Anyone who’s invested in the preposterous hoopla of Oscarology has suffered at least one headache while poring over the Academy’s explanation-resistant math. So to ensure you needn’t have the Excedrin within reach, let’s keep the voting blather to a minimum and focus on what seem to be the most pivotal factors in this year’s top race. First of all, as was the case in the past two years, a solid, conventional roster of five movies has emerged, despite a field that welcomes additional contenders (for the headache-free unwashed, those five are The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, and Midnight in Paris). No pundit in the game will tell you those huggable favorites aren’t done deals, so best to nudge them aside and hurry along.
Adjusted rules allow anywhere from five to 10 nominees to fight it out for Best Picture, and to test the new system, the Academy held mock recounts for every race over the past decade. Results were scattered, and many years produced more than five finalists, but none were able to pack the entire slate (ergo, fewer sore thumbs like The Blind Side dirtying up the ballot, to say the least). It’s conceivable, then, that this year won’t go 10-wide either, and the recounts help to justify an eight-nominee total that’s felt just right for weeks. There are those who’ll tell you the ironclad quintet is as far as the field will go, just as there are those who’ll say preferential voting isn’t all that different than it’s always been. But if one is to accept conventional wisdom that first-place rankings are especially crucial, and that movies have to battle especially hard to join the elite pack, then predictions come down to which films seem believable as voters’ picks for 2011’s tip-top.
The given five will all do well in this regard, as should Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a film that, after all the snubs and scratched heads and Cannes boos have simmered down, probably has enough support in arty Academy corners to push it across the threshold. At the other end of the spectrum, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a movie few thought capable of endgame performance when it dropped on Christmas weekend, has guild nods and phenomenon status to back up its inclusion, not to mention ticket sales that, despite initial reports, are nothing to sneer at.
Finally, you have War Horse and Moneyball, two hopefuls that have stuck in the discussion with contrasting levels of success. Easily one of 2011’s better Oscar movies, Moneyball has stayed remarkably consistent, and it’s sure to make nominees out of Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and scribes Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. But the film has more makings of a bridesmaid than Bridesmaids, seeming ever more like a third-place favorite, and not a widespread list-topper. Conversely, Steven Spielberg’s sugary family epic, which has been hanging by its reins ever since a string of directorial disses, is precisely the kind of thing that soaks up Academy votes, a sweeping widescreen nose-blower that’s bound to woo the technical branches and dusty traditionalists. Equine decline be damned, history advises not to bet against such spectacles. So let’s quickly revise our editing picks and give Moneyball’s nod to War Horse, locking in the confidence that only eight runners look like Best Pictures.