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

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Things can, and will change, but in trying to predict the weather three months ahead of time, this is what I’ve got:

1. Life of Pi
2. Argo
3. Lincoln
4. Silver Linings Playbook

… And now the rest:

5. Les Miserables — Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried star in this adaptation of the Tony-winning musical about the 1832 Paris Uprising. Not only is the source material beloved, but this is director Tom Hooper’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. With that pedigree, a nomination is its to lose. I’ve seen a rough version of it, and voters will begin screening the film at the end of next week. Once that happens, and audiences get their turns on Dec. 25, I believe the four-way neck-in-neck race for Best Picture will have a fifth member.

6. Zero Dark Thirty — It’s fashionable right now to say the incredible James Bond thriller Skyfall could slip into the Best Picture race. I loved Skyfall, and most voters I know did, too. But they shake their heads like it’s crazytalk when I ask if it has a shot at a nomination. Instead, Zero Dark Thirty, another thrilling and intense story about the hunt for a terrorist mastermind, is likely to overshadow it. And of course, ZDT is a true story — chronicling the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain (an Oscar-nominee for The Help) leads this ensemble drama, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, who each won Oscars for Best Picture-winner The Hurt Locker.) When Zero Dark starts screening next week, it’s going to make 007 look like a very well-made popcorn film. (But if you really want 007 to have his day at the Academy Awards, Kris Tapley of HitFix has a good piece on some overdue Oscar-worthy talent from Bond’s latest.)

7. The Impossible — Voters have been slow to embrace this one, perhaps because even those who love it find it intimidating and uncomfortable. But those who do see it can’t forget this harrowing survival-story of a family caught up in the 2004 tsunami. Naomi Watts is sure to claim a Best Actress nomination as the mother of three, trying to save who she can, and Ewan McGregor is a possibility for supporting actor, while teenager Tom Holland, playing their eldest son, is vying for Best Actor. (Holland is a longshot in that crowded category, but he certainly deserves consideration for playing a kid who is caught in the wave, only to emerge an adult.) Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez (who made the creepy 2007 Spanish ghost story The Orphanage) use their horror-filmmakers’ bag of tricks to amp up the visceral qualities of this true-life heartbreaker, pushing away any sense of maudlin with adrenaline. The film, opening on Dec. 21, leaves you wanting to curl in a ball and cry your eyes out, even if they’re happy tears.

8. Moonrise Kingdom — Wes Anderson’s adorable and hilarious coming-of-age saga, about two runaways and the gaggle of misguided adults trying to find them, had a solid debut this summer, and though it has been off the radar a while, voters remember it with a wide smile when they look back at 2012. Critics hailed it, and continue to champion it, and with Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Bob Balaban headlining an eclectic cast that also includes newcomer kid-stars Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, I would bet good money on a SAG Award nomination for best ensemble. Quite a few voters rank this one high, though it’s not a sure-thing. In a season of such pain and dark emotion, this light-as-a-feather yarn could be a welcome respite in those top-five lists of nominees. A recent Blu-ray release will help win over those who missed it in theaters.

9. The Master — This film seemed like a lock a few months ago but is barely maintaining a pulse as time goes by. Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of a new-age messiah (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his moonshine-addicted follower (Joaquin Phoenix, who will still get a nomination, no matter how much he disses the politics of award season) left many voters cold, even as they admired its technical achievements. One voter told me it felt like “a slam-dunk contest” between actors, showing off brazen performances but lacking in narrative and drama. I’ve also heard more than a few refer to it as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — an inscrutable story that some were hesitant to criticize at first, for fear of seeming out of touch. But with audiences failing to turn out, and critics somewhat mixed, The Master is barely hanging on to its award-season clout, and voters aren’t as keen to name it a Best Picture player anymore, even though respect for the actors remains high.

10. Flight — The initial reactions I heard to this Denzel Washington drama about a pilot who saves almost all the passengers aboard a crashing airliner — but was coked up and drunk when he did it — was decidedly mixed. Some felt Washington’s performance was Oscar worthy, but that the movie lost direction after the first act’s spectacular crash sequence. It’s Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action movie since 2000’s Cast Away, and like that Tom Hanks film Flight is another deep character study, focusing on one desperate man’s struggle with addiction. I had counted it out of contention due to a few “meh” early reactions, but a strong box office debut followed, and more and more voters are starting to mention it as a favorite. “It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. I was captivated the whole time,” an Academy member tells me, one of several who said they’d rank it as their No. 1. “What’s brilliant is it’s so not about the plane wreck, it’s about his flight from the truth.” I still hear some “meh,” but there’s enough passion behind Flight for it to crack Prize Fighter’s top 10.

11. Beasts of the Southern Wild — I’m cheating here, since the Academy only allows a maximum of 10 nominees. If the voting closed today, this might get in, but like The Master it’s fading fast. The dream-like fable about a little girl facing the end of the world wowed Sundance, but didn’t really catch on with moviegoers when it hit theaters this summer. Newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who was just 6 when she made the movie, could still place in the Best Actress category, but the independently made film was hurt by its disqualification from the SAG Awards, since it wasn’t shot under a guild contract. It’s an undeniably beautiful and original film, but I’m not sure what distributor Fox Searchlight can do at this point to reignite enthusiasm for it. The Independent Spirit Awards will likely nominate the hell out of it, but that could be its last, best hope for an award-season comeback.

12. Anna KareninaAtonement‘s Joe Wright has an innovative way of bringing Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel of a woman’s self-destructive romantic rebellion to the screen — make it a play. While the settings are lush, and the costumes breathtaking, the entire tale takes place in a hypnotic theatrical setting that divorces (no pun intended) the story from hard reality, and transforms it into a fantasy. It’s getting a strong push from Focus Features, and star Keira Knightley seems to be a likely Best Actress contender, but this is another film that could benefit greatly from a wave of audience appreciation. (It opens in limited release this weekend.)

Let’s cheat even more now, and just throw out some other possible players …

NEXT PAGE: Oscar Wildcards: The Dark Knight Rises, Anna Karenina, The Hobbit

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