'Zero Dark Thirty' and 'Les Miserables' storm tight Oscar race

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First, a quick refresher on the season so far.

“The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture will be Ben Affleck’s tense new thriller Argo,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote back on Sept. 10, after the rapturous response to that movie at the Toronto International Film Festival.

For a long time, that was the prevailing wisdom — and it still may come true — but then I heard a lot of voters expressing deep, fanatical passion for David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, which they knew — knew — would win. Uh-oh, here comes Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln …

Right now at the Gurus O’ Gold prognostication site at Movie City News, I’m there with a dozen or so other film writers ranking my top 10. Life of Pi is at the top for me because it’s the one that seems to surprise voters the most, even those who don’t go in expecting to like it. I’ll stick with it a little longer. There are lots of ways for voters to recognize the other contenders, but apart from below-the-line possibilities, Pi‘s achievements really come down to either Best Picture or Director. It’s kind of all or nothing for that movie.

Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s okay. Better to be wrong on your own than be wrong as part of a pack. For weeks, everyone placed their chips on Argo, then rapidly downgraded it pre-Thanksgiving to shift toward Lincoln. (In the next batch of predictions, expect to see Zero Dark or Les Mis upgraded to the top of the heap.) There are some who don’t like the ending to Pi, but I find it’s still a movie that wins over cynics. It could well be this year’s Hugo — a fanciful story of a lost boy, which gets a lot of noms but few wins — but with enough number one votes for itself, and significant No. 2 votes from hardened partisans for other movies, I think it has a chance.

In a race where there are multiple front-runners, it’s as good a pick as any.

As I wrote early last week, I see it was a four-way tie for first place — now likely a five-way or, if those Silver Linings people remain loyal, six-way race. Academy voters are nowhere near a consensus and a handful of other as-yet-unseen players (Django Unchained, The Hobbit) are still to come. My actual Top 10 predictions, counting  just the films screened so far, looks like this:

1.) Argo

1.) Lincoln

1.) Les Miserables

1.) Life of Pi

1.) Zero Dark Thirty

6.)  Silver Linings Playbook

7.)  The Impossible

8.) Beasts of the Southern Wild

9.) Flight

10.) The Master

It’s not sexy or risky to list five movies at No. 1, but that’s how I see it. Everyone’s favorite seems to be whatever they saw last, but as Paul Simon sang: “It’s all gonna fade.” Those passions will mellow and settle over the next month, and then we’ll have a clearer picture of what’s likely to win.

Right now, what difference does it make? The right to claim “told ya so!” in three months matters only to a handful of people (like me) who write about these prizes.

Honestly, there is no wisdom in intractable declarations at this stage; just guesses and opinion, some more educated than others. (For some of the brighter takes on this weekend, see these write-ups of Zero Dark from Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone and Movie City News’ David Poland, as well as Stone’s assessment of Silver Linings‘ support. In Contention’s Kris Tapley pens a run-down of the New York Les Mis reaction, and also slams the notion of Oscar bait in this analysis of how strong 2012 turned out to be, while my EW colleague Lindsey Bahr provides insight into the filmmaking prowess that saved Life of Pi from certain death. Glenn Whipp of the LA Times  comes to a similar conclusion about the tied-up nature of the race, though he has an entirely different bottom five than I do. Hmm … )

While it remains unclear who the Best Picture winner will be, that’s actually the best possible outcome for those who love film.

All that really matters is that cinephiles now have about half-a-dozen authentically great movies to see before being properly armed for this award season version of The Hunger Games, where nobody deserves to lose, but only one can win.

For more on Oscar season

Read More:

Zero Dark Thirty: Behind-the-scenes of the controversial thriller
‘Les Miserables’: First interviews with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway

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