I've perused this year's list of nominees for the 85th edition of the Academy Awards. As usual, I cheered a little, shook my head a couple of times, and then settled on my non-valid ballot. I've been wrong before, I'll be wrong again. (Hopefully not as wrong as I was with my Emmy picks, though ... and the less said about that, the better ... ) So with that, my picks to take home the Oscars:
Best motion picture of the year
"Amour" Nominees to be determined
"Argo" Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, Producers
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Dan Janvey, Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald, Producers
"Django Unchained" Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone, Producers
"Les Misérables" Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh, Producers
"Life of Pi" Gil Netter, Ang Lee and David Womark, Producers
"Lincoln" Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers
"Silver Linings Playbook" Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
"Zero Dark Thirty" Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison, Producers
When it comes to this year's Best Picture race, based on what I've seen, heard and read, of the nine nominated films, I think there are two distinct frontrunners ("Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty"), and there are two Big Questions about them:
Big Question No. 1: Has "Lincoln" peaked in the minds of Oscar voters? The movie, which has had significant box-office success and saw a lot of critical praise, is certainly worthy of the prize. If the Oscars would have been handed out in December, "Lincoln" would have likely won, but now, those odds look somewhat longer as voters consider all of the other options.
Big Question No. 2: Is "Zero Dark Thirty" -- which beat out "Lincoln" for a number of prestigious critical prizes in December -- now seen as just too controversial to be the Best Picture of 2012? That's the $64,000 question -- will the cloud of Senate inquiry, the suggestion of impropriety between U.S. intelligence and the filmmakers and the widespread criticism of being a "pro-torture" film going to keep it from winning?
I'm still picking "Lincoln" to win right now; even though I didn't rank my favorites of the past year, I'd admit that it was the best film I saw in 2012. (I haven't yet seen "Zero Dark Thirty," but I'm anxious to do so; it's next on the list.) However, if there's any movie that could break free of the pack and pull the upset over those two, I have to think that it's "Argo," a crackerjack piece of filmmaking which portrays Hollywood (even in a broken-down state) in a heroic light -- and there's nothing that the industry likes better than a flattering mirror.
Achievement in directing
Michael Haneke for "Amour"
Benh Zeitlin for "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Ang Lee for "Life of Pi"
Steven Spielberg for "Lincoln"
David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook"
The snubs of Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow (for "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty," respectively) raised a lot of eyebrows. (In my "Argo" review, I went so far as to write, "If Affleck's not nominated for the Best Director trophy at the Oscars early next year ... , then nobody should be," -- so consider my brow unhappily arched.) This, however, shouldn't dismiss or discount the skilled directors who were nominated. I think Spielberg wins out of this group.
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln"
Hugh Jackman in "Les Misérables"
Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master"
Denzel Washington in "Flight"
Daniel Day-Lewis has been the front-runner for this prize since the first image of him as the 16th President of the United States was published. There's no reason to think he won't win this prize, making history on Oscar night: He'll become the first to win three lead actor awards. (Jack Nicholson and Walter Brennan each have three Oscars for acting, but Nicholson's are split 2-1 in lead and supporting categories, while Brennan won all of his in supporting roles.)
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour"
Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Naomi Watts in "The Impossible"
A tough category. Chastain -- as the CIA analyst who chased Osama bin Laden for a decade -- is the favorite in some circles, Lawrence -- as a troubled young widow -- in others. Either would be a pretty safe bet to win. But the 85-year-old Riva, in a role that has already won awards from the Boston and L.A. Film Critics (she tied with Lawrence in L.A.'s critical vote), may slip past them both.
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Alan Arkin in "Argo"
Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master"
Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln"
Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained"
I've seen and enjoyed three of the five performances nominated here, and heard nothing but positive buzz about the other two. Waltz leads here for me; he gives an audacious performance in an audacious film. But I wouldn't be surprised if Jones took the prize, especially if "Lincoln" starts to sweep through the awards. I'd also keep an eye out for De Niro in this category; word is that his performance gives a not-so-subtle reminder that he's still capable of greatness, regardless of the number of "just-for-the-paycheck" parts he's taken in recent memory.
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Amy Adams in "The Master"
Sally Field in "Lincoln"
Anne Hathaway in "Les Misérables"
Helen Hunt in "The Sessions"
Jacki Weaver in "Silver Linings Playbook"
A fine collection of actresses here, but as much as Daniel Day-Lewis appears to be a lock in his category, Hathaway is even moreso here. She's the one actor in the "Les Miserables" cast to be universally acclaimed, both as an actor and singer, and -- as many voters are likely pairing her memorable turn as Selina Kyle in "The Dark Knight Returns" with this one -- she has been on an upward track in the business for some time now. In a different race, Field's vital performance as Mary Todd Lincoln would have been a favorite, but they've likely already started engraving Hathaway's name on the statue.
"Argo" Screenplay by Chris Terrio
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi" Screenplay by David Magee
"Lincoln" Screenplay by Tony Kushner
"Silver Linings Playbook" Screenplay by David O. Russell
"Amour" Written by Michael Haneke
"Django Unchained" Written by Quentin Tarantino
"Flight" Written by John Gatins
"Moonrise Kingdom" Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
"Zero Dark Thirty" Written by Mark Boal
The screenplay prizes are often the "Miss Congeniality" winners of the Academy Awards. "You're a great movie, and we like you a whole lot," the award seems to say, "but you're not quite what we're looking for." By that measure, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" or "Silver Linings Playbook" are good picks in the adapted side, with "Amour" on the original.
Best animated feature film of the year
"Brave" Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
"Frankenweenie" Tim Burton
"ParaNorman" Sam Fell and Chris Butler
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" Peter Lord
"Wreck-It Ralph" Rich Moore
While I personally liked "Wreck-It Ralph" more, I think "Brave," a much more traditional-feeling animated film, wins this one, giving Pixar it's 7th Best Animated Feature Oscar. The dark horse might be Disney's third (!) nominated film this year, "Frankenweenie," which picked up a number of critic's prizes in December.
The 85th Academy Awards will be broadcast Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 on ABC.