The Contenders

Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
"The Master"
Deemed to be a sure thing when those first reviews came in, "The Master" has faded since release. A record-breaking opening was followed by a too-wide expansion that has seen the film become Anderson's lowest-grossing movie since his debut. It's certain to get an uptick in the coming weeks with year-end top ten lists, and critics' groups, but it's also unlikely to have the arthouse vote unite behind it in the way that "The Tree Of Life" did last year. It's a more divisive film, and the competition for that the outsider slot is tougher, with "Amour," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and others taking up some of the critical adulation too. That said, there's still a decent chunk of support for the film, and it only needs 5% of first-choice votes to become a Best Picture nominee, which seems entirely feasible, given the passion of its fans. Regardless of Best Picture, it's still likely to pick up a heap of nominations -- Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman should all turn up, with PTA having the potential to sneak in for a directing nod, as Terrence Malick did last year. Screenplay might be its best chance to win an award, while Cinematography, Costume, Production Design, Score and Editing all seem like reasonable bets. Given all that, one could assume that a Best Picture slot will follow.

One of the year's other critical darlings, Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner is getting a proper push from Sony Pictures Classics, and as the director's most tender film to date, may have the best chance he's ever had of breaking out of the foreign language ghetto. Haneke certainly seems to be playing the game, turning up, awkwardly and hilariously, for the Hollywood Reporter writers' roundtable, and granting multiple interviews. Some are convinced the film's a lock, but we maintain that the film's austere, bruising approach to death and aging may hit a little too close to home for the elderly Academy membership. Most contenders are viewed by voters on screeners over the holiday season, and it's easy to imagine Haneke's film slipping down the to-watch pile in favor of less challenging fare. Still a wave of support from the critics' groups could see it make into the field; again, it's all about those first-choice votes. Beyond Best Picture, Emanuelle Riva in Best Actress, which looks all but certain to happen, and maybe Screenplay, it's chances aren't so great in other categories, though it has a Foreign Language nomination in the bag (something which will arguably hurt its cases elsewhere).

Beasts Of The Southern Wild
"Moonrise Kingdom" & "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
With the fall season so stacked, it's not surprising that most of the likely nominees came out from September onwards, but the two early-year pictures with the best chances are "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Both have pros and cons, in terms of their chances at Best Picture. With "Anna Karenina" and "Promised Land" fading, "Moonrise Kingdom" is Focus' best shot at a nomination, which can only help, and it certainly has critical approval, remaining one of the best-reviewed movies of the year. That said, Wes Anderson's never been an Oscar favorite, and this might not be the one to crack it for him (a fall release would have made it much more likely). It's enormously well-liked, but one suspects it's many people's second-or-third favorite film of the year. It's also, perhaps more crucially, not likely to do so well in other categories; no actor from the cast has emerged as a potential nominee, so outside of a screenplay nod, it's unlikely to figure elsewhere. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" has better chances; Quvenzhane Wallis is a sure Best Actress nominee, and the charm of the young star will carry it further as a result (with things like score and screenplay also possible). But the film is a minnow in a field of studio mammoths, and risks being overshadowed by star-laden epics like "Lincoln" and "Les Miserables," even if it's as impressive as accomplishment. It's not to be counted out, but it's right on the knife-edge of being a Best Picture nominee or not.

The Impossible Naomi Watts Tom Holland Ocean
"The Impossible" & "Flight"
Two Best Picture contenders united (for our purposes, anyway) by disasters of various kinds, Juan Antonio Bayona's tsunami drama and Robert Zemeckis' alcoholism tale are both scrabbling to make it into the Best Picture field. The latter's been doing nicely at the box office, and is certain to give Denzel Washington a Best Actor nomination, with screenplay and effects also in the mix too. But it's not really a critical favorite, so will need voters to decide that it's more than just a showcase for its leading man in order to get into the field. "The Impossible" has strong advocates out of TIFF, and Summit are giving it a real push, enlisting Oscar favorites like Angelina Jolie and Stephen Daldry to introduce screenings for BAFTA audience (we'll wager it does well there). And with record-breaking box office in Spain, it seems to have the potential to connect with audiences. But it's also tough stuff, even with an inspirational survival story, and with the film hitting late against high-profile competition, it might struggle to get enough eyes on it to gain traction by the time polling closes on January 3rd. It'll be interesting to see how much attention the film's critics, who accuse it of whitewashing the story, get as well. Still, don't be entirely surprised to see either among the final nominees.

Django Unchained, Foxx, Waltz
"This Is 40" & "Django Unchained"
Two late-season studio pictures among the last contenders to arrive in theaters, "Django Unchained" has long been touted by some, though we've always been skeptical, the material feeling, on the page, even pulpier than "Inglourious Basterds." And westerns don't have a great history with the Academy in recent years. But, it certainly shouldn't be disqualified, particularly with an Original Screenplay nod in the cards, and Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Samuel L Jackson challenging in Supporting Actor. "This Is 40" doesn't have much awards buzz at present, but Universal and Judd Apatow are pushing it quite hard, and we think it could have the potential to surprise. While we haven't seen it yet for ourselves yet, but advance word is very good, and the script suggests it's Apatow's most mature and satisfying film to date. "Bridesmaids" opened the way a little last year for this kind of movie, and the film's look at upper-middle-class life in LA is likely to strike a chord with Academy voters who may have been put off by the director's earlier films. Still, it'll need some support from other categories; a Screenplay nomination and something in supporting for Albert  Brooks or Leslie Mann could be enough to indicate that it'll make the final cut.

The Long Shots

Anna Karenina

We adore "Anna Karenina," but despite the period piece, it's never felt like a terribly Academy-friendly movie. Our hopes got up when the film did better than we expected on opening, but our guess is that "Les Miserables" being the expected behemoth has put paid to the film's chances. It will figure in below-the-line categories, potentially winning a couple of awards, but probably won't have much joy elsewhere, though Keira Knightley and Tom Stoppard remain long-shot bets for nods. Focus' other film of the season, Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land," looks pretty DOA -- word's very lukewarm on the ecological drama, even with star Matt Damon. The best it can probably hope for is a supporting nod for Hal Holbrook, but with the actor also among the "Lincoln" ensemble, his vote's likely to be split, especially with the category toughening up. "The Sessions" too is probably going to miss out on a Best Picture nomination, though John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are still safe.

One film that looked briefly promising was "Hitchcock," which Fox Searchlight moved into the heart of the season, with high hopes for both the picture and its lead actors. But the reviews were pretty tepid when compared to the competition, and the box office was even more so when it went into limited release last week. Helen Mirren still stands a chance, but Anthony Hopkins and the film itself look like long shots at this stage. Meanwhile, we'd like nothing more than for "Killing Them Softly" to be a serious contender, but the Weinsteins are selling it, as they did with "Lawless," as a quick exploitation money-maker; probably the right move for a film that was never that Academy-friendly anyway.