The Road to Oscar: Best Picture

     February 23, 2013


Alas, we’ve come to the end.  The 85th Academy Awards will take place tomorrow evening, after which the past year of maneuvering, campaigning, and controversy-drumming will be rendered obsolete as we wipe the slate clean and start the next awards season cycle anew.  Over the past six days, we’ve been taking a look back at the 2012 awards race in a number of categories, chronicling the ebbs and flows that have led us to today.  This past year was one of the more crazy awards seasons in recent memory, but at least it’s been interesting.  Today we close out our Road to Oscar feature with the final category, Best Picture.  Hit the jump to read on, and click here to read our predictions for tomorrow night’s ceremony.

beasts-of-the-southern-wild-posterThough most big Oscar contenders are released in the latter part of the year, our first bona fide Best Picture candidate hit theaters last May.  Director Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom was hailed as one of the filmmaker’s best films, and prognosticators kept their eye on the pic as we headed toward the fall. May also saw the release of another surprise contender with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  The film’s impressive cast and positive reviews struck a chord with the older-skewing Academy members, and the pic would remain on the shortlist of Best Picture contenders right up until the nominees were announced. 

The small-budget fantasy drama Beasts of the Southern Wild was also a summer contender, as the film made a splash at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival before opening in theaters in June. Critics swooned for the pic when it opened last summer, and though Oscar was mentioned as a possibility, I’m pretty sure no one imagined it’d go on to pick up a total of four nominations including Best Director.  The rest of the summer and early fall provided a few critical hits like Looper and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but they were considered long-shots for Best Picture consideration.

Each year the Oscar race kicks off in earnest with the fall film festivals, and the very first viable contender for the win surfaced at the Telluride Film Festival in the beginning of August: Argo.  Director Ben Affleck’s thriller took the fest by storm, drumming up a considerable amount of early buzz for what very well might end up being our Best Picture winner.

Argo’s lonely frontrunner status was short-lived, though, as the Toronto Film Festival played host to another buzzworthy pic in Silver Linings Playbook.  Audiences were swept up by David O. Russell’s romantic comedy/drama, and The Weinstein Company’s Oscar campaign kicked into high gear, rocketing the film into the position of the new frontrunner.  Prognosticators were also looking towards big things for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, but after the film’s TIFF debut it became clear that the pic would likely be too polarizing to pull off a win.

skyfall-posterAs we moved into October and November, Argo’s smashing box office success was propelling it further into the thick of awards season, running neck-and-neck with Silver Linings Playbook while the disappointing box office returns and surprisingly mixed reviews for The Master diminished its chances of landing a nomination.  Though the pic received a heavy amount of positive praise, some high profile critics had issues with the film and star Joaquin Phoenix‘s negative comments about the awards process as a whole didn’t exactly help the pic’s chances.  Cloud Atlas proved to be a non-starter, but another surprise surfaced in late October with Sam Mendes’ James Bond film Skyfall.  The pic scored enthusiastic praise, with more than a few calling it quite possibly the best Bond film of all time.  The actioner proved to be an enormous success at both the box office and with critics, and coupled with Mendes’ past Oscar history with American Beauty, Skyfall became an outside contender for the “popular” Best Picture nominee slot.

More heavyweights started landing in November, and while the mediocre response to War Horse made some wary of Lincoln’s prospects as an Oscar contender, Steven Spielberg turned out what most consider to be his most mature film in years.  In addition to stellar reviews and raves for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, Lincoln also became a massive hit at the box office (an important factor in predicting Oscar viability), and suddenly Lincoln crashed the Argo/Silver Linings Playbook party and became the new Best Picture frontrunner.

November also saw the release of Robert Zemeckis’ character-driven drama Flight, and while reviews were mediocre, the R-rated pic struck a chord with general audiences and the critics that liked it, really liked it.  Flight didn’t look like a serious contender for the win, but many started seriously considering its status as a Best Picture nominee.

life of pi posterPrognosticators were already tuned in to Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi because it met a number of Oscar-favorite qualifications: based on a beloved book, director has won before, passion project that took a decade to get made, etc.  Though reviews weren’t universally positive, the film scored quite well with most critics, and even those that didn’t love the movie praised Lee’s expert direction.  The film became a surefire Best Picture candidate, but Lincoln remained the frontrunner at the moment with Argo and Silver Linings Playbook nipping at its heels.

December was a month absolutely packed with Oscar contenders and saw some considerable changes in the Best Picture race.  For whatever reason, no one ever saw The Hobbit as a viable Best Picture candidate, and harsh reviews solidified its status as a technical category contender only.  The Christmas holiday was already packed with films for audience members to choose from, and so at the last minute Columbia Pictures decided to switch Zero Dark Thirty from a wide release on the 21st to a limited release.

Since that first tear-jerking trailer for Les Miserables, many assumed that director Tom Hooper’s musical adaptation would be the biggest Oscar player of the year.  The film did indeed score a number of nominations, but it suffered a critical shellacking once it started screening.  Despite being an Academy favorite for his work on The King’s Speech and earning the Best Director trophy just a couple of years before, reviewers placed the blame of Les Miserables’ ineffectiveness squarely in Hooper’s lap for his directorial choices.  The film’s momentum took a serious hit and though it remained towards the top of pundits’ Best Picture predictions for a few weeks, its chances seemed to diminish with each passing day.

December did turn out a new frontrunner, though, as the release strategy for Zero Dark Thirty was incredibly successful.  The film received wild praise and became the early critical favorite, earning the top honors from a number of film critics’ groups.  Its timely material also made the film a hot topic among news magazine shows and op-eds, making it a “must-see.”  The relevancy coupled with the near-unanimous praise put the film firmly in the frontrunner status, overtaking Lincoln’s spot.

django-unchained-posterWe also saw the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained during Christmas, though The Weinstein Company seemed too preoccupied with its awards campaign for Silver Linings Playbook to devote much awards love to QT’s latest pic.  No matter, the film scored huge with audiences to become Tarantino’s highest grossing film of all time and also notched some very positive reviews.  Though most didn’t really see the film as a surething contender for Best Picture, the weeks following its release propelled it to “possible nominee” status.

Zero Dark Thirty’s momentum started to take a hit in late December and early January, as a non-controversy controversy was drummed up about the film’s depiction of torture.  The issue became a staple of nightly news segments, and even drew criticism from politicians currently in office.  Though Kathryn Bigelow tried to explain that the film was showing an objective point of view of events that happened, the conversation regarding Zero Dark Thirty had quickly turned from “Will it win Best Picture?” to “Does it endorse torture?”

With ZDT’s momentum waning and Lincoln running on neutral somewhere between first and second place, Argo started to emerge as a likely candidate to win Best Picture.  The critics groups stopped awarding ZDT, and we started seeing Argo nab the top honors instead.  The Directors Guild Nominations were announced, solidifying Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty as the frontrunners with Les Miserables and Life of Pi still staying in the game.  Despite the lack of a DGA nod, The Weinstein Company’s Silver Linings Playbook remained a safe bet for a nomination but few thought it had the gall to pull off a win.  And then the Oscar nominations were announced…

argo-posterThough the Best Picture category turned out a fairly predictable list of candidates, with Amour taking the “artsy” spot that Tree of Life enjoyed last year and Beasts of the Southern Wild scoring some serious love throughout the rest of the categories, it was the Best Director category that threw everyone for a loop.  Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were completely shut out of the race, effectively shutting down whatever momentum Argo and Zero Dark Thirty carried.  On the flipside, David O. Russell’s nomination made Silver Linings Playbook a serious competitor for the trophy opposite Lincoln.

Only three times in Academy history has a film won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination, but a funny thing started happening with Argo.  The Golden Globes have essentially zero influence on Oscar, but they awarded Argo Best Picture and Affleck Best Director.  Then the guild awards—the best predictor for Oscar given the member overlap with the Academy—started going for Argo, almost in spite of Affleck’s snub.  First the film won the Producers Guild Award, then the Screen Actors Guild Award, and finally the Directors Guild Award.  That hat trick, amazingly, put Argo back in the game in a serious way.

Now, a day from Oscar, the race looks to be between Argo, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook.  Will Argo pull off one of the greatest comebacks in Oscar history?  Will The Weinstein Company make it three wins in a row with SLP?  Will another film altogether prove the spoiler to cap off this particularly nutty awards season?  We’ll find out tomorrow during the 85th Academy Awards on ABC at 7pm EST.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at the Oscar race, and I look forward to doing this again next year.  If you missed any of the previous Road to Oscar articles, catch up below:


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