Oscar Guide: EW's Prize Fighter on the four-way battle for Best Picture

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For years, this was the book no one could film.

Three major directors tried and quit before Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon filmmaker Ang Lee stepped in to make this mystical story of survival, about a boy stranded at sea on a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger.

Even Academy members who say they were turned off by the somewhat touchy-feely trailer admit to coming out of this film in awe, and Lee’s single-handed efforts will make him a formidable Best Director contender. Not only does he fuse fantasy and reality (the photo-real tiger is almost entirely CG, as are most of the lost-at-sea settings), but he turns 3-D into a tool of emotion instead of just a gimmick, since how close or far away the boy is from things (his family’s sinking ship, the predator sitting at the other end of the boat) is the heart of the story.

Sharma does excellent work, but isn’t likely to break into an especially jammed Best Actor field this year. The character of Pi is a bit of a cipher, a stand-in for  moviegoers who project themselves into that boat, and the only other star turn is Irrfan Khan as an older Pi, recounting his story of being lost, and found again. Khan could break into the supporting actor race, but there aren’t many other above-the-line parts to grab nominations. (It would be difficult to imagine Life of Pi getting an ensemble nod from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, since its cast is so small.)

Life of Pi has won many supporters from its festival screenings (Here’s a great assessment called “Into the Mystic,” by AwardsDaily.com’s Sasha Stone). And as it hits theaters on Nov. 21, just a few days away, I’d expect it to do solid, steady business — building on word of mouth over the weeks. Lee has been doing a strong press push this week, but as with the making of the movie, he’s kind of a one-man show.

The Academy will surely recognize it for visual effects, and perhaps a number of other below the line fields, but Life of Pi just doesn’t have enough actors to be represented in the showy top categories. For that reason, if voters decide to spread around the honors, they might find themselves giving Pi the top prize with no actor nominees, just as they did with Slumdog Millionaire. With fewer individuals to single out, the overall Best Picture honor could make the most sense.

With that theory in mind, and a sense that out of the top four contenders Pi has the most room to grow, I currently rank it number one in my projections for the Feb. 24 ceremony.

On the next page, I do my full rundown for the top 10 (with a little cheating).

But keep in mind — it’s a shaky No. 1 spot for Pi.

Argo, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook could easily take it. And there are a some other serious rivals still to come.

NEXT PAGE: Prognosticating the Final 10 …

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