[Editor's Note: Oscar Prospects is your weekly analysis of an awards contender and how it's likely to fare come Oscar nomination morning. The column is comprehensive, so beware of spoilers.]
Time will tell if the Academy's newest rule adjustment will throw off the mojo of latecomers like Les Misérables, but it's sure to benefit a movie like The Master, which has graciously offered voters several months to see it before casting their ballots. Often, such an early-season release would carry the risk of a loss of steam, and that may well be the fate of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, but it seems there are too many Oscar-friendly factors at play here to doubt the movie's long-term clout. The cast is smack-dab in Oscar's comfort zone, the Scientology parallels are present enough to offer some baity relevance, and with critical champions like A.O. Scott, the film has the reviews it needs to make it a veritable must-see, even if it's not being gushed over quite like There Will Be Blood. There is the consideration that the Oscars aren't what they were in 2007, when critically adored fare aligned with Academy favorites, and a curio like the saga of Daniel Plainview could go toe-to-toe with the elliptical nihilism of No Country for Old Men. But, then, The Master isn't in the same key as its predecessor either, and if anything, its rather straightforward narrative makes it Anderson's most accessible film since Boogie Nights. Though likely not a top-five contender, the movie's Best Picture nomination chances look fairly solid at the moment, boosted by a very impressive box-office performance.
The odds are even better for Joaquin Phoenix, who's scarily dedicated to his role as Freddie Quell, a profoundly withdrawn, alcoholic tumbleweed with the attributes of a fierce dog and a frail, imploding grandfather. Fully engrossing and attractively transformative, it's a showy performance worthy of the attention it demands, and it's likely enough to make Phoenix a Best Actor finalist. As the volatile mentor who's as in need of validation as Freddie is for community, Philip Seymour Hoffman technically serves as a co-lead, with his L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, Lancaster Dodd, largely piloting Anderson's ship. But The Weinstein Company will doubtlessly campaign Hoffman as a Supporting Actor, casting its nomination net as wide as possible. The trusty Academy favorite is also aces in the movie, extending what has truly become an astonishing body of work, with some of the finest consistency of any living actor. There will be some voters who'll find themselves bored of Hoffman's presence in this category, but more will probably think he's due, as that one-two punch of Charlie Wilson's War and Doubt is already four years old. The same can't be said for Hoffman's Doubt co-star Amy Adams, who only just made the Supporting Actress cut in 2010 for her stellar work in The Fighter. Cynics everywhere are surely marking down Adams as a lock, as her inclusion is one of the safest choices of any race this season. But one holds out hope—at this stage, at least—that such a knee-jerk nomination won't pan out. There's ample time for ladies to emerge and unseat Adams, who, apart from one memorable reach-around moment, makes virtually no dramatic impact in The Master. If she must be singled out, better it be for her valiant efforts to revive the Eastwood grumpfest Trouble with the Curve.
Unless the precursors prove otherwise, Anderson himself doesn't feel like a top contender in Best Director, if only because there are so many other big fish in the pond, namely Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Ben Affleck (Argo), Tom Hooper ( Les Misérables), and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook). With all these cozier choices up for grabs, Anderson's thorny auteurism could conceivably suffer. He's all but bound, however, to compete for Best Original Screenplay, a field in which many pundits believe he stands as the man to beat. Again, the timely religious allegory will prove too buzzworthy to resist, not least because it's tied to the juiciest Hollywood breakup in years. But more importantly, Anderson's film joins a larger narrative of 2012 dramas centered on the individual, and the struggle to reach outside oneself to find placement and comfort in the structure of modern society. The theme registers as a rebound from last year's trend of invasion and apocalypse, and it's present in some of this year's best movies, including Cosmopolis, Take This Waltz, Oslo, August 31st, American Animal, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Toughest to call are The Master's technical nominations, as the movie is one that's consummately well-crafted, yet likely to be overpowered by noisier mainstream titles. Ergo, Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty probably won't be in for their Editing, a significant blow for a Best Picture hopeful. And as character-defining as Freddie's vintage, oversized jackets are, there's too much available pageantry this year ( Les Misérables, Anna Karenina) to save a spot for the Costume Design by Mark Bridges. But there will be room for the Art Direction by David Crank and Jack Fisk, and, perhaps, the Cinematography by Mihai Malamaire, Jr., a never-nominated lenser best know for his recent work with Francis Ford Coppola. Last but not least, the film stands a very strong chance of garnering a necessary nod for composer Jonny Greenwood, whose Original Score blends majesty with dread while keeping in step with Freddie and Lancaster's odd journey. The nomination would help ease the sting of Greenwood's lack of recognition for There Will Be Blood, whose unforgettable soundtrack fell victim to nitpicking, deemed ineligible in the eleventh hour. A score nod for The Master would be concurrent with one of Oscar's trademark practices: if at first you don't succeed, honor the lesser work.
Surest bets: Best Actor, Joaquin Phoenix; Best Supporting Actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman; Best Picture; Best Original Screenplay, Paul Thomas Anderson; Best Art Direction.
Possibilities: Best Supporting Actress, Amy Adams; Best Director, Paul Thomas Anderson; Best Cinematography.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: Best Original Score.