This has been one of the more unpredictable and hotly contested Oscar races in recent memory. It's also hard to remember a year when so many movies about America at war or in conflict have been up for multiple Academy Awards. There are 24 nominations between Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty. And while some prime categories are still toss ups, a national security-themed pic is almost certain to win Best Picture.
It won't be Zero Dark Thirty. The year's most controversial major film has five nominations, including the top prize. But the Academy will not honor a movie that some members--dare we say many?--see as an endorsement of torture. The snubbing of previous winner Kathryn Bigelow for a Best Director nomination has to be read as a political statement on the part of the directors branch of the Academy. Screenwriter Mark Boal has a chance for original screenplay, but it's a slim one. As for ZDT's remaining major category, Best Actress, Pete Hammond at Deadline makes a persuasive case for why this one's a big toss up.
Personally, I think ZDT wasn't the year's best film. (I'd give it to Lincoln.) But I think it has been unfairly judged against its competitors. The movie is being held to an almost journalistic standard of truth-telling. Granted, the filmmakers kind of asked for this when they said they took a journalistic approach to writing and shooting the film. But while critics have pointed out that Lincoln and Argo have some significant historical inaccuracies, no one is judging them as harshly for it. If Lincoln doesn't win Best Picture, it won't be because of what Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg may have gotten wrong about the Connecticut delegation's vote on the 13th Amendment. Nor will it be penalized for re-imagining aspects of one of the most fateful periods in U.S. history, which it does to great effect, in my opinion.
But Zero Dark Thirty is being judged, harshly, for what people think it gets wrong about recent history. This is an insurmountable dilemma for the filmmakers. I think the Academy should be free to vote however it pleases. But I'd prefer to see ZDT lose for artistic reasons; like, for instance, the second half of the movie feels out of step in tone and pacing with the first half, like they tacked an historical reenactment onto a spy movie. But alas, stick a fork in this one.
That leaves Argo and Lincoln as the frontrunners, and I'm betting on Argo. If for no other reason than it has major momentum going into the race, having snatched up the Golden Globe and the major guild awards. Ben Affleck was passed over for a Best Director nomination. (Academy directors have long been seen as turning up their noses at actors who step behind the camera.) But I don't think that significantly diminishes the movie's chances for the top win.
Aside from momentum and buzz, Argo is just an excellent film, and that counts for a lot. And don't overlook the fact that it's a story about Hollywood doing good for America. The Academy loves to pat itself on the back. Never mind that the truth is stretched in this movie too. It's a great flick, with a big Hollywood ending. Those are all good reasons for it to win.
The possible sneak attack in all of this is Ang Lee's Life of Pi. It has the second highest number of nominations, after Lincoln. Lee may well win the director prize in large part because he turned a book that many people saw as "unfilmable" into a dazzling master work of visual storytelling. If Lee wins, it may bode well for the movie's Best Picture chances, too. The Academy has only once given the top prize to a movie that wasn't nominated for Best Director: Driving Miss Daisy, in 1989.