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Oscars 2013: Best Picture Race Is Down To ‘Lincoln’ vs. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Welcome to the first in what will be a series of weekly columns updating the state of the Oscar race. We’ll continue to trace who’s ahead and who’s a long shot as we gauge the impact of each week’s new developments, from the critics’ prizes to the Golden Globes to the various guild awards.

The next couple of weeks will be especially eventful, with the National Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards and the Globes all weighing in, as well as the Oscar nominations themselves. The nominations come a few days earlier than normal this year, on Jan. 10, before the Critics Choice and Globe trophies are handed out, so this will be the first year those prizes have had no influence on the process of whittling down eligible films for Oscar nods. The early deadline also means less time for Academy members to see all the eligible movies, so dark-horse candidates have even less of a chance this year than usual.

Here, then, is how the race is shaking out this week in the major categories.

There’s room for up to 10 Best Picture candidates, but so far, it’s a two-movie race. Which two movies? Well, early in the fall, it looked like “The Master” vs. “Argo,” but those two have since been overtaken by another pair of sure things, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Lincoln.” It’s a rivalry that reflects an age-old split in Academy taste. One is an old-fashioned, prestige epic, with lavish period detail, about a flawed hero who rose to the occasion during a great historical upheaval. The other is a contemporary, hot-button, technologically savvy thriller about a team of not-necessarily-likable people who didn’t always behave honorably during a great historical upheaval. In short, it looks like “The King’s Speech” vs. “The Social Network,” or “Pulp Fiction” vs. “Forrest Gump,” all over again.

So far, “Lincoln” has picked up more prizes and nominations, but “Zero Dark Thirty” has topped more critics’ lists. It doesn’t hurt “Lincoln” that it’s the biggest box office hit among this year’s likely nominees ($ 132 million and counting), but that’s only because “Zero Dark Thirty” hasn’t opened nationwide yet. It’s done very well in limited release and could be a huge hit by the time the Oscar ceremony rolls around on Feb. 24. The controversy over its ambiguous stance on the effectiveness and ethics of torture may hurt “ZDT”‘s overall chances, or it could be a non-factor if the movie becomes a box office hit.

Also jockeying for the 10 slots are “Les Miserables” (generally regarded as a successful translation of a difficult musical to the screen), “Django Unchained” (with Quentin Tarantino’s own “Inglourious Basterds” as an Oscar precedent) “Silver Linings Playbook” (an oddly uplifting romantic comedy about mental illness) summer indie favorites “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and Ang Lee’s modest hit “Life of Pi” (with a major director turning to 3D, it counts “Hugo” as an Oscar precedent). That’s your 10, though it wouldn’t be unheard of for a Pixar movie like “Brave” to squeeze in there. Note, however, that there’s no room for giant blockbusters that earned critical acclaim, like “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises” or “Skyfall” — the sort of movies the expansion of this category from five films to 10 a few years ago was supposed to make possible. Those movies will have to content themselves with technical prizes and their billion-dollar grosses.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln is the category’s frontrunner and will probably remain so for the rest of the race. The only stars with a hope of keeping him from winning a third Oscar are Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master” (his performance is about the only thing in the film critics can agree on), Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings” (his manic energy sets the rhythms of the film), Hugh Jackman in “Les Mis” (really, who else could have played Jean Valjean?), and maybe Denzel Washington in “Flight” (the Academy likes him best when he goes against type and plays jerks). Ben Affleck has a shot for “Argo,” though the Academy may find it sufficient to reward him with a director nod instead. John Hawkes and Bill Murray both give daring performances as sexually adventurous polio patients (in “The Sessions” and “Hyde Park on Hudson,” respectively), but the movies themselves may make conservative Oscar voters more squeamish than enthusiastic. Jack Black was an early dark-horse favorite for his tricky performance as a lovable con man in “Bernie,” but voters may have forgotten that springtime film by now.

Jennifer Lawrence’s funny, heart-tugging performance in “Silver Linings” may be the only sure thing in the category. Jessica Chastain’s dogged CIA agent in “ZDT” is a near-certainty as well. Beyond that, there’s a variety of performances by recognizable actresses in difficult and even bizarre roles that may or may not be too off-putting for the Academy. Helen Hunt is an uninhibited sex therapist in “The Sessions”; she was the frontrunner until critics saw some of these other performances. Naomi Watts is a mom caught in the 2004 tsunami in “The Impossible.” Marion Cotillard is a woman who loses her legs in “Rust and Bone.” Keira Knightley is Tolstoy’s adulterous heroine in “Anna Karenina,” a film that didn’t get as much awards buzz as it was expected to. Rachel Weisz’s turn as an adulteress in “The Deep Blue Sea” was little-seen, but awards groups have put that performance on the Oscar map. Octogenarian Emmanuelle Riva could get a nod for “Amour,” earning a bit of recognition for her long career and for her fearless performance this time. And then there’s nine-year-old discovery Quvenzhane Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Many found her enchanting, but whether Academy members will feel she belongs on this list of distinguished, trained, experienced actresses is a toss-up.

Past winners have the upper hand here. Tommy Lee Jones seems a shoo-in for “Lincoln,” as does Robert De Niro for “Silver Linings” (which would mark his first Oscar nod in two decades). Philip Seymour Hoffman will probably make the list for his cult leader in “The Master.” After that, who knows? Leonardo DiCaprio could win a slot for his vile slaveowner in “Django,” but he might have to compete with co-stars Samuel L. Jackson or Christoph Waltz. Past winner Alan Arkin has a shot for his satirical turn as a Hollywood bigshot in “Argo.” Longshots include Matthew McConaughey for carrying “Magic Mike” on his own slender G-string, and “Skyfall”‘s Javier Bardem for playing the creepiest movie villain since his own Oscar-winning turn in “No Country for Old Men” five years ago.

Usually this field is wide open; not this year. A sure thing is the dying, tubercular (but still singing-her-heart-out) Anne Hathaway in “Les Mis.” Sally Field could earn her first nomination in decades, not just for playing Mrs. Lincoln, but for successfully lobbying Steven Spielberg for the part. Amy Adams seems likely for playing Hoffman’s tough-minded wife in “The Master.” Maggie Smith could squeeze in as the homesick oldtimer in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” while her costar, Judi Dench, could earn a nod for her farewell performance as M in “Skyfall.”

This race looks a lot like the Best Picture competition, of course, but there’s room for only five names here. “Lincoln'”s Spielberg, “ZDT'”s Kathryn Bigelow and “Les Mis”‘s Tom Hooper (an Oscar winner a couple years ago for “The King’s Speech”) will almost certainly be three of those names. Most likely to fill the other two slots are “Argo”‘s Affleck and “Silver Linings”‘ David O. Russell (an Oscar darling since “The Fighter”), though “Django'”s Tarantino and “The Master”‘s Paul Thomas Anderson could make it as well. Longer shots are “Pi'”s Ang Lee, “Moonrise Kingdom'”s Wes Anderson, and “Beasts”‘ newcomer Benh Zeitlin, as well as foreign language contender Michael Haneke for “Amour.”

Notice how we haven’t mentioned “Promised Land” — not its director, Gus Van Sant, its stars (Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who also co-wrote the screenplay) or its Best Picture prospects. The environmental drama may have opened too late to appear on the radars of most critics or awards groups, and its poor showing in limited release last weekend may hurt its chances of being discovered by guild groups or Oscar voters. This year, more than ever, timing is everything.

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