When the nominations for the 85th annual Academy Awards are announced this week, there are a few things that are certain. A two-time winner for Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) will receive his fifth nomination for playing the 16th president of the United States. The first woman to ever receive the Best Director Oscar (Kathryn Bigelow) will be given the chance to repeat her victory. And a lavish adaptation of a beloved Broadway musical (“Les Miserables”) will receive several major nominations, hoping to capture awards glory the same way that “Chicago” did exactly ten years ago.
But there are a number of questions to which we won’t know the answer until the moment the nominees are revealed. Will the Academy recognize a James Bond film (“Skyfall”) in a major category for the first time ever? Will an extremely violent spaghetti western revolving around slavery (“Django Unchained”) be nominated for Best Picture? And will a nine-year-old girl (Quvenzhane Wallis in “Beast of the Southern Wild”) become the youngest Best Actress nominee in history for her film debut?
But the biggest question of all may be as to how many films are included in the Best Picture category. Like last year, the rules state that any film that receives at least 5% of the first-place votes on the nominating ballots will reap a bid. There will be at least five and as many as ten, or any number in between. The 2011 derby recognized nine contenders. This year, due to a seemingly divided Academy electorate, there may in fact be the maximum ten.
Here’s a look at the ten films most likely to make the Oscar shortlist, in order of probability.
1. “Argo” – Ben Affleck’s tale of the “Canadian Caper” during the Iran hostage crisis has received both rapturous reviews and enthusiastic audience reaction since its release in October. It’s still drawing crowds, and recently crossed the $100 million mark at the US box office. “Argo” has been recognized with major nominations by the Golden Globe Awards, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, the Critics Choice Awards and the Producers Guild Awards. A one-time Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay (“Good Will Hunting,”) Affleck is now virtually assured of a directing nomination. With everything it has in its favor, “Argo” could very well go all the way on Oscar night next month.
2. “Lincoln” – Historical drama has long been a popular genre with the Academy, meaning that this film about Abe could turn into Oscar. In the starring performance, Daniel Day-Lewis appears to be unstoppable in his bid for a third Best Actor trophy. Previous winners Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field will find themselves in contention once again for their supporting turns. With its superb craftsmanship, watch for “Lincoln” to earn the most nominations of the year in everything from production and costume design to cinematography, makeup and score. If the Academy decides to go the traditional route, it’s “Lincoln” that gets inaugurated as Best Picture of 2012.
3. “Zero Dark Thirty” – Director Kathryn Bigelow made history three years ago when she accepted the Oscar for helming “The Hurt Locker.” Her follow-up film has earned an almost equally positive reception from critics, despite some questions about its presentation of torture tactics. Nominations for picture and director seem guaranteed, and star Jessica Chastain will surely figure into the Best Actress race. Can Bigelow and her film prevail again so soon? It’s too early to say, but there’s “Zero” chance that “Dark Thirty” won’t be in the running.
4. “Life of Pi” – Many said that bringing the acclaimed novel to the screen would be impossible, but director Ang Lee has proven them wrong. Undoubtedly the most visually stunning movie of the year, “Life of Pi” will bring Lee this third directing nomination (he won for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain”) and nods for cinematography, sound mixing and visual effects. With no acting citations expected, it probably can’t win the top prize. But by the end of the awards season, expect “Life” to snag at least a piece of the golden Oscar pie.
5. “Les Miserables” – The most anticipated film of the year, it was hailed as a surefire awards contender the moment the trailer was unveiled back in June. With Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) in charge and a superb cast of actors, it looked like it might repeat the success of previous Best Picture musicals like “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver.” It now appears that “Les Miz” hasn’t quite lived up to the high expectations. Still, nominations for Best Picture and Hugh Jackman for Best Actor appear to be probable, and Anne Hathaway is widely regarded as the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress. With its lavish staging, look for nominations in production and costume design, as well as sound mixing and perhaps cinematography. All of this potential Oscar recognition should leave the film’s makers anything but miserable.
6. “Silver Linings Playbook” – Arguably the biggest crowd-pleaser among this year’s Oscar hopefuls, the picture has been generating major awards buzz since it won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival last September. Unlike most of the other films in contention, it’s a contemporary and dialogue-driven work which will garner few technical nods. On the other hand, it’s expected to score an impressive three acting nominations: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actor and Actress, and Robert De Niro for Best Supporting Actor. If onscreen wife and mother Jacki Weaver sneaks in to the supporting actress field, “Silver” could become the first film to garner recognition in all four acting categories since 1981’s “Reds.” All in all, it’s a pretty strong Oscar playbook.
7. “Moonrise Kingdom” – Director Wes Anderson’s quirky but delightful indie comedy debuted last May and enjoyed a long summer run in theatres, grossing a healthy $45 million in the US. Despite its early release, it hasn’t been forgotten, winning Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical and a Producers Guild nod for best film of the year. The Oscar-friendly cast (including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton) further improves its chances. Frequently mentioned by many people as their favorite movie of the year, “Moonrise” may well have enough support to earn a place in this year’s Oscar kingdom.
8. “The Master” – There’s no question that the latest effort from Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood” “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights”) has left both critics and audiences deeply divided. The subject matter (a fictionalized account of the creation of what appears to be Scientology) is controversial, and there are numerous scenes which have left viewers uncomfortable and even disgusted. However, Anderson’s direction is superb and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams will likely earn acting nominations. While far from a sure thing, voters could find the film masterful enough to give it a place in the Best Picture race.
9. “Django Unchained” – As with “The Master,” Quentin Tarantino’s recent release is a most polarizing picture. Its illustration of slavery, graphic violence and nearly three-hour running time make it a difficult film to truly enjoy. But its inclusion in the Golden Globes and Producers Guild Awards plus Tarantino’s small but passionate group of Academy supporters bode well for it. Both Leonardo DiCaprio and previous winner Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”) could receive acting nominations, and the “Pulp Fiction” creator will probably be cited for original screenplay. Another wild card in the awards game, its admirers might get “Django” unchained and into Oscar’s most prestigious category.
10. “Amour” – This tiny French-language film is Austria’s official entry in the foreign film contest. The critics have been dazzled, with a number of major groups naming it the top picture of the year. Star Emmanuelle Riva may have been snubbed by the Golden Globe and SAG voters, but watch for her to land a surprise Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of an elderly woman slowly dying after suffering a stroke. Also expect recognition for screenwriting and perhaps even directing. If enough Academy members admire “Amour” as much as they seem to, Best Picture love can’t be too far away."
There are a handful of other serious prospects. The indie sensation “Beasts of the Southern Wild” generated major buzz when released last summer, but it lacks big-name stars and grabbed few of the top critics’ prizes. While “Skyfall” is the best-reviewed film of the long-running James Bond franchise, how many voters will really rank this as their number one film of the year? The same goes for the popular “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a most original British comedy which may seem too light and exotic for the heavyweight Best Picture Oscar race.
You’ve now had your Academy Awards preview. Let the games begin.