It's still too early to do Oscar predictions. Actually, it really isn't. Most of the winners have been decided by now and all Oscar pools are going to come down to who can nail any of the surprises in the technical categories. Admit it, you're normally more shocked in the categories everyone purports to not care about than you are about the winners. Crying about The Artist being poised for a sweep is not going to do anyone any good now. Whether you're poo-pooing it because it's the "safe" choice or because it amounts to a Weinstein repeat, The Artist is still the same film you loved, liked or hated from your first pseudo-unbiased viewing of it. Maybe you're a Tree of Life person or a Descendants supporter, or simply an awards blogger knowing they have nothing else to write about this season. Perhaps it's time to start looking forward to next year's Oscar race, then.
Actually that's a fool's game since there's no way to gather which films will make it onto the schedule from here on out let alone know which will stir enough positivity to outlast the others. But if the college sports system can allow pre-rankings of the best in the country before anyone has even played a game, we can speculate on the ten most likely contenders currently slated for 2012.
10. Untitled Kathryn Bigelow Osama bin Laden Film (December 19)
She is the first female director to win an Oscar in history, and her last film won Best Picture. That puts her on the playing field. Surely there will be some backlash in circles as the trailer for this film is likely to drop right in the midst of the Presidential race to remind voters who was in charge when SEAL Team Six dropped this scumbag. The only thing that worries me is that Mark Strong is amongst the cast, and though no personal knock on his acting abilities, the guy tends to curse any film he is in as not living up to its full potential (see: Kick-Ass, Body of Lies) or just being flat-out bad (see: Robin Hood, Green Lantern, The Eagle, anything by Guy Ritchie). If any director can break that curse, though, it's Bigelow
9. Les Miserables (December 7)
Tom Hooper's second feature film won him the Best Director Oscar, not to mention Best Picture. Assuming no one takes Adam Shankman's Rock of Ages seriously, Tom Hooper's film can try to ride a locked-in Golden Globe (Comedy or Musical) nomination towards a repeat. That's right, this is not your 1998 Liam Neeson adaptation and it will have been ten years since we had an all-out musical in the competition. Look for Oscar watchers still holding a grudge against Hooper for beating David Fincher last year to have their clubs ready for this one. Like Bigelow though, you cannot count a previous winner out until a better film comes along. And even then you still can't count them out.
8. Argo (September 14)
Ben Affleck has garnered a lot of respect in his brief directorial career. Gone Baby Gone was a masterful moralistic crime thriller, and he followed through on that promise with The Town, a film that likely finished 11th in the voting for Best Picture in 2010. Now taking on little known historical events during the Iran hostage crisis, Affleck will beat Kathryn Bigelow to the punch on rescue mission thrillers this year. The release date is the only question mark here as September tends to be right in that area where people are looking at films from Toronto to fill the Best Picture list. Will it peak too early and be forgotten? Or will it be good enough and deemed more than just a genre film (like The Town) to push it into the top ten in January?
7. Life of Pi (December 21)
You ever hear the one about the lifeboat with the zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and the Bengal tiger? That's just part of the story behind Yann Martel's novel, which involves not a dead wife and the husband who bought a zoo, but an Indian boy, a sunken freighter and the aforementioned lifeboat. It's a survival tale I would certainly rather see in 3-D than hoity-toity parties and off-distance green lights. Ang Lee has not been in the awards conversation since Brokeback Mountain (that will happen when you do Lust, Caution and Taking Woodstock), but this intriguing tale could be this year's War Horse or 127 Hours.
6. The Great Gatsby (December 25)
Here's an idea: Let's take one of the slowest moving assigned reads in school once translated into a slow-moving, mediocre film in the '70s and put it in the hands of a director (Baz Luhrmann) who never had a shot he couldn't cut away from in 1.4 seconds. And it's in 3-D. Still, Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge was an Oscar player (even if he wasn't as a director), he's got a pair of Oscar nominees in Carey Mulligan and Leonardo "This Year?" DiCaprio, and it's a classic novel period piece being released smack dab in the middle of the Oscar conversation. One way or another, it could still be DiCaprio's year. Of course, I thought as much seeing 90 seconds of him as J. Edgar at Cinemacon last year.
5. Brave (June 22)
After releasing its worst film to date with Cars 2 in 2011, Pixar immediately becomes the favorite again to take the Animated Feature Oscar. That much is pre-determined. Now with ten nominees or even nine, a welcome back nomination could be in order for a film with their first female protagonist that looks unlike anything they have accomplished to date. It will also be a nice change of pace from the sequel game they have committed to recently.
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14)
The Academy has pretty much stated that it was The Lord of the Rings more than Harry Potter that was going to be their epic fantasy series of choice. And why should this be any different? If every one of Peter Jackson's entries were good enough for multiple nominations, why not a continuation even if it goes back to the beginning. Then again, that could be just as good a reason for them to ignore it too.
3. Django Unchained (December 25)
Have you seen this cast? At the very least it should be a shoo-in for a Best Ensemble nod at the SAGs in December. A spaghetti western with overt commentary about racism, it could be this year's The Help, only with less pie crapping and whitewashing. Oscar-winners Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz as partnered bounty hunters vs. a villainous Leonardo "Yes Probably This Year" DiCaprio with support from Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Sacha Baron Cohen (to name just a few), this film can't get here fast enough. If you want to count on Weinstein riding a train this year, it will be with Quentin Tarantino in the front car. It's not like they are going to be backing their Sundance pickups, the Bridesmaids wannabe that is more like an uneven Romy & Michele (Bachelorette) or the ultra-lame Stephen Frears Vegas film (Lay The Favorite) that knows less about gambling than its real-life heroine. Plus they already seem determined to bury Wettest County, John Hillcoat's latest. Again. Oh, but wait...
2. The Master (Release Date TBA)
Weinstein is also behind the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson. Let us hope that means just distributing the film and not taking the scissors to his work, a la Scorsese. As a film that deals with the business of faith and putting your trust into someone selling you the promised land, this could turn out to be the most ironic film of 2012. We should have complete faith in PTA though. With another period piece set around a bombastically charismatic presence (a Best Actor-primed Philip Seymour Hoffman) making his living off an always relevant hot-button topic in America, how can this parable miss being in the conversation? Provided Weinstein chooses to release it this year, that is.
1. The Dark Knight Rises (July 20)
They screwed the second film out of a Best Picture nomination. They screwed Christopher Nolan out of Director nods for both that AND Inception, which did get a Best Pic nod. It is time the man was recognized in both categories and it's all too likely it will be the third film that the Academy acknowledges as the complete package. This is not geek talk. Nolan is a master craftsman and one of the best directors working today, and doing it within the kind of genre fare that is amongst the very few films that can be referred to as both blockbusters and artistic. As said, it is too early to call the race for The Dark Knight Rises, especially with the Academy playing early-Spielberg games with Nolan. But the nomination will probably be there and that is as close to a lock we can have in February for the Oscars next year.