As is customary at this stage of the game, Oscar's top quintet of Best Picture hopefuls are sure to land nominations, so much so that every pundit can pat himself on the back, saying proudly that if the Academy still stuck with a five-wide field, final predictions would be forgone conclusions, like the nudie jokes host Seth MacFarlane will make at Helen Hunt's expense. You know the big five: Argo, Les Misérables, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which look poised to score multiple nods beyond the top race. Last year, four additional films joined the chief batch of contenders, for a grand, surprising total of nine nominees—more than most expected from the Academy's first sliding-scale approach to Best Picture. The consensus seems to be that 2012 was a stronger film year than 2011, and if the weaker year can muster a whopping nine candidates, then surely we'll see a full crop of 10 this time around. The theory holds water, but it doesn't really make the rest of the guessing any easier, as there are nine more films with bona fide shots at making the cut.
In sixth place is, undoubtedly, Life of Pi, for which director Ang Lee is also likely to be recognized. The film is one of the season's few sweeping, feel-good hits, and its stance as a supposed advancer of the medium will earn it a lot of favor from producers alone. If the category were to include just eight films, we're thinking the remaining slots would go to Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild, two art-house favorites that, despite falling short of certain precursors, have the needed buzz and industry love to fill the indie niche (both are also primed to pick up profile-boosting screenplay nods).
The conversation could end there, with a solid slate appealing to a plethora of tastes, but if that packed-race notion is to be believed, lesser contenders have a better-than-usual chance of competing. Mad love for Michael Haneke's Amour has been swirling since Cannes, and many believe there's enough support to push the film beyond the Foreign Language category, perhaps even to secure a nod for Haneke himself. However, if the Academy really wanted to get behind a film about folks in their golden years, a more plausible choice seems to be The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which exceeded expectations at the box office and netted an impressive handful of Golden Globe bids. And, indeed, if voters feel compelled to respond to a movie's overall success, tomorrow may certainly reveal a Best Picture nomination for Skyfall, a major high point for a franchise already set to be saluted during the telecast.
Though it seems to have stalled considerably since debuting as 2012's first big awards-season release, The Master could conceivably capitalize on its bounty of critical love, landing a nod that would recall the mid- to late-aughts, when voters and reviewers saw a lot of their picks align. Another not-so-dark horse is Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, which, thus far, has been serving as a testament to the benefits of a late-season opening.
And yet, none of these ninth-spot candidates feel quite right. We're sensing that, once again, Best Picture will fall just shy of 10 nominees, and since Oscar almost always offers a surprise somewhere, we're betting the shocker will be the film that claims the final nod in this race. The Weinstein Company has seemed uncharacteristically quiet this season, despite being the studio behind The Master, Django Unchained, and Silver Linings Playbook. Is Oscar's favorite producer really going to end the season with only one Best Picture nominee? Not if The Intouchables, a crowd-pleasing French film that used The Artist's success as a launchpad, proves as irresistible as its FYC ads suggest. A huge international hit, this movie was, back in October, the first official screener mailed out to Academy members, meaning that no one had to dig through a stack to give it consideration. In a year more unpredictable than most, we're betting Weinstein's rush out of the starting gate paid off, getting the warm-hearted drama that much closer to the finish line.