By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 12, 2014 at 3:01PM
The awards season is in a bit of a lull, or an armistice if you will. With a few weeks passing since the most recent precursor awards, those up for the Oscars have been able to sit back and enjoy their status, most notably at this week's nominees luncheon. But the Cold War is about to end: voting for the Oscar winners gets underway on Friday, with the BAFTAs following on Sunday, and after that, it's going to be a fairly frantic couple of weeks ahead of the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday March 2nd.
But Cold War is definitely the operative term here: it might not be as immediately obvious, but there's been just as much toing-and-froing from awards consultants and studio publicists behind-the-scenes. The result is, as Mark Harris has pointed out, one of the uglier Oscar seasons in recent memory, with almost no movie not scarred by some kind of backlash or attack over the last few months. The result is that a race that always looked wide open now feels like any one of half-a-dozen of the Best Picture nominees could take the big prize.
What makes us say that? Well, in part, it's the preferential voting system that's been brought in the last few years. The best explanation we've seen so far is here, but essentially, it rewards wider support by redistributing second/third/fourth place votes from ballots of the movies with the least first place votes, ultimately boosting the movie that's the most broadly liked, rather than the one that inspires the most passion. It's possible, for instance, that the eventual winner won't be the film that inspired the most first-choice votes from Academy members, but one that was the second or third favorite of many (seriously, watch that video, it will make sense eventually).
It's one of the reasons that "The Artist" and "Argo" won the last couple of years, for instance. And though the narrative in the last few months have suggested that it's between "Gravity," "12 Years A Slave" and "American Hustle," it's worth opening up to the possibility of other movies sneaking in and taking the big prize.
First off, while "Her" and "Wolf Of Wall Street" are some of the most fiercely-loved movies of the nine nominees, they probably don't have much of a chance of actually winning. The passionate support (particularly when it comes to the Scorsese picture) was enough to get them in, and might even be enough to get them past the first few rounds of voting. But the films are likely too divisive to appeal across the Academy as a whole. For every first place vote, they're likely to have an eighth or ninth place ranking that never gets counted, from those who didn't get the movie, were turned off by the phone sex and/or drug taking, or never even watched them. As such, they probably have the least chance of winning the top prize.
Beyond that, it's not unthinkable at this point to see any of the others winning the top prize, and in part, it's because it is so close. The last few years have pretty much seen predestined winners, or at the best two-horse races (like the one between "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network"—again, won by the most liked film, not the smartest or most "important" one). But here, almost everyone you talk to has their own favorite, suggesting that the ultimate vote tally will be closer than you expect. And the closer it is, the more likely it is that an overlooked film could shock.
And outside of that "leading" trio of "Gravity," "American Hustle" and "12 Years A Slave," there's reason to find strength in the others. "Philomena" might have been on the margin as a nominee (and still may not have enough first-choice votes to survive the first few rounds), but once it made it in, its chances improved exponentially. For one, it's now the main focus of the previously rather thinly-spread Weinstein Company machine (especially as they know that "August: Osage County" is very unlikely to win for its actresses), and Harvey's shown why he's such an Oscar legend, arranging a meeting between the real Philomena, along with star/writer Steve Coogan, and the Pope. Yes, that Pope. By focusing on the real-life issues the film brings up, it's succeeding in making the film feel important as well as entertaining, and that's a combination the Academy love. Plus, with the BAFTAs this weekend as Oscar voting begins, it could end up translating to success across the pond with the Academy.
Then again, they also love "Nebraska" and "Dallas Buyers Club." We have to say, we've sensed the buzz around the former peter off a bit since the nominations, but it's a film that's widely loved, and a directing nomination for Alexander Payne suggests that it has more appeal than some of its competitors (with fewer negatives than the Scorsese picture). We'd still only put it in seventh or sixth place, as guessing men, but it's also a movie that could well pick up lots of second-and-third-place votes.
But so too could "Dallas Buyers Club," which despite opening earlier than some, has had a late-breaking swath of support. It's been subject to some of the most vociferous attacks (which suggest that its competitors are afraid of it), and again, crucially, is just well-liked across the board. We've spoken to a surprising number of Academy members who call it their out-and-out favorite, and very few who actively dislike it.
That said, it's "Captain Phillips" that's had the most momentum in the last few weeks. We described the film earlier in the season as everyone's second favorite Oscar nominee, and it's possible that a lack of first-choice votes could cause it problems (let's not forget that director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks both missed out on nominations, which might be telling). But it won at both the WGA, unexpectedly, and the ACE Eddie Awards (the editor's guild, essentially), suggesting it's getting love across the branches, and landing on DVD in the last few weeks has only helped it stay around in the spotlight.
The benefits that these films have over the three perceived frontrunners is that, well, they haven't been frontrunners. The others have all attracted detractors and lines of argument against them—"Gravity" has a bad script, "Slave" is "torture-porn," 'Hustle' is a Scorsese knock-off, etc etc—while the others, by not being lauded as serious threats, have managed to miss scrutiny. In truth, we think that "12 Years A Slave" still feels like the likeliest winner (we think it'll sweep the BAFTAs this weekend, and that should be a good indicator), with "Gravity" hot on its heels. But at the same time, in a race this close, it's not impossible that Oscar night will have some surprises in store.