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Oscars: ‘The Master,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ & ‘Argo’ Lead Wide Open Awards Season Field

Oscars: 'The Master,' 'Silver Linings Playbook' & 'Argo' Lead Wide Open Awards Season Field

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.

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.

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.However, early frontrunners find themselves at something of a disadvantage — one only has to look at “The Social Network” or “Up In The Air” in recent years to see pictures that had trouble sustaining their momentum all the way through February. And while “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook” have also emerged as favorites, opinions differ as to which looks like the most likely to earn golden statues. Each has their advantages. “Argo” is an entertaining thriller with comic elements, and an inside-baseball movie angle. A period setting gives it a better shot at technical awards, and while Warner Bros are unlikely to play it up, the events in the Middle East have given it a timeliness that it didn’t have even two weeks ago.

However, it was “Silver Linings Playbook” that took the Audience Award at TIFF, which some have taken as a sign that David O. Russell’s massively crowd-pleasing comedy has the edge on “Argo” at this point. There’s no doubt that the film is a bona-fide popular darling — we’ve hardly heard a bad word against it at this point, although we’re sure that’ll come — and it has advantages that “Argo” doesn’t. It’s more of an actors picture, for one, with as many as three nominations looking likely, while it seems to connect at a much more emotional, universal level, which always helps. And the Audience Award certainly bodes well. In 34 years, nine victors went on to be Best Picture nominees, including three in the last four years, two of which – “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The King’s Speech” won the top prize.

That said, it’s not a no-brainer precursor. Only four TIFF audience award winners have actually won Best Picture in its 36 year history — the two above, plus “Chariots Of Fire” and “American Beauty,” nearly twenty years apart — and popular hits like “Eastern Promises” and “Where Do We Go Now?” failed to get any awards traction at all. Moreover, no comedy has won Best Picture since “Shakespeare In Love” in 1999, and it’s easy to compare “Silver Linings Playbook” to another early festival hit last year, “The Descendants,” which couldn’t keep up its traction to win major awards.

And that’s what so potentially exciting about the next few months — not only are those three looking good, but there are at least seventeen or eighteen films that we see as serious Best Picture possibilities, and at least half that number that feel like they could ultimately end up winning the major award. Normally at this stage of the season, those numbers have been halved, and certainly by the time the New York Film Festival was over the last few years, it was clear that “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist” were on their way to victory.

But whereas the fall festivals have often seen the awards season tightened up, this time around, it’s kept things broad and interesting this year. Given that even a weak year like 2011 saw nine nominees for Best Picture, we can see the full compliment of ten coming in this year. There’s still lots more to come, and more movies to play for critics — “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Life Of Pi,” “Les Miserables,” “Django Unchained” — that could still shake things up.

This week’s Best Picture chart follows on the next page.

Best Picture Chart – 23 Weeks To Go

1. “Silver Linings Playbook” (16)
So, uh, yeah, we underestimated this one. THE popular success of TIFF, and one that a number of prognosticators walked out of naming a Best Picture lock. The question remains for us, though — does it have a real chance at winning? “The Descendants” stayed strong throughout the season last year, but never really felt like it could take the top prize, and the same could well be true here. But if unseen fare like “Les Mis” and “Lincoln” falters this will hold steady.
2. “Argo” (3)
We’d long suspected this would have the goods, and word from Telluride and TIFF suggests it really does. There’s some minor controversy about its politics, but nothing that feels like it’ll make a dent, and recent world events only make it feel more relevant. But box office is important here — if it does, say, “Ides of March” numbers, the possibility of winning slips a good deal.
3. “Les Miserables” (1)
Universal, probably rightly, are keeping their cards to their chest on this. Has a lot of plus points, but could it feel too Oscar-baity? Say what you like about the last few winners, but none were necessarily designed as awards fare n the way that this clearly was.
4. “Lincoln” (2)
Not a wildly enthusiastic response to the trailer the other day, but people weren’t doing backflips over “War Horse” either.
5. “The Master” (5)
Harvey Weinstein arguably got the best case scenario at Venice — it didn’t win the Golden Lion, but got director and actor, and the leaked story that the jury wanted to give it the top prize too only makes it seem more like a once-in-a-lifetime film. But will it be accessible enough for older Academy voters? Opening already means it has a long slog ahead of it, but critics’ groups in November and December will help a lot.
6. “Life Of Pi” (4)
Still an unknown quantity at this point, but we’re only a few weeks from the film’s NYFF premiere, so it’ll become clearer soon. Unless Suraj Sharma really surprises, it’s unlikely to do much in the way of acting nominations, but that didn’t stop “Hugo” dominating the technical awards last year.
7. “Zero Dark Thirty” (11)
With “Lincoln” finally unveiling footage, this is the contender of which we’ve seen the least amount of footage so far. We could see a new trailer as soon as with “Looper,” but we think Sony will hang on until “Skyfall” for another glimpse of the film.
8. “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” (6)
Taking the backseat for now to the festival pictures, it remains to be seen if it’ll hang on into the Best Picture race — at one time, it felt like it could even challenge for the top prize, but other films have superseded it. That said, with Quvenzhane Wallis looking like a dead cert for a nomination, that should help a good deal.
9. “Moonrise Kingdom” (10)
Hitting DVD any day now, the film, like ‘Beasts,’ is in it for the long haul. People really like the film though, even older audiences traditionally cooler to Anderson’s work, so don’t count it out, but it will likely fighting it out for one of the last few slots.
10. “Promised Land” (8)
On paper, this late threat has all the ingredients for something very Oscar friendly. But it doesn’t hit until December 28th, so might well be too late for critics groups, and even precursor awards like the Golden Globes. By then, will the field be too tough to break into? Focus would do well to start screening it as soon as they can.
11. “Amour” (-)
Some believe that this is a lock for a nomination, and we’re starting to come around to it. Sony Pictures Classics will fight hard for it, but Playlist staffers who’ve seen it believe that the film’s simply too tough. The Academy’s predominately 60+ plus members couldn’t bring themselves to give Julie Christie an Oscar for “Away From Her,” a few years back, and that film is “Hope Springs” compared to Michael Haneke’s latest.
12. “The Impossible” (7)
Those who love Juan Antonio Bayona’s film, really love it, and sometimes that’s enough, but there are plenty of naysayers, and given that the film has some disadvantages (a late release date, a smaller studio behind it), it may struggle to crack the nominees. Still has a good chance, though.
13. “Flight” (12)
Like “Life Of Pi,” this skipped Toronto in favor of the NYFF, where it’ll bow in early October, so we’re not too far from finding out how it is. For what it’s worth, we’ve heard really good buzz on the film, but it may face an issue in that a number of other smart, star-driven studio dramas (most notably “Argo”) are in contention too. Will this just come off as their glossy, commercial big brother? Or might that fact help it?
14. “Cloud Atlas” (15)
We’re not sure if the film screening at Toronto actually helped clear the air on this one. The film’s loathed by some, and adored by others, and again, if it can land 5% of first choice votes, it’s in the final number. That said, our hunch is that younger audiences respond better to it, although Tom Hanks’ presence may help the older crowd see it.
15. “Anna Karenina” (14)
Well respected, for the most part, but not a lot of critical raves behind it (although it’s becoming something of a favorite among the Playlist team). There’s a lot of respect for the boldness of Joe Wright’s vision, which will likely be reflected below the line, but the performances haven’t bowled many over, and a disappointing UK opening (likely severely affected by a gloriously sunny weekend) suggests it might not be a financial smash. That said, it’s not to be counted out.
16. “Django Unchained” (17)
We can’t decide if “The Master” and “Silver Linings Playbook” both looking like major contenders means that Tarantino’s latest — which we’ve always felt is mostly commercial — will get overshadowed by the other Weinstein Company pictures, or if it’s better off as a result. We still think this’ll ultimately be on the outside, but after “Inglourious Basterds,” it could still happen.
17. “The Sessions” (13)
While it seems good for acting nominations, we feel like Best Picture is a longshot at this point. All that said, it could get another groundswell behind it when the film’s released in October.
18. “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (-)
As some of the more middlebrow-type fare falls off — “Hyde Park On Hudson,” “Quartet” etc — this one, as a proven solid-gold hit, ekes up again. Hardly a critical favorite, but couldn’t be more in the Academy sweet spot if it tried. Will it be too far in the past, though?
19. “Rust & Bone” (-)
Continuing to draw raves after appearances at TIFF and Telluride, can it piggyback Marion Cotillard — now essentially the front-runner for Best Actress — to a wider nomination? We suspect that one or the other of this and “Amour” will get in, but not both, and right now the Haneke pic is SPC’s priority. But in a way, Jacques Audiard’s film is more Academy friendly, even if it’s also got a rough edge to it.
20. “Killing Them Softly” (-)
Harvey Weinstein claims that the release delay, to November 30th, is to better place the film for Oscar consideration. Whether you believe him or not (we don’t), it did make us wonder if it’s worth reconsidering. The film, like some of these, others, is nicely timed in terms of its political message, and we feel like it might connect better with U.S. critics than it did in Cannes.

Bubbling Under: “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Song For Marion,” “The Hobbit,” ” This Is 40″

Out: Hyde Park On Hudson,” which basically no one likes and even Bill Murray‘s Oscar nomination is in serious question. “To The Wonder” pretty much bombed in Toronto, and it still needs U.S. distribution, which at this point could be a hard sell. Certainly, major indies won’t be circling Malick’s latest too hard unless the price tag is very low. And even if it does get picked up, it’s going to be 2013 for this one.

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