For some as we approach the winter months, thoughts inevitably turn to spring. For the select few of us willing to play the awards game, we cannot even make it to winter without speculating on which candidates will be running for the Oscars in the dead of the season. Those unfamiliar with the game should note that there are really only three seasons on our calendar. We are still in the first; the post-Toronto fest fall where leaves and potential nominees begin to shake loose, yet it's still warm enough to hope that some of our favorites still have a chance.
The second and third seasons occur post-Thanksgiving when the critics and, ultimately, the industry guilds, begin to announce their winners. Readers should be weary of over-speculation and those falling in love with a film's chances too early - especially when nobody has seen the finished product. Every other Monday right here at Movies.com we shall examine where the race stands in all the major categories, and today we start right at the top with Best Picture.
THE FIRST NINE MONTHS
While moviegoers have their favorites and us critics have ours, there are really only a handful of films that are factoring into the conversation for the January nominations. At the top of that list is Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, his most successful film in a 40-plus year career and certainly his most critically acclaimed in over a decade. People really love this picture and all signs point to it being Allen's most nominated film since 1995's Bullets Over Broadway (with seven) and his first Best Picture nominee in 25 years (Hannah And Her Sisters). Also impossible to ignore is the $160 million (and counting) gross of The Help. It was already a film ready-made for Oscar talk and its success should all but guarantee there needs to be some serious heavyweights on the horizon to knock it off the list.
But what of similar summer box office successes such as Bridesmaids and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, both which enjoyed great word-of-mouth and fervent critical support? The far superior of the female-centric success stories is more likely to make its waves around those little award shows with the comedy categories, and Apes was such a surprise to critics that some were a little too early to jump on its potential as a serious candidate. If any populist piece of entertainment from the summer is likely to have any chance it is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Remember, the Oscars were very kind to the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings. Hell, they even nominated The Godfather Part III in a field of five. So why not take the chance to honor a franchise (and when combined with its first part, the best film in the series) as a parting gift for an event we may be unlikely to see again in our lifetime? Or it could take its $380 million just like Revenge of the Sith and be happy with that.
Moving over to the final two films on the pre-October roster, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is going to get a boost during the second phase when some of the major groups start naming the film or Malick's direction as the best of the year (we're looking at you, NY and LA.) Then there are those rightfully enamored with Moneyball, definitely one of the year's best films, but where the focus on Brad Pitt and the screenplay adaptation will be strong the overall picture is by no means a lock for a nomination.
BIG FAVORITES COMING SOON
Easily the two biggest films to make their play in the race out of the September fest scene were Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist and Alexander Payne's The Descendants. Hazanavicius's silent film has been a favorite ever since Cannes this year and we should look for the Weinsteins to put all their muscle into it as their top challenger for the gold. Not only should its tech nods be plentiful but star Dujardin could even have a chance to pull a Benigni in the actor category while his director makes the top five as well. The Weinstein's next best shot would be My Week With Marilyn, but the strength of its chances begin with Michelle Williams as a dead lock as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh looking good for a supporting nod as Laurence Olivier.
Though there has been a predominantly lukewarm response to Payne's first film since the Oscar-winning Sideways, it is still good enough to be the kind of film this season that ends up with a handful of nominations amongst groups even if few beyond George Clooney is likely to bear fruit in the major categories. Unanimous praise has also followed Tomas Alfredson's updating of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the suggestion that it might not be "showy enough" (as a source puts it) for the Academy could be a real shame if it gets swallowed up by what's just around the corner.
Now we are in speculation city. No less than eight major pictures opening in November and December have the scent of award perfume on them - or, at least, could be walking into a small mist of it. The press is yet to see them, but we have had them in the race one way or another before their trailers ever dropped. And we can all recognize the criteria. Period piece. War film. Steven Spielberg. So, War Horse is right at the top of that list. You can just start with the directors. Three of Clint Eastwood's last eight films have been nominated for Best Picture (none since 2006) and five have been in the running in the top eight categories. It only took a minute of footage at Cinemacon earlier this year for me to believe that Leonardo DiCaprio could be the frontrunner for Best Actor as J. Edgar, so why couldn't the whole film be at least good for a nomination?
Speaking of master directors, we still have Martin Scorsese in unchartered territory with the family picture Hugo, whose trailer suggests at the very least a stunning visual accomplishment. Plus in the category of "either the Academy loves them or they have incriminating photos," Stephen Daldry has directed three films and has been nominated for Best Director every time (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader). His latest, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, could be that palatable personal examination of 9/11 that cinema hasn't seen quite yet - and on the 10th anniversary to boot. Then again, will the Academy want to nominate TWO films involving children on quests with no clues but a key from their dead father?
Then we still have films from three other big names, and the director of Mamma Mia with the power of the Weinsteins and Meryl Streep in her corner. David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should likely outclass the European version, but will it be more than the source material really offers? Especially when the Academy ignored two of his widely considered serial killer masterpieces, Seven and Zodiac? Jason Reitman has seen his last two efforts get nominated for Best Picture (Juno & Up In The Air), but will Young Adult be just a great performance in Charlize Theron or a chance for Diablo Cody to get back into the good graces of her Oscar-winning debut? Cameron Crowe had an Oscar player in Jerry Maguire and won Best Screenplay for Almost Famous. Considering he shares screenwriting credit on We Bought A Zoo with the writer of 27 Dresses, Morning Glory and I Don't Know How She Does It (Aline Brosh McKenna), let's hope the movie is more him than her. The same can be said for Phyllida Lloyd and The Iron Lady. Can she make the leap from an ABBA musical to a Weinstein-backed Oscar player? With what seems to be a shoo-in performance by Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, anything is possible.
But we should all still remain cautious until word-of-mouth starts seeping in, and then wait for even more word-of-mouth. Look how enamored many of us were with Warrior and its chances until it did less in its entire run than Real Steel did in two days. For those believing that The Ides of March is going to be making a dent in the race, call me in January when it receives zero nominations. The point is that we are just getting warmed up. There are no definitive locks at the moment. No film should be given higher than a 75% chance at getting nominated in early October and none should be at more than 50% if we are still looking at two-and-a-half minutes of trailer footage. The numbers are going to change week-to-week and you will be able to follow them all right here. So, in the meantime...
BEST PICTURE NOMINEE CHANCES
1. The Artist - 75%
2. Midnight In Paris - 75%
3. The Help - 70%
4. The Descendants - 60%
5. War Horse - 50%
6. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - 50%
7. J. Edgar - 40%
8. The Tree of Life - 35%
9. Moneyball - 33%
10. Hugo - 30%
11. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - 28%
12. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 - 25%
13. My Week With Marilyn - 25%
14. The Iron Lady - 25%
15. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - 20%
16. Young Adult - 20%
17. We Bought a Zoo - 20%