make many Best Ten Lists and year-end awards, is said to be handicapped in the Oscar race because it was filmed outside the jurisdiction of the Screen Actors' Guild. If true, how sad. Invite you to watch this clip from the interview I did with Quvenzhané and guess how many SAG members could replace her:
Note 5 p.m. Nov. 27: "Flight" has been added to the list. It was omitted in a stupid cut-and-paste mishap.