[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.]
Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty was certainly made to seem special, kept under tight lock and key before being slowly, strategically unveiled at year's end, but few pundits likely predicted the gravity of the film's Oscar potential, and that Bigelow may well have another winner on her hands. As 2012 winds down, it's beginning to feel a lot like 2009, when The Hurt Locker stormed ahead as the little contender that could, and sat poised to not just claim the Academy's top prize, but make Bigelow its first female Best Director. If you want to go by precursor buzz alone, Zero Dark Thirty has now stepped ahead of Lincoln as this year's Best Picture frontrunner, claiming top kudos from The New York Film Critics Circle, and topping the 10-Best lists of early-out-of-the-gate critics like David Edelstein and Lisa Schwarzbaum (Owen Gleiberman and Richard Corliss, who also revealed their lists, included it among their picks as well). For whatever it's worth in this early stage, the film also picked up five nods from the International Press Academy, landing Satellite nominations for Picture, Director, Actress (Jessica Chastain), Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), and Editing (Dylan Tichenor). And as of this very writing, the National Board of Review has named Zero Dark Thirty its Best Film of the Year, with Bigelow taking the Director trophy. It's more than safe to assume that the movie has an ironclad slot in Oscar's top race, if not a damn good shot at ending up ahead of the pack.
Consider Bigelow a virtual lock as well, tightening up the Best Director field alongside Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Ben Affleck, and, perhaps, Tom Hooper or David O. Russell. It almost seems strange that Bigelow would have the capacity to so deftly follow up her recent career milestone, and the unlikelihood of lightning striking twice is surely what swayed prognosticators from giving the movie better early odds. Yet, Zero Dark Thirty is, above all, solid proof that this filmmaker has found her niche as a master, widening her you-are-there militaristic scope to chart an epic hunt that resonates the world over. The propulsion, and, indeed, comprehensiveness of the movie are perhaps its most surprising attributes, not to mention Bigelow's well-intact pluck, which leads to the bold address of ruthless wartime torture just as it yielded analysis of war as the soldier's drug. The intensity of the film can't match the bolt-tightening, ticking-bomb tension of The Hurt Locker, but the real-world stakes provide tremendous consolation, culminating with a killshot that's both alarming and apropos in its anticlimactic-ness (don't expect any glorified, cinematic catharsis at the end of that night-vision raid).
In terms of nominations, everyone keeping score at home should take a cue from those Satellite nods, as Zero Dark Thirty will almost certainly repeat all with Oscar. So that's a second Original Screenplay citation for Boal, a second Editing bid for Tichenor, and a second acting nomination for Chastain, who's also scurried to the front of her field, besting Jennifer Lawrence as the new Best Actress to beat. This movie doesn't exactly demand transformation from Chastain, but, then, barring Celia Foote in The Help, none of her roles necessarily have, and she's still emerged as a rivetingly chameleonic leading lady. Watching Zero Dark Thirty, one gathers and appreciates that Chastain is one of the great recent gifts to the cinema, that rare combination of likability, born-for-the-camera looks, and talent to please the most finnicky connoisseur. As Maya, the CIA agent who devoted a decade to nothing but the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the actress exhibits a certain feminine frailty while delivering an empowering turn that begs to be rewarded. From Sally Field to Sandra Bullock, these performances get noticed, and more specifically, they often get gold.
It won't be long before this movie's late-game success has journos pushing the narrative that it's a great film year for women, and thanks to Bigelow, it may very well be. There's no less passion in The Hurt Locker than there is in Zero Dark Thirty, but this time around, there is the sense that Bigelow is piloting something more personal, with a kindred spirit of a female protagonist to be reckoned with. It's easy to envision all the red-carpet photo ops and dual interviews the film will generate, with Bigelow and Chastain sharing giggles while recounting their rigorous, dedicated shoot in the Middle East. It's an Oscar story to love, tied to a film that, oddly enough, actually deserves whatever other awards are headed its way. And speaking of which, additional folks who may well have an Oscar shot here are Cinematographer Grieg Fraser, Original Score composer Alexandre Desplat, and longshot Supporting Actress hopeful Jennifer Ehle, who, nomination or not, turns in some of the best work in her category this year.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow; Best Actress, Jessica Chastain; Best Original Screenplay, Mark Boal; Best Editing.
Possibilities: Best Cinematography; Best Original Score.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actress, Jennifer Ehle.