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Oscars: Taking The Temperature Of The Race As ‘Les Miserables’ & ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Screen

Oscars: Taking The Temperature Of The Race As 'Les Miserables' & 'Zero Dark Thirty' Screen

With Thanksgiving over and done with, we’ve arguably reached the mid-point of the awards season. Things will be kicking off with the Independent Spirit nominations arriving tomorrow, and the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review following next week. And with Oscar ballots going out not long after, almost every film has been screened, with “Les Miserables” and “Zero Dark Thirty” making their debuts over the weekend to press and industry types, leaving “Django Unchained” the last major contender to be seen by critics. And many of the big movies, including “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Life Of Pi” most recently, have now been seen by audiences too.

All of this means that it seems like a pretty good time to take the temperature of the awards race as it stands right now. One thing so far is certainly clear — after several years of indies dominating the Oscars (“Million Dollar Baby” in 2005 was the last true-blue studio picture to win Best Picture), this year is seeing the return of studio fare in a big way to the Academy, with most of the big contenders hailing from within the establishment.

To reiterate what we’ve said in the past, it’s also quite a diverse list of contenders, and one that’s still fluid — whereas previous years have seen “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech” lock things down fairly early on, there’s still a wide range of pictures seriously threatening for Best Picture, and multiple films with a good chance of winning the top prize. So which are locked in at this stage? Which are competing for those extra slots made possible by the rule changes the Academy made last year? And which need a minor miracle to be back in the hunt? You can read our thoughts below, and let us know your own in the comments section.

The Locks

If it’s not quite the front-runner, it’s up there, thanks to tremendous reviews (for the most part), strong box office and a titanic performance at its center. It’s certainly Spielberg’s biggest contender, awards-wise, since “Saving Private Ryan,” even if (or perhaps because) it appeals much more to older critics and voters than to younger ones, and its looking good for a big swath of nominations. Best Picture, Director, Score and Screenplay nominations are likely in the bag, and Tony Kushner is a good bet to win the latter. Daniel Day-Lewis is a certain Best Actor nominee in a very a tough field, while Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones are building steam to join him with supporting nods. Beyond that, the film has good chances below the line as well, with Production Design, Cinematography, Make-up, Costume, Editing and even Visual Effects all in play; even the sound categories could happen. Either way, 10 and 13 nods are not out of the question, and this should be a big presence in February.

“Les Miserables”
Our gut has said all year that this felt like a potential awards-gobbling monster, and reactions from the screenings that began on Friday seemed to back that up. Standing ovations and tear-stained handkerchiefs greeted showings on both coasts, along with a general consensus that the film is a triumphant screen version of the stage musical hit destined to be a big Oscar player. And while we wouldn’t want to jump in until reviews officially drop next month, it’s certainly the biggest threat to “Lincoln” at present, and might well turn out to be the big dog of the season. Hugh Jackman seems to be the entry into the Best Actor race we always figured he would be, while Anne Hathaway is presumptive front-runner in Supporting Actress (possibly joined by co-star Samantha Barks), and one or both of Eddie Redmayne and Russell Crowe look to get into Supporting Actor. The film’s all but certain to win Best Original Song for new number “Suddenly,” while Sound, Cinematography, Costume and Production design nods are all feasible. Along with Editing (and maybe Visual Effects), Screenplay is tougher to call; it’ll depend on whether voters deem William Nicholson‘s script to have done more than a straight transposition of the stage show to screen, and in a tough category, it might fall short. It certainly seems all-but-certain to get Picture and Director nods too, but the interesting question is whether they go hand-in-hand if the film wins. Traditionally, the helmer of the Best Picture winning-film takes Best Director too. But if “Les Miserables” takes the big prize, will Tom Hooper get his second Oscar in three years with it?

The front-runner for a time, Ben Affleck‘s film is still doing very nicely financially — it should cross $100 million at the box office in the next few days, although it’s likely to drop out of the top 10 within the next couple of weeks. And it’s still widely liked, with a mix of comedy, thrills and pathos. But one senses it might have peaked too soon, as “Up In The Air” and “The Social Network” did before it. It’s a tough thing to keep up the momentum from a Telluride premiere and an October release all the way through to the ceremony in February, and “Argo,” as popular as it is, is being overshadowed by fresher-feeling competition — the similarly geo-political “Zero Dark Thirty” in particular threatening to steal its thunder. It does have the advantage of being, like “The Artist,” a movie about movies, which should at least ensure it a Best Picture nomination, but it may feel relatively slight in comparison to more epic competition, when it comes to a win. It’s also hurt by being less dominant in the technical categories than some others; Editing feels like the only below-the-line sure thing to join likely noms for Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Alan Arkin‘s is also deemed to be in the hunt for Supporting Actor, but with “Lincoln” and “Les Miserables” offering up multiple potentials in the category, don’t be shocked if Arkin misses out. All that said, if nominations materialize in Sound, Production Design, Cinematography or Costume categories, none of which are totally unlikely, it’ll suggest a broader range of support that could see the film in contention for bigger prizes as well.

“Life Of Pi”
Being a 3D visual extravaganza from a master filmmaker, and sharing a release date have led to many drawing comparisons between last year’s multiple nominee “Hugo” and this year’s Ang Lee spectacle “Life Of Pi.” The Scorsese picture was deemed the sole true threat to “The Artist” last year, and ultimately managed more nominations, and the same number of prizes, but lost out in all the big categories. Very well liked and reviewed, we’d reckon the next few weeks at the box office may determine how much of a player it is. Best Picture and Director nominations seem inevitable, while Visual Effects, Score and Cinematography are all strong possibilities as well. This movie will probably easily win over in the technical categories — it’s a rather remarkable achievement in that regard — but whether that converts to the bigger categories too remains to be seen.

“Silver Linings Playbook”
There are many pundits out there who have been predicting big things for David O Russell‘s crowd pleasing “Silver Linings Playbook” since it played at TIFF in September. Being a comedy, the sweet and funny film will have a tougher road to a Best Picture win against more serious minded fare, but a nomination seems likely. And in the acting race, it certainly has some strong contenders with Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro looking like sure-fire nominees, and Bradley Cooper has a very good chance at cracking a tough Best Actor field. Meanwhile, a Screenplay nomination should happen, and it has a good shot at Directing as well. And already off to the races at the box office — with a per screen average besting “Lincoln” over the weekend — strong legs as it platforms out will certainly help.

“Zero Dark Thirty”
The is the most recent to pop up on radars, with first reviews arriving over the weekend as it screened in Los Angeles and New York City. And the word on Kathryn Bigelow‘s Bin Laden-chase picture is damn good. It seems, from our review and others, to be exactly what we were hoping for; an impossibly detailed procedural that makes it the “All The President’s Men” or “Zodiac” for the war on terror. That’s not traditionally the sort of thing that floats the Academy’s boat, these days at least, but between the subject matter and Bigelow and Boal’s win for ‘The Hurt Locker,” it looks likely that the film will make it into the Best Picture race. Some are calling it the front-runner, but it’s early on, and high emotions tend to level out. Where will it figure in otherwise? Jessica Chastain is looking good for her first Best Actress nomination, and some have suggested that she’s Jennifer Lawrence‘s toughest competition in the category. Director and Screenplay should also happen (Bigelow and Russell are competing for that fifth slot, but Bigelow’s the more familiar name, and the film seems to be more reflective of her authorial voice). Technical categories are harder to call, but editing and sound nods are probably its best bet, and cinematography might well be up for grabs as well.

The Contenders

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).

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” & “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.

“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

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. 

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