Why It Could Be A Contender: One of the best-liked films at Sundance this year, albeit a little more under the radar that "Beasts of the Southern Wild" or "The Sessions," was James Ponsoldt's "Smashed," a drama starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead from "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and "Breaking Bad" lead Aaron Paul as an alcoholic married couple whose relationship is strained to the breaking point when she, a schoolteacher, gives up the bottle. We loved the film, but it's too small scale to be a Best Picture contender. But the performances, particularly that of Winstead, which drew absolute raves, might certainly figure in. It's a thin year for Best Actress, and with the right critical momentum when the film goes on release, Winstead could make her way into the Jennifer Lawrence/Carey Mulligan-type slot in the category (we've heard more than one colleague suggest that Nick Offerman could, or at least should, be a candidate for his supporting performance as Winstead's principal too). At the very least, an Independent Spirit nod seems virtually in the bag. The presence of Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer in a role can only help it get Academy eyes too, and distributors Sony Pictures Classics don't have any other English-language fare that looks viable for a campaign, possibly one of the reasons they picked the film up.
Why It Might Not Be: That said, SPC will be pushing Michael Haneke's "Amour" and Jacques Audiard's "Rust & Bone" in categories beyond Foreign Language, so their hands may be full as it is. They also haven't yet set the film's release date, so there's no guarantee it'll be in theaters before the end of the year, and its failure to appear in the TIFF line-up so far perhaps suggests bad news on that front. Also, Winstead has virtually no profile among older audiences, and would have to charm voters a good deal to get a foothold.
Why It Could Be A Contender: Ever since we read Paul Andrew Williams' "Song for Marion" a year or so ago, we've felt that it had the potential to be a surprise awards-wise. A crowd-pleaser in the vein of something like "Venus" or "Calendar Girls," it involves a crotchety, elderly man (Terence Stamp) who reluctantly agrees to take up his wife (Vanessa Redgrave)'s place in a choir -- along the lines of that seen in documentary "Young At Heart" -- when she's taken terminally ill. It co-stars Gemma Arterton and Christopher Eccleston, and is unlikely to be a Best Picture candidate, but in Stamp and Redgrave, it has two veteran actors, each long unrecognized (Stamp's sole nominations was for "Billy Budd" fifty years ago, and six-time nominee Redgrave, whose nod for "Coriolanus" failed to materialize last year, hasn't been nominated for 20 years, or won for almost 35), and each with parts that scream Oscar. The Weinstein Company seem to agree, as the awards specialists picked the film up nearly a year ago.
Why It Might Not Be: The trouble is, they haven't appeared to do anything with it; the film's done, and has screened for select U.K. press ahead of a January opening (Baz Bamigboye raved about it here), but it doesn't have a U.S. release date, and hasn't yet appeared in any festival line-ups. It may yet appear at Telluride or TIFF (after all, "The King's Speech" took that route, and this time two years ago was barely a blip on the radar), or even somewhere like London, but with so much other product like "The Master," "The Silver-Linings Playbook" and "Django Unchained," plus potentially other smaller-scale fare like "The Sapphires" and "The Intouchables," maybe the Weinsteins just can't find the room to chase this one this year?
Why It Could Be A Contender: A few years back, Lisa Chodolenko's comedy-drama "The Kids Are All Right," revolving around a lesbian couple and the surrogate they used to father their children, managed an impressive four Oscar-nominations, including Best Picture. So it makes sense that the directorial debut of that film's co-writer Stuart Blumberg, should be watched fairly carefully over the next few months. Another dramedy, this time focusing on three people (Tim Robbins, Mark Ruffalo and Josh Gad) in recovery for sex addiction, with Gwyneth Paltrow as the woman who tempts Ruffalo away, and Carol Kane, Patrick Fugit, Joely Richardson and Pink also among the cast, if well-executed, it could slip nicely into that indie comedy slot that's somewhat under-represented this year. And with two Oscar winners in Paltrow and Robbins, and Ruffalo, a nominee overdue for a win, acting nods and an original screenplay nomination could still be good bets even if the film doesn't make Best Picture
Why It Might Not Be: The streets of Toronto, where the film will premiere next month, are littered with the bodies of comedy-dramas that were neither funny enough or especially dramatic, and there's always the risk that this could be the next. After all, Blumberg's credits prior to teaming up with Chodolenko included "The Girl Next Door" and "Keeping the Faith." Even if the film doesn't work, it still needs to find a distributor who'll fight for it, and the subject matter may prove a speedbump; "Shame" failed to convince voters last year that it was about more than just sex addiction, and with the explicit, but more worthy "The Sessions" already a strong contender, the Academy may already feel a bit sexed-out.
Why It Could Be A Contender: More than anything else, it could be Clint Eastwood's final screen performance. The actor said he'd retired from being before cameras after "Gran Torino," but when Beyonce's pregnancy delayed his version of "A Star Is Born," Eastwood relented, letting long-time producing partner and AD Robert Lorenz take the reins for this story of an aging baseball scout whose sight is failing him who takes his daughter (Amy Adams) out to check out one last prodigy. There's no denying that the Academy loves Eastwood, even if the last few years have seen his films mostly come up short, and the chance to finally give him an acting Oscar (he was nomintaed for "Million Dollar Baby" and "Unforgiven," but lost in both cases) is one they might have some difficulty passing up. Adams is an Oscar favorite too, and could figure into the supporting actress race here as well. And who knows, if the film hits the same kind of voter sweet spot as "The Blind Side" did a few years ago, Best Picture may not be impossible either.
Why It Might Not Be: As we said, Eastwood's last few films all looked like Academy bait from a distance, but all fell short. And they didn't take the chance to nominate him for "Gran Torino" when that looked like his final acting role either, so perhaps one shouldn't give sentimentality too much credit. Furthermore, Lorenz is pretty untested behind the camera, and given that the film's a big studio picture, it could turn out to be more "The Bucket List" than "Million Dollar Baby" in terms of awards possibilities. And one shouldn't count on Adams as a contender for this one, given that her role in "The Master" looks far meatier (and the one that our gut says could finally see her pick up the statue).
Also Worth Keeping An Eye On: "A Place Beyond the Pines," "The Company You Keep," "A Late Quartet," "Quartet," "At Any Price," "Ginger and Rosa," "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," "The Iceman."
Best Picture Chart: 29 Weeks To Go
1) "The Master"
Venice and TIFF premieres, with a release soon after, suggest that the Weinsteins are making this their big hope for the year. But assuming the film's great, can it then keep up its momentum in the five months between its release and the Oscar ceremony?
Really no change on this one way or the other, although its November release, at the end of election week, suggests it may be more politically-inclined than Spielberg's suggested
3) "Les Miserables"
Something that occurred to use this week: the film only wrapped a small matter of weeks ago. Hooper certainly has a battle on his hands getting what must be a complex film ready in time. It's almost unfeasible that it slips into 2013... but could it?
4) "Life Of Pi"
Anecdotally, the trailer's been getting some wildly enthusiastic responses from 'civlians,' let's say; is this the sign of a real crowd-pleaser? Or will it do "Hugo"-style numbers. Whispers are floating around that the film could premiere at Rome in November, which would give it a nice launch.
Warners made this a TIFF premiere rather than their now traditional Venice out-of-competition slot, but the delay of "Gangster Squad" gives the studio more time to focus on making this a hit the size of "The Town," which can only help its chances.
6) "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Still doing nicely on limited release, but there's always the risk it may not be able to keep the momentum up all the way into next year. And we have heard reports that Academy screenings haven't been that well attended, and the reaction's been cooler than expected.
7) "The Sessions"
Will have a presence at TIFF, which makes sense, and Searchlight would be smart to bring it to Telluride as well, to give it a second wave of buzz heading into its October release. But is it really truly a Best Picture play, or a performance driven picture?
8) "The Impossible"
Yeah, we're feeling confident about this one. We may come to rue this prediction come the TIFF premiere, but our gut says this could end up among the Best Picture nominees.
9) "Moonrise Kingdom"
Extraordinarily well-liked even by Wes Anderson's standard; but can it win over older voters, who are a little more resistant to the director, traditionally? An acting nomination (most likely Edward Norton or Bruce Willis) would help.
10) "The Promised Land"
Another one of our potential surprises, we'd been undervaluing this until we came back to look at it again. The biggest question at this point is if the film can be ready in time. But all involved sound confident.
11) "Hyde Park On Hudson"
We think some might be undervaluing this one in the awards play: we maintain that Bill Murray is virtually locked for Best Actor, unless the film is a disaster, and if follows obvious model "The King's Speech," could make a run at other awards too. But will it be too obviously similar too soon? We'll find out in Toronto.
12) "Zero Dark Thirty"
Another film that wrapped late in the year, and of all the December films, this is the one we think has the likeliest chance of slipping. After all, "The Hurt Locker" had almost eighteen months to build buzz between its Venice premiere and the Oscars. That said, Bigelow + the subject matter is a potent combination.
13) "Cloud Atlas"
Coming up the charts this week on the back of that extraordinary trailer. But a trailer and a movie are very different things, and although the buzz is good, we're not entirely convinced that the filmmakers will be able to pull it off. And even if it does, will it be too weird for the Academy?
14) "The Great Gatsby"
We're still not quite feeling this one somehow: will voters really respond to an outsider's garish take on one of America's most beloved novels?
15) "The Silver-Linings Playbook"
A TIFF premiere, in contrast to the straight-to-theaters approach of "The Fighter," suggests Harvey's playing the long game on this. Jennifer Lawrence seems like the film's best bet, but could be this year's "The Descendants" if the film really works.
16) "The Dark Knight Rises"
Doing very well at the box office, but currently behind the pace of its predecessor, which makes the argument for nomination a little tougher ("Return of the King" was, after all, the first film since "Titanic" to cross a billion dollars). And there are an awful lot of naysayers out there.
Becoming increasingly clear that Sony Pictures Classics have high hopes for this in major categories. But it's six years since the last solely foreign-language nominee ("Letters From Iwo Jima"), and over a decade since the last one not made by an American filmmaker ("Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon").
18) "To The Wonder"
Debuts at Venice and TIFF certainly improve the film's chances, but it'll need reviews equal to "Tree Of Life" to stand a chance. It also needs, more importantly, a distributor.
19) "Django Unchained"
Given that the film only wrapped two weeks ago, Tarantino really has to buckle down to get this finished on time, especially as he's working with a new editor. And given the length of his scripts, that may not the easiest task at hand.
20) "Anna Karenina"
We have to say, the fact that this isn't going to Venice, despite a UK release on September 7th, suggests to us that the film may not be a home run. That said, maybe Universal and Focus chose not to got the festival, rather than failing to get in? A North American premiere at TIFF doesn't suggest tha they're trying to hide it.