State of the Best Picture Awards race: Can ‘Lincoln’ prevail?

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

Finally, audiences have been able to view the majority of movies that have risen to the top of a very competitive Oscar pack. Although of the five contenders, "Zero Dark Thirty" remains in limited release and may not have made it to your local Cineplex. It still hasn't played Poughkeepsie.

As academy members fumble to choose the slate of nominees electronically for the first time, the vote has been delayed for 24 hours, until January 4, to accommodate the group's virtual version of hanging chads. Here are the likely contenders for best picture when they do tally their votes:

"Lincoln": Steven Spielberg's biopic of the 16th president's political battle to pass the 13th Amendment and emancipate the slaves has its passionate supporters. It also has the kiss of death: those who respect the movie and don't love it, some of whom feel they should love it because it's good for them. And then there are those who see it and, well, went to sleep. The drama has powerhouse performances that will clearly score Oscars, including the titanic Daniel Day-Lewis in lead and Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Fields in support. And no one will deny Tony Kushner his best adapted screenplay nomination for creating a serious film about a serious topic, which turns on humanizing the Civil War leader with a naughty sense of humor and a side of political intrigue. "Lincoln" received seven Golden Globe nominations and a massive 12 Critics Choice noms. Still, there are signs of weakness: Only the Dallas Film Critics honored "Lincoln" with the best picture to date, and Steven Spielberg has been overlooked repeatedly as best director by the critics.

Box office: Success! The Disney film has crossed the $100 million mark with domestic grosses of $131,867,159 by the end of 2012.

Runtime: Two hours, 25 minutes

Hollywood pat-on-the-back factor: This movie is clearly good for the audience, expanding historical knowledge on one of America's brightest moments as a country -- eradicating slavery.

Bottom line: Current front-runner, likely to get most nominations at the Academy Awards to be announced on January 10, but "Lincoln" may sacrifice best picture to other contenders in favor of acting and writing awards.

"Zero Dark Thirty": Kathryn Bigelow's espionage action thriller about the decadelong hunt for Osama bin Laden, and his dramatic capture by Navy SEALs, has a lot of power behind it. Biases out: It's my favorite film of 2012. "ZD30" has the most critical support, having won best picture from the New York Film Critics Circle (I'm a member), the New York Film Critics Online, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, African-American, Austin, Black, Utah, among others. It won four Golden Globe nominations, including best picture. It's softer on the acting side, where star Jessica Chastain is the only sure Oscar contender, as best actress. Another destabilizing factor is that, lately, even before most of America has seen the movie, it's become a lightning rod for the debate on America's use of torture. One of the film's most appealing characteristics is that it doesn't tell viewers what to think -- it doesn't predigest this controversial topic. That hasn't stopped some media outlets from telling people what it does say, and that could do some collateral damage. Another challenge is that Sony Pictures is releasing the film, and it may be incapable of threading the Oscar needle. Remember its last film in this position? Two years ago, it had the front-runner, "The Social Network." Don't remember it winning best picture? It didn't.

Box office: Remains to be seen, although it has made a muscular start, coming in first among films in limited release. Currently in only five theaters, it has grossed $1.368 million, a far cry from the $100 million mark of its rivals. (For perspective, Bigelow's last Oscar-winner, "The Hurt Locker," grossed only $17 million.)

Runtime: Two hours, 37 minutes.

Hollywood pat-on-the-back factor: This is ambitious, quality filmmaking within the studio system -- and it could yield a second best director honor for Bigelow, the first woman to be so honored only three years ago.

Bottom line: A definite nominee, but will being slow out of the gate and facing controversy damage its chances?

"Argo": If slow and steady wins the race, then "Argo" stands at the front of the pack, where it was the front-runner earlier in the season. Ben Affleck's fact-based, humor-laced drama about the dramatic rescue of six American foreign-service workers stranded in the Canadian ambassador's house during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-80 has a lot going for it. It's entertaining. In his third outing, Affleck has proved to be an accomplished director and storyteller. And it's been a box office and critical success. If there's a challenge, it's that the advent of the more serious "Zero Dark Thirty" has made the bloodless rescue of "Argo" seem a little like terrorism lite. Still, it earned a favorable five Golden Globe nominations and at least six best picture wins among widely dispersed critics groups: San Diego, Florida, St. Louis, Oklahoma, Southeastern, and Nevada. Add in a SAG nomination for best ensemble, and the movie has the actors' guild strongly behind it (with all those voting members!).

Box office: It's a success, having crossed the $100 million mark with $109 million domestically and another $56 foreign.

Runtime: Two hours.

Hollywood pat-on-the-back factor: Unlike "ZD30," this is a movie about Hollywood filmmakers literally conspiring with the CIA to rescue hostages. How cool is that?

Bottom line: "Argo" may actually get the consensus win as the movie the most people consistently appreciated.

"Les Miserables": Like Jean Valjean at the beginning of the movie, struggling to pull a rope through water, played by a rangy, undernourished Hugh Jackman, this big-budget adaptation of the pop-musical has not had an easy time of it. While Jackman will get an Oscar nomination, and Anne Hathaway's Fantine is the best supporting actress front-runner, the movie has taken its hits. The Golden Globes snubbed director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech"), despite nominating the movie, the song, "Suddenly," and Jackman and Hathaway. The Screen Actors Guild did show strong support, nominating the film for best ensemble, as well as Jackman, Hathaway, and stunt ensemble. Critics did not entirely dance to Hooper's tune, though. Among the critics groups, it lacked a single recognition for best picture, and the movie received a tepid 71 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. To quote Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, "It lives in that kinda-sorta, okay-not-great, this-worked-that-didn't in-between for which words like 'better' and 'worse' fall woefully short. " Still, critical opinion didn't keep audiences from flocking to the theater on opening day. And this kind of movie benefits from repeated viewings.

Box office: With a Christmas Day release date, "Les Mis" has just begun to sing, to the tune of $67 million domestically and a global $115 million. It will definitely cross the $100 million line in America before long.

Runtime: Two hours, 37 minutes

Hollywood pat-on-the-back factor: Not so much. Directed by an Englishman and performed by an international cast, from a French musical, it's a little light in this department.

Bottom line: It's an honor just to be nominated, but "Les Miserables" won't win.

"Silver Linings Playbook": David O. Russell's bipolar romantic comedy pairing Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence exited Toronto last September as an Oscar front-runner. It was a smart, tart, affecting, well-written film adapted from a beloved book. But in a year where there are so many good movies and so many strong performances, particularly in the acting category, it may be hard for this early leader to stay the course. And there has been some modest pushback against the glib treatment of a real mental illness. Still, universally positive reviews lauded an adult comedy for real adults. "Silver Linings Playbook" won two critics groups -- the Satellites and Detroit. With a $21 million production budget, and major stars including Robert DeNiro in a supporting role, its entry into the Independent Spirit Awards made it seem like the 800-pound gorilla still trying to fit at the kiddie table. And while it received four Golden Globes, including one for Russell's script, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association snubbed Russell as a director. Was this a sign of weakness -- or just a year with too many strong candidates?

Box office: With a limited opening in mid-November, "SLP" arrived at the end of the year well below the $100 million mark at $28 million -- and this could be the film's Achille's heel.

Runtime: Two hours, two minutes.

Hollywood pat-on-the-back factor: This is the kind of kooky, star-driven, critic-and-crowd-pleasing movie that Hollywood should be making more frequently -- and with "SLP," it did.

Bottom line: Comedies have a hard time winning the Oscar, and "Silver Linings Playbook" is no exception to the rule.

Also in the mix in a year that could see 10 nominees in the best picture category: "Life of Pi," "Amour," "Django Unchained," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and "Skyfall." And don't completely count out "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and "The Master." The bottom line for the season is that this year is a bumper crop for movies. We'll know more when the academy announces the full slate of nominees on January 10. We'll be covering the snubs and surprises and everything Oscar you need to know.