By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 4, 2013 at 12:05PM
After one of the most unpredictable Oscar seasons in memory, we're less than two weeks out, and things are finally starting to look more like an anointment than a contest; Ben Affleck's "Argo," counted out by many after the director missed out on an Oscar nomination, has won the top prizes from the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild, all reliable Oscar precursors, as well as the Best Drama prize from the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards, on top of many other critics' prizes.
As such, those who were backing other horses are now lining up behind Affleck's Iranian hostage drama/Hollywood caper, and it's widely expected to win the top prize at the Dolby Theater at the end of the month. But we're not so sure that it's as locked up as many believe. So below, we've run down the negatives against "Argo," as well as the chances of its competition eventually beating it to Best Picture on Sunday 24th. Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Affleck's film has, since it premiered at Telluride, felt like a front-runner; it's quote-unquote important, but entertaining, it's beautifully crafted, but not alienating, it's inside-baseball aspects make Hollywood professionals love it more than most, and with a cast of mostly-undersung character actors, it appeals to the actor's branch too. And the precursor awards have certainly backed that up so far. But that said, the Academy and the guilds can differ in tastes, so there are some potential weaknesses there. Four films have more nominations than "Argo" -- "Lincoln," "Life Of Pi," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Les Miserables" -- suggesting that while Affleck's film is popular, others may have broader support from across the branches. Other films could have deeper support too -- Affleck famously missed out on a directing nomination in favor of Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin, and it only has one nomination from the acting branch (the largest block of voters), versus four for "Silver Linings" and three for "Lincoln." The SAG and DGA wins suggest that the love is there, but is it possible that the film is liked better by the broader guild membership than by the more select (and, perhaps crucially, older) Academy make-up. An acting nomination for Affleck (like BAFTA gave him), or another of the supporting cast might have made us feel more confident that the Academy are really ga-ga over him. Maybe the vets feel that Affleck still needs to earn his stripes? Furthermore, it's hard to see "Argo" taking more than three awards (Picture plus Editing and Adapted Screenplay, the latter being something of a toss-up), and only two Best Picture winners in forty years -- "Crash" and "Rocky" -- took fewer than four awards in total. It's also worth noting that Oscar voting only reopens on Friday. Will people feel that Affleck's now had his due thanks to the guilds? Certainly, the desire to compensate the film for the directing snub must have diminished over time. And other films' supporters may have been galvanized by the victories elsewhere. Not to mention the oft-repeated parallels with "Apollo 13," which swept the precursors but missed on Best Picture (like "Argo," it was missing a Directing Oscar nod), and the fact that no film has won Best Picture without a directing nomination since "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989. But what are the chances of the other films?
Why It Could Win: In theory, "Argo"'s biggest competition -- it has twelve nominations, including Director and three acting nods -- "Lincoln" certainly shouldn't be counted out. It had pretty terrific reviews, an 'important' subject matter, has been a giant box office hit, and is virtually guaranteed at least one major award, in Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor (and stands a good chance at Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Score, and several others). It probably appeals more to the older demographic than "Argo" does, and with Steven Spielberg only having won Best Picture once (for "Schindler's List"), there could be a sense that he's due another one. In many ways, it's this year's equivalent to "The King's Speech" -- somewhat talky, but also getting behind the public persona of a legendary figure. And it's certainly a better film than last year's "War Horse," which never stood a chance, despite a Best Picture nomination.
Why It Might Not: Just doesn't quite seem to have the momentum. It's well-liked, certainly, but doesn't necessarily inspire adoration in the way that some of these films do; it's certainly not loved in the way that "Schindler's List" was. Biopics have a tendency to be seen as showcases for performance rather than anything else, and Spielberg's muted direction (which we mean as a compliment), and slight TV movie overtones of the film may lead voters to reward something more purely cinematic. It was also the presumptive frontrunner for months before, and everyone loves an underdog -- a status which Affleck missing out on a Best Director nod bestowed on "Argo."
Why It Could Win: Put simply; the Academy really, really seem to like it. David O. Russell's relatively modest romantic-comedy faced mixed results from some of the earlier awards (Russell missing out with the DGA, for instance), but performed well above expectations with the Academy, with eight nominations. There's two nominations in particular which indicate how well-liked it is; a nod for Jacki Weaver, who has very little screen time, and no big emotional scene, and a nomination for Editing, which is a rare thing for a comedy, and virtually a dealbreaker for a Best Picture nominee not to have ("Ordinary People" was the last film to win the top prize without an editing nomination, thirty-two years ago). Plus, with "Django Unchained" unlikely to be a real contender to win, all of the formidable attentions of the Weinstein Company are focused on this film, and Harvey, and director David O. Russell (who cracked the establishment with his last film, "The Fighter"), are working hard in support of the film, arguably more so than any of the other contenders.
Why It Might Not: Comedies don't have a great track record with Best Picture, with only a handful ("Annie Hall," "Shakespeare In Love," arguably "The Artist") in living memory. And with so many weighty films in the running, Russell's featherlight touch may not appeal in the same way. There's also a raucousness to the film that may alienate older voters in the way "Argo" never did, and something of a movement against the film, in people who believe it's 'just' a rom-com. As with "Argo," it's also a question as to how many other awards it'll win: there are several within reach (Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Screenplay), but no dead certs. Keep an eye on the evening: if the film starts racking up victories in those categories, then "Argo" might be in for an upset.
Why It Could Win: It's strange to think of one of probably the most expensive movies of the nominees as the underdog, but Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi" has consistently bucked expectations so far. The film got good notices out of the gate, but failed to explode at the U.S. box office (though it finally crossed $100 million recently), and its stock diminished as time went on, particularly as it failed to land many precursor or critic awards. But quietly, the film had been racking up $500 million at the box office worldwide, and vastly exceeded expectations on nominations morning, with eleven nods. Some of them were expected, but some (Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, a full-house in the sound and music categories) suggest that the film is broadly liked. Unlike its talkier competition, it's highly cinematic experience, not least because of its impressive 3D visuals, and comes from a filmmaker who, despite having been hotly tipped twice before with "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" and "Brokeback Mountain," has never been behind a Best Picture winner.
Why It Might Not: This kind of 3D visual extravaganza has been popular with the Academy in recent years, with "Avatar" and "Hugo" numbering among the big winners of late, but neither managed to win Best Picture. In part, we suspect it's because they didn't have the actors' branch behind them; like "Life Of Pi," neither film were nominated in acting categories, and ended up losing Best Picture to smaller-scale, more actor-centric competition. "Pi" isn't tainted by the same money-losing brush that "Hugo" was, but it may still struggle to break out of the technical categories. It could be that, like Scorsese's film, it ends up winning the most awards of the night, but loses out on the big prizes.
Why It Could Win: For one, we'd argue that it's the best film of the nine nominees (and we like almost all of the nominees to one degree or another). For another, it was the overwhelming critical favorite, performing the best of all the films at the various critics awards. It's also arguably the most of-the-moment film on the list, dealing as it does with a news event that happened less than two years ago, and doing so with scope, sensitivity and top-class filmmaking. It's a more impressive, zeitgeisty and awards-friendly film than Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," and that won Best Picture three years back, so you'd think "Zero Dark Thirty" would have a good chance.
Why It Might Not: Unfortunately, once it was done sweeping the critics awards, "Zero Dark Thirty" faced the more serious backlash of any of the contenders, thanks to attacks in various op-eds on the film, claiming that the film was essentially propaganda, and endorsed torture. Several of those critics, including Andrew Sullivan and Martin Sheen, backtracked once they'd actually seen the film, and most reasonable people know that it's neither flag-waving agitprop or a glorification of torture (clue; the film isn't pro being-a-dick-to-your-boss or shooting-an-unarmed-woman-in-the-back either), but the damage had been done, with the film picking up only five nominations, and director Kathryn Bigelow missing out on a Director nomination. It's possible that, had Bigelow and the film had a run like "Argo" with the guilds, it would have still stood a chance, but film that was hardly in the Academy sweet spot to begin with needed all the help it could get, and it certainly didn't get that.
Why They Could Win: They won't
Why They Might Not: Again, they definitely won't. The five films above were, before nominations were announced, the ones locked into nominations, and the ones in real contention for the big prize. "Les Miserables" had once, perhaps, been among them, thanks to its rapturous reception at the first screenings, but the film was killed by the critics, who gave it by some distance the most negative reception of any of the nominated movies, and it would be a giant shock if it ended up taking the prize. The others were all question marks to be nominated at all, and while they made the cut, they've not got any chance of actually taking the prize. "Amour" is powerful, but brutal, and a foreign film (No entirely foreign-language film has ever won Best Picture, with "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Artist" the closest things, but hardly close to "Amour"). "Django Unchained" doesn't have the notices of "Inglourious Basterds," plus Harvey Weinstein's attention is diverted with "Silver LInings Playbook," and the racial controversies make it trickier to vote for. And 'Beasts' is from a first-time director, with unfamiliar faces, and is one of the least-seen of the nominees. The Director nomination raised its profile to be sure, but it's not going to get the win.