Oddly, since the Great Ben Affleck Snub of 2012, aka the End of the World that the Mayans predicted, Argo's become the frontrunner in this category as a result of the "POOR BEN AFFLECK!!!!" meme (note: he's nominated as a producer for the film, so they didn't really ignore him altogether). Even so, it's a film that's right in Oscar's wheelhouse. It's a thriller with historical importance, and successfully balances the tension with comic relief films back on the Hollywood side. Plus, it gives the Academy a great "movies save the world" feel. Even if it's not my favorite film in the pack, it's the odds-on favorite to claim the night's biggest prize.
Spielberg turned in his best film in years with Lincoln, and earned a ton of nominations for it. The film takes an approach that many biopics fail to - presenting a single event as a lens for examining the subject, rather than presenting a "greatest hits" version of his life. In this case, it's the passing of the 13th Amendment, a legal battle that has modern-day echoes as well. Through it all, the film succeeds in presenting Lincoln as a complex man: one who's using potentially illegal methods to hold the country together at a major flashpoint in our nation's history. On top of it all, it's a hugely entertaining and enrapturing film. Should Argo's steam run out, expect Lincoln to win tonight.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
No film was more imaginative or magical than Beasts of the Southern Wild. A magical-realist tale of life in post-Katrina Louisiana, told from the perspective of child protagonist Hushpuppy, the film unfolds like a bayou fever dream. There's a lot of things going on in the film, but central to all of it is the complex relationship between Hushpuppy and her father, Wink. Director Benh Zeitlin announces himself as a major cinematic voice to watch, and the film brings a refreshing dose of creativity to this year's lineup. Though it only has a slight chance at winning, it's one of the most must-see films in this category.
The knives were out when Les Miserables opened: it's a musical, which automatically makes it a Worst Movie Ever. It features live singing from the cast, which opens it to ridicule. And it was sure-thing Best Picture bait, which makes it a target. Tellingly, the film hasn't been a dominant force in anything but Anne Hathaway's performance over the awards season, but opening yourself up to the film will allow it to work it's magic on you. It's earnest. People sing their dialogue. It's got an epic scope and clocks in at nearly three hours. But, as I said in my original top 10 list, no other film this year made me feel the way this film did. It's an outstanding achievement, evidence that the movie musical is far from dead, that when you're as talented as Hugh Jackman and Hathaway (as well as Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks) you should do your own singing, and though it doesn't have a good chance at winning tonight, it is more than worthy.
Silver Linings Playbook
I wanted to like this film. I really did. Portions of the film were fantastic: the cast is universally strong, especially Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, there are several scenes that are powerful and work really well. However, the film is way too busy, the characterizations of mental illness are spotty at best, and full segments fail to live up to the rest of the film. It's not a disaster, or a fiasco, or even really a failure. But, for me, it was far from one of the year's best films. That said, a lot of people did love it, and it could be the stealth dark horse to pull the upset tonight.
Life of Pi
Life of Pi has received a number of comparisons to Avatar, which is really kind of unfortunate. Though they are both visually stunning films using cutting-edge technology, Pi is a better film in that it has something to say beyond regurgitating Fern Gully. A powerfully and evocative mediation on spirituality and human nature, the film isolates star Suraj Sharma with a CGI tiger, and never lets go of it's audience. It's an astonishing film, a crowning achievement for Ang Lee, who further proves his versatility as a director. With 11 nominations, it could very well pull an upset should the Academy go nuts for it.
With Amour, Haneke brings his chilly European aesthetic to the Best Picture lineup. Perhaps the best film he's made so far, the film examines age and death as it affects an elderly Parisian couple. Heartbreaking performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva carry the film, and Haneke's direction is a marvel. There's very little chance that this will win tonight, but it's a major achievement to see it nominated here (original review).
In my original top 10 list for last year, I placed Django Unchained at #3. The more I've thought about it, though, the less I like it. Yes, it has moments that are fun, but it feels like Tarantino working too hard, not sure of what he's doing, and ultimately, maybe this wasn't the material he should have been approaching. For too much of the film, Django is much less than unchained, with little agency of his own. And I can't find much in my memory that I enjoy. Basically, what I'm saying is, if I were doing it now, I would drop it from the list entirely. I would say that, at this point, it's my least-favorite Tarantino. However, when the film hits its stride, it really is very enjoyable. Could it win? Not likely, but obviously I'm still working things out.
Zero Dark Thirty
The big thing that many people want to talk about is the way the film suggests torture helped find Osama bin Laden. But at least we're no longer ignoring the fact that the United States utilized torture in the War on Terror. Zero Dark Thirty, directed by should-have-been-nominated Kathryn Bigelow, takes an investigative approach into what happened, and through a litany of great performances - all anchored by Jessica Chastain's Maya - exposes how a nation lost it's soul in the quest for vengeance. It's a powerfully political work that doesn't go explicitly political, which only makes it hit harder. The controversy will cost it the win, but in another year, it would have been the frontrunner (original review).
1. Les Miserables
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
5. Zero Dark Thirty
7. Life of Pi
8. Django Unchained
9. Silver Linings Playbook
Will win: Argo
Spoilers: Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook