HAMMOND ON OSCARS: Still A Wide Open Race Despite Stunners

Let’s throw “conventional wisdom” out the window regarding this morning’s Oscar nominations. In a year when there are so many genuine contenders for the Oscars‘ Best Picture, the Academy has thrown a wrench into the proceedings, instantly cementing early frontrunner status for Lincoln and Life Of Pi along with the “little engine that could” Silver Linings Playbook while dampening prospects of winning the big prize for three other perceived major contenders Zero Dark Thirty (the controversial critical darling), Les Miserables and Argo. All three of those films’ directors were snubbed after winning DGA nominations earlier this week. Did these Best Picture nominees direct themselves?

Related: OSCARS: 85th Academy Award Nominations

The biggest shock waves at the Academy this morning were clearly over the omission of Ben Affleck‘s direction of Argo and Kathryn Bigelow‘s absence for Zero Dark Thirty. Both are still nominees as co-producers of their Best Picture-nominated films, but this has to sting. Instead, Silver Linings’ David O. Russell reversed his snub at DGA and BAFTA with a strong showing where it counts, and wildcard Michael Haneke of Amour (which did exceptionally well for a foreign-language film including a Best Picture and Foreign Language nod) got those spots along with the true shocker of the directing nominees, Beast Of The Southern Wild’s Benh Zeitlin. His tiny Sundance sensation and offbeat film defied expectations earning key Directing, Picture, Screenplay and Actress (for youngest nominee in the category ever, Quvenzhane Wallis). Some people were sure they were mistaken when they heard Zeitlin announced instead of Affleck after the first name Benh was called out. But the Oscars are always known for throwing surprises into the mix. Much like that Wizard of Oz, Oscar has spoken. As Academy COO Ric Robertson (who is also an Academy voter) told me, “I guess we really, really liked Beasts Of The Southern Wild’!” With Zeitlin’s directing nod, that’s an understatement. It is his first movie, by the way, so congratulations Benh, and sorry Ben.

Related: OSCARS: Who Got Snubbed By Academy?

But with six weeks now instead of the usual four between nominations and the show, I have a feeling that even for those movies without directing nominations several players remain in the mix thanks to wide constituencies — wider open than any Oscar race in years. It is a thought that was echoed by Academy president Hawk Koch when I talked to him right after the announcement. “I try not to have any expectations, but what I do know is there were so many good movies this year that everybody got excited and wanted to make sure to vote for their favorite. I think again it foreshadows the race this year. I don’t think there is a clear-cut winner, a clear-cut favorite anywhere. I think we are all gonna be on the edge of our seat at the end of the Oscars saying ‘Who’s going to win?’,” he said.

Who is going to win? It makes the upcoming various guild awards — tonight’s Critics Choice Movie Awards and Sunday’s Golden Globes — all that more interesting since all of them have been fairly reliable indicators in the past. If they all come up with different choices, it will make this year’s Oscar show all that more suspenseful and Koch’s prediction could come true. As one Oscar strategist told me, “I think this is an extraordinary year for the Oscars. It is one race we will be talking about for years to come”.

The field is so competitive that many so-called snubs were inevitable. In terms of pure Oscar “vital signs”, though, most pundits will now drift to Lincoln, Life Of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook as first-position Oscar players in the Best Picture race. Of the latter, I am told by a Weinstein consultant that Harvey Weinstein listened to the announcement and said he was more excited by this Oscar morning than any since the first Miramax movie was nominated nearly 25 years ago. He has reason to be excited by the performance of Silver Linings, which becomes the first film since Reds in 1981 to have Picture, Screenplay, Directing and acting nominations in four categories. Quite a feat. Throw in the Film Editing nod (a category every Best Picture winner since 1980 has at least had to be nominated in) and you have the blueprint for a classic potential Weinstein-style upset. With the last two Best Picture winners in a row, Weinstein is now in a sweet seat for a three-peat, which no distributor has done since United Artists pulled it off in 1975-1977 Oscar years with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky and Annie Hall. And you can bet Harvey is licking his chops over that prospect. With another Best Picture nominee in Django Unchained, three more acting nods for The Master and a foreign-language film nominee in Kon Tiki (although the company’s higher-profile French entry, The Intouchables, was shut out), Oscar day once again means good times for Weinstein. But you can also bet his major studio competitors are going to pull  out all the stops — and money — to make sure Oscar doesn’t go indie again this year. The majors have more horses in this race than in the past several years.

Related: OSCARS: Nominations By Studio & Distributor

For 20th Century Fox, it was also an incredible day. Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi scoring 11 nominations without the benefit of any acting nods was something only 2003’s Best Picture winner Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King pulled off. That film ended up sweeping all 11 categories. This across-the-board strength bodes well for Lee’s technical triumph, and it becomes the instant frontrunner to rack up the most below-the-line wins at the very least — but suddenly, it should also be regarded as a real Best Picture threat. The film is nearing the $100 million mark domestically and has $400 million worldwide, making it Lee’s biggest hit ever and his most-nominated picture. His previous Best Picture nods were for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, but neither won. He has a foreign-language Oscar for Crouching and a Best Director statuette for Brokeback .

Disney-DreamWorks’ Lincoln, though, has now been set up as the one to beat — perhaps the consensus choice with its 12 nominations including all the key categories a Best Picture winner needs (according to that tricky conventional wisdom). Though he has three Oscars including two for Directing and every other imaginable award, some in the industry think Steven Spielberg has been underappreciated considering the scope of his remarkable career. This could be a crowning achievement.

Related: OSCARS: Nominations By Picture

But can we count out Argo? Its 7 nominations are formidable and there may be tremendous sympathy now for Affleck after his directing shutout. Plus, the movie is widely loved within the industry. And will controversy and the directing snub of Bigelow KO Zero Dark Thirty’s ultimate chances? It’s possible, but the Academy could decide to make a statement about the rights and freedom of artists to make movies their way — and not the way the government or CIA might like. And is the season’s smash-hit musical out of it completely? Without writing, directing and editing nominations, or at least one of those categories, no film has won Best Picture since Grand Hotel in 1931-32, Oscar’s 5th year. Will Les Mis, which has passionate followers, be the one to break this precedent in Oscar’s 85th year?

And finally Amour. Among so many high-profile Academy members to whom I have spoken, this is the film that has moved them the most. That kind of emotional vote can create winners especially in a landscape where votes are being widely split as I imagine this year’s race will see. The Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or winner is tough to watch, but it speaks to many. Though it is a foreign-language film (and nominee), it might be so universal that a surprise Best Picture win is not completely foreign to this year’s upside-down Oscar race. And let’s face it, in a year that has provided the oldest ever Best Actress nominee in Amour’s 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva along with the youngest in the same category, anything can happen despite conventional wisdom.

This thing is far from over. It begins again today.

Related: OSCARS: Reactions To Academy’s Nominations

  1. Really happy for Michael Haneke. He’s definitely in the top 5 directors currently working at the moment and he’s been on a near flawless streak this past decade (save maybe for the remake of “Funny Games” which was kind of unnecessary).

  2. “Instead, Silver Linings’ David O. Russell reversed his snub at DGA and BAFTA with a strong showing where it counts…”

    Wrong. DGA is a much better award than the Oscar for directing. Why? Because it’s not lobbied for all year by the marketing and publicity machines. Argo is a vastly better directed film than S.Linings…it’s not even comparable. Sometimes, the voters think “different” means better, and it doesn’t.

  3. Not nominating Bigelow is more an indication that the Academy lives in their own political reality and has no bearing on who actually deserves the award. Pound for pound everyone knows Bigelow is the best director this year – so when the academy does not even nominate her it simply reminds us of its insignificance.

  4. Kudos to all the nominees! but I still think the obscure nomination voting system is extremely frustrating for voters who don’t know exactly who will get their vote until noms are revealed. it encourages unhealthy strategizing and way too much head-scratching to rank contenders you’d like to support equally.
    A preferential point system (#1 = 5pts, #2 = 4pts, etc) would be much clearer and more satisfying for voters who could spread the wealth between their favorite picks and know exactly who gets what.
    Nevertheless, the current system is the most appropriate to determine best picture during the final voting phase, and ideally it should be expanded to other categories but that would obviously be very time-consuming and unrealistic.

  5. I thought the whole point of expanding the top picture category was to include movies that people actually went to see and care about? Instead we’re back to filling the category with a bunch of limited release movies that have been seen by a combined 57 people. Lincoln is the only movie from the top 20 box office hits of the year to make the category. That’s silly.

    1. Lincoln, Django, Argo, Les Miserables are all already over $100 million domestic and still going (with the exception of Argo). That may not put them in the top 20 but it does put them all within the top 30 of the year with Life of Pi joining the century club and hitting that mark very shortly. Zero Dark Thirty hasn’t opened wide yet but there are promising indications. With only nine nominees this year, and one still not widely released yet (Zero Dark Thirty – which is showing every indication that it will do pretty well), I’d say 5 of 8 have been very well-attended, with only two truly limited releases in the mix (Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour).

      And anyway, box office numbers does not equal quality, as we’ve seen in the past. Rewarding films based on how widely viewed they have been is ludicrous. Many people read Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson, that doesn’t change the fact that they’re awful writers.

    2. Actually while there isn’t a huge blockbuster nominated, there are four nominees already past $100M and Life of Pi is over 90 so it will hit that milestone by the end if its run. And the limited release movies are for the most part headed to full national release, so many more people will have seen them by oscar night (and most likely more will be in that top 20, although that’s an arbitrary place to draw the line).

      Don’t forget that nominations were announced two weeks earlier than usual this year, meaning all the movies have two weeks less of earnings than usual. Really only two of the nine movies are obscure. And frankly I’d rather see nominations like that than giving one to Batman just for the sake of trying to get better ratings for the oscar broadcast.

  6. It would appear that the disparity between having nine (out of 10 potential) nominated best pictures and five slots for best director creates a scenario in which there will always be perceived “snubs.” But then the same might be said for other categories as well so it is a conundrum the Academy and the industry will have to live with. It remains for the Guilds to bestow their blessings on those allegedly snubbed by the Academy voters. The Golden Globes, by the way, are NOT indicative of anything except what its small constituency believes and only seems to excite the media and not influence AMPAS voters.

    1. Then please let’s go back to 5 BP nominees, shall we? But then if Argo, Les Mis and Zd30 were all absent from both BP and BD that would look like a massive earth-shattering triple double snub from the Academy, since these movies have been considered locked frontrunners all season long.

    2. Totally agree, when there were 5 BP and five director, there were always “snubs” when the two categories didn’t line up. But with more than 5 BP, there will always be directors who don’t get nominated – the old line “did it direct itself” doesn’t seem to apply any more when it’s impossible to nominate all the directors of BP nominees.

  7. Congratulations to Lincoln for being nominated. You are the best film!

    Sorry but Michael H.’s nomination for Amour is a bit overrated (plus it took K. Bigelow’s nom).

    I am not even going to comment on the rest of the snubs.

  8. You almost convinced me that this year’s ceremony won’t be a completely predictable snooze, but c’mon… Lincoln sweeps the top awards, save the awards for actresses, which go to the ingénues. Life of Pi wins the tech awards. Les Mis wins the design awards that aren’t won by Lincoln. Argo and ZD30 get snubbed despite a lot of self-congratulatory talk about Hollywood’s relevance in dealing with thorny modern issues. There’s some “surprise” consolation prize in original screenplay that everyone instantly forgets. Seth McFarlane tells some uncomfortable jokes, but no one notices because (spoiler alert) we’re all paying more attention to our “second screen” (Nikki’s live-snark) than to the actual telecast.

    Frankly, the only thing that’s keeping me on the “edge of my seat” is wondering if ScarJo will be singing live, or if they outsource the duties to Beyoncé. This whole affair is becoming even more formulaic than this year’s nominated films. Any chance the Academy can hire some stoic black extras to sit silently in the balcony of the Dolby Theatre just to lend some easy gravitas to the proceedings?

  9. What’s the point of 10 movie slots and only 5 in all the other categories? Either go back to the original movie count or expand the other categories.

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