Argo The Master Silver Linings Playbook

Having covered the awards season in quite a bit of detail last year, it's fair to say that it wasn't the most exciting Oscar race in history. It became clear from early September onward that "The Artist" was set to be a juggernaut, and as the film swept the precursors in the run-up, it was clear that nothing else had a chance at beating it out. And indeed, most of the acting races felt like foregone conclusions as well. It became apparent in the weeks before the Oscars that Jean Dujardin was going to edge out George Clooney, while Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer had their awards locked up for months, making the Meryl Streep/Viola Davis head-to-head the only major race that felt up in the air.

And the same has mostly been true of the last few years. 2011's awards was a two-header between "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network," but few were backing the latter by Oscar night. 2010 had a similar situation, between "The Hurt Locker" and "Avatar," but it was pretty clear that David was going to win out over Goliath in that case. "Slumdog Millionaire" and "No Country For Old Men" both looked like obvious winners months out, as did "The Departed," leaving 2005 the last real knife-edge contest, when "Crash" beat out "Brokeback Mountain."

"The Master"
TWC "The Master"

This year, while many, many months are still to play out, it's exciting to look at the field of contenders as the dust settles on the key Venice/Telluride/Toronto festival triumvirate, and realize that it's all still wide open. Barring a serious surprise we could be looking at the most unpredictable and exciting awards race in some time.

Post Venice and Telluride, it became clear that both "The Master" and "Argo" were going to be serious contenders, and virtually certain Best Picture nominees. At TIFF, they certainly shored up their positions with equally ecstatic reactions and were joined by David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," which after some initially quiet buzz, has roared to the front of the pack as well.

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Of the three, "The Master" is in theory the least likely to have a chance at the top prize -- the film is firmly on the arty side of the spectrum, and the least interested in pleasing an audience. But the rapturous critical reception, including two awards at Venice (it was also widely reported, much to Harvey Weinstein's delight, the jury wanted to give it the top prize as well), and a record-breaking opening weekend in limited release, suggest that the film will certainly be a Best Picture nominee, and pick up multiple nominations elsewhere.

There's been some suggestion that the box office for "The Master" is front-loaded, with the hardcore PTA fanbase turning out in droves, but we think such thoughts are underestimating what a hot-button topic the film is at the moment, and the general curiosity to check it out whether due to the 70mm format or buzz around the performances. Our gut says that "The Master" is far too opaque to beat out the competition for the Best Picture prize, but it will be a major cotender in the acting categories were actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman will be major threats for the Best Actor prize (unless they're both nominated as a lead and cancel each other out). And you can never count out the power of Harvey Weinstein during award season campaigning that should at least be able to musters a Best Pic nomination.