Sometimes it falls on the award watchers to provide the lead story each year on the Academy Awards. Who is the real frontrunner? Where are the surprises? What is already dead in the water? This early without a lot of statistics and precursors to guide us towards the correct answers, it basically comes down to just a feeling. This movie feels like a contender. This other one less so for some categories but perhaps a major player in others. It is all we really have to go on at this point until something just sparks in our guesstimating heads. Lincoln has the historical pedigree that Oscars love. Silver Linings Playbook has the acclaimed crowd-pleasing, feel-good mentality that everyone loves. Ben Affleck's Argo, on the other hand, has both. There's the spark and where we must begin.
Best Picture and Director
The smart money on the nominations right now should put Argo at the front of most major categories where it has even a hint of a shot, starting with both Best Picture and Director. Those are also probably safe bets for both Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook considering these are likely your top-three choices as things stand now. Some have seen Life of Pi and Les Miserables already and until we get a true look at Django Unchained, The Hobbit and Zero Dark Thirty it is difficult to offer any definitive confidence in their ability to be contenders.
If we were still dealing with a mere five Best Picture nominees, the list would likely currently include Beasts of the Southern Wild and probably The Master. With people already starting to back away from the latter's chances (not the least of which being the Weinsteins) it's indicative of what the awards race is like. Since 1980 only nine of the last 32 top-grossing films of the year have been nominated, so what does that mean for The Avengers? Will residual guilt from 2008 (the year that inspired the increase in Best Picture nominees) finally give Christopher Nolan's trilogy the recognition it deserves by nominating The Dark Knight Rises? Can Summit mount a successful campaign for J.A. Bayona's gut-wrenching, but crowd-pleasing The Impossible? There are 13 films right there without even considering two of the other most critically acclaimed films of the year in Flight and Moonrise Kingdom, both of which will likely be looking for nominations elsewhere.
While the Best Picture race can be anywhere from five to 10 nominees, one way to successfully lock in at least five is to think backwards and look solely at the Director category. Affleck, Spielberg and O. Russell all look pretty solid. Both Tom Hooper and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) are coming off of victories for their last films and if Les Mis is every bit the epic it is being touted as, Hooper may be in line for a follow-up nod. Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) may find themselves relegated to the screenplay category. Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) can't seem to get a nomination here even if he flew a bomb away from the Academy offices himself. The fifth slot could come down to how well Life of Pi (Ang Lee) and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) are received.
Best Actor and Actress
If you hooked me up to a processing machine, I would tell you without blinking that Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) are frontrunners for not only nominations but eventual victories in their respective categories. There was some thought that Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) might be the one to beat, but recent comments about his disdain for awards didn't exactly help. He still should find himself nominated unless the Weinsteins completely shift their focus to Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained, which could mean good news for Bradley Cooper and Jamie Foxx.
A bit more emphasis on the former there who still has to believe that John Hawkes (The Sessions) is very much in the running and Denzel Washington (Flight) may be emerging as the most direct challenger to Day-Lewis for the win. While we must wait to see how towering both Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) and Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) are in their films, do not count out the left-field choice of Denis Levant for Holy Motors.
The Best Actress category is not nearly as crowded and is therefore either easier to predict or more open to surprises. Has any child performance been given as much praise as Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts for the Southern Wild)? She can easily become the youngest acting nominee in the history of the Oscars, taking the place of Justin Henry (Kramer vs. Kramer) back in 1979. Naomi Watts is a standout in The Impossible, though another child performance in that film should warrant attention in another category. A lot of people are inexplicably liking the Nicholas Sparks-esque Rust and Bone. Take away Marion Cotillard's legs and get her naked a lot with a deadbeat dad who does backyard boxing when he's not giving her the friends-with-benefits treatment and VOILA - an Oscar nomination.
Meryl Streep practically stole an Oscar last year so Hope Springs may not be so eternal, particularly with Tommy Lee Jones getting recognition for another film. There is Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina, but response out of the festivals has been a bit mixed to the film as a whole. Some are trying to create some interest in Jessica Chastain moving up to the lead in Zero Dark Thirty, but put that on the backburner until someone sees the movie. That may bring a fifth slot down to the two Helens. Many seem to agree that while good in the film, Helen Hunt's character arc in The Sessions is the weaker element. Meanwhile, Helen Mirren appears to dominate in the Hitchcock trailer as Alma, much moreso than Imelda Staunton's more passive work in HBO's The Girl. Can I blink now?
Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress
Here are two categories that could be shaken up week to week, just for the uncertainty of who could break through and if any of the current favorites can hold up. Assuming that the Weinsteins don't let their co-leads of The Master duke it out in the same category, Philip Seymour Hoffman should be the frontrunner in this category. (Remember, they tried to push Kate Winslet for Supporting in The Reader - which the Academy eventually gave her the Oscar as the obvious lead.) Also slam-dunking at least a nomination should be Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. It's a scene-stealing role (in a film full of them) that he does so well, and after sleepwalking through Men In Black 3, it is always nice to see him sink every pore into one that he clearly cares about. In the entire cast of Argo, Alan Arkin likely has the lead (even with John Goodman doing equally good work in this and Flight.) Like Goodman though, will the role be just a wee bit too small to grab full attention? In a larger field, maybe.
After that, take your pick and make your case for those on the fringes. Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas), Benicio Del Toro (Savages), Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers), Jude Law (Anna Karenina), William H. Macy (The Sessions), Matthew McConaughey (Bernie) and anyone from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel can be in the conversation. Poor Sam Rockwell does great work as always in Seven Psychopaths, but it will be a dark horse campaign for Christopher Walken (doing his best work since Catch Me If You Can) that cancels him out.
Can Bruce Willis finally get some love in a year that has him in two of the year's best-received films (Moonrise Kingdom and Looper)? Will Albert Brooks be prominent enough in This Is 40 to get him payback for his Drive snub last year? And if people want to throw down Quvenzhané Wallis as one of the best child performances ever, I'm happy to trump that with Tom Holland in The Impossible. Yeah, he's even better. Don't even count out Javier Bardem, who makes such an impact in Skyfall once he arrives at the 70-minute mark that it's impossible not to put into the conversation that a James Bond villain has never been good enough for a nomination. Until maybe now.
At the moment the focus for the fourth and fifth slots is likely on two performances seen and two awaiting screenings. Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) contributes a performance that could be enough to get in just based on the number of "he's back!" commentaries that are following it. Then there is debuting actor Dwight Henry, one of the many great stories surrounding the wonderful Beasts of the Southern Wild. Look for his name to be mentioned a lot when the critics start handing out their awards. That would be a very respectful fivesome right there. Except the costars of The Quick and the Dead are just waiting out there to grab one or two of these spots. Russell Crowe (Les Miserables) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) play the respective antagonists in their films. Crowe will be singing and DiCaprio gets to twirl his mustache in the first supporting role he's had since Woody Allen's Celebrity (1998). Tough call. We'll have to wait and see.
The Supporting Actress race, on the other hand, is wide open. The only seemingly assured lock is that Amy Adams is a necessary part of the conversation for The Master, and Anne Hathaway is front and center singing her heart out in the Les Miserables trailer. Couple that with her acclaimed work in The Dark Knight Rises this year and she could be looking at her second nomination. Sally Field has a few big scenes in Lincoln and that may be all one needs to fill a slot in 2012. Has anyone else to date made such an impact to consider themselves a slam dunk? Ellen Page is certainly one of the more memorable elements of To Rome with Love and with Woody's history in this category she can't be ruled out altogether. Both Emily Blunt (Looper) and Salma Hayek (Savages) are essential cogs to their films (particularly Blunt on second viewing), but will their studios campaign for them? It's unlikely anyone will be able to take anything associated with Lee Daniels' The Paperboy seriously, so there goes Nicole Kidman and the jellyfish clip. On the other hand, a play can be made for Susan Sarandon in Arbitrage, mostly for her climactic confrontation.
As for what else is on the horizon aside from Hathaway's Fantine and Field's Mary Todd, Kelly Reilly is getting praise for her work in Flight. Though it's a wonder if her role gets cut a bit short to fully stick in the mind. What may have been unthinkable before is the possibility of anyone from a James Bond film nominated aside from a songwriter and sound engineer. But not only is Bardem worth discussing but even moreso Judi Dench. The events of Skyfall all revolve around her "M." It's the bulkiest appearance she's had that includes big exits and stand-her-ground speeches. Plus, you can couple in her work in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which could also garner support for Maggie Smith) and Dench could be looking at her seventh nomination.
This is all without mentioning Jessica Chastain (Lawless), Alison Janney (Liberal Arts), Shirley MacLaine (Bernie), Sarah Silverman (Take This Waltz), Tilda Swinton (Moonrise Kingdom), Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook). Probably because I already ruled most of them out. But, honestly, how can we? Because it looks like Helen Hunt is going to be pushed for Supporting Actress in The Sessions rather than a lead. With both Quvenzhané Wallis and Helen Mirren strong candidates from Fox Searchlight for Best Actress, it's a likely strategy even if its incorrect. We'll check back in before Thanksgiving to see which films are gaining momentum and which will need a push from the critics to stay in the running.
THE FOOL'S GOLD OF EARLY OSCAR PREDICTIONS
BEST PICTURE (in order of likelihood with unknown # of nominees)
3. Silver Linings Playbook
4. Les Miserables
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
6. Life of Pi
7. Django Unchained
8. The Master
9. The Dark Knight Rises
10. The Impossible
Ben Affleck - Argo
Tom Hooper - Les Miserables
Ang Lee - Life of Pi
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
John Hawkes - The Sessions
Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Denzel Washington - Flight
Marion Cotillard - Rust & Bone
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Helen Mirren - Hitchcock
Quvenzhané Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts - The Impossible
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Alan Arkin - Argo
Leonardo DiCaprio - Django Unchained
Dwight Henry - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams - The Master
Judi Dench - Skyfall
Sally Field - Lincoln
Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino
Flight - John Gatins
The Master - Paul Thomas Anderson
Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
The Sessions - Ben Lewin
(Also in play: Amour, Arbitrage, Compliance, Looper, Paranorman, Wreck-It Ralph, Zero Dark Thirty)
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Argo - Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild - Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi - David Magee
Lincoln - Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell
(Also in play: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Cloud Atlas, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, Les Miserables, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rise of the Guardians)