Over the weekend, two top Oscar hopefuls had their first public screenings, and both earned rafts of praise, buoying them up toward the top of the awards heap. Tom Hooper's adaptation of the blockbuster musical Les Misérables debuted to much fanfare, especially for Best Supporting Actress shoo-in Anne Hathaway, while Kathryn Bigelow's killing-of-Osama bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty screened on both coasts, earning strong support. Meaning, we've got two new major Best Picture frontrunners here. So let's take a look at our potential list of ten nominees — if that is in fact how many the Academy decides to nominate this year — based on how each movie fits into this year's awards landscape.
The Tearjerking Crowd-Pleaser: This is a spot with a noble tradition. Recently filled by schmaltzy fare like The Blind Side and The Help, this year's populist choice will likely be something a little more high-minded, though really there's nothing all that sophisticated about Les Misérables. We are talking about a big, bombastic straightforward musical saga here, after all. But yes, this ought to be the one that your average reads-People-magazine-in-waiting-rooms Oscar viewer will have seen and will be rooting for.
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The Smart, Prickly, No-Nonsense One: Like Traffic, Michael Clayton, or even Moneyball before it, Zero Dark Thirty ought to be the choice of mainstream serious folks who want their movies technically proficient but unladen with unnecessary emoting. Zero Dark Thirty might not win much of anything other than an acting prize for Jessica Chastain (and even that's a long shot), but the nominations will secure its place as one of the smarter, more sober-minded movies of the year, thus helping to buttress the Oscars against the criticism that it doesn't value intelligence.
The Old-Timey Oscar Favorite: Time was, you needed a lot of sweeping music and speechifying heft to win an Oscar, and while the Academy has diversified some in the last two decades, those types of movies still fare pretty well at the big dance. Of course Les Mis has all that stuff, but it's not quite as serious as the big, rumbling, fact-based Lincoln, a traditional awards-bait goosebump-giver that actually is, y'know, pretty good. We think this movie might actually be a little too staid to pull out a win in the end, but of course critics' awards will help make its chances clearer in the coming weeks.
The Little Indie That Could: Since the groundbreaking days of the mid-1990s, when indie films stepped into the mainstream spotlight, there's always been an independent movie or two beloved by critics and its small audience pool that is championed hard enough to land in the Oscar race. (Recent examples being Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right.) These movies rarely if ever win the prize (The Hurt Locker was an exception, for example), but their being on the list at all is the real victory. This year that movie will very likely be the dreamy existential epic Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The Studio Favorite: Closely aligned with both the old-timey Oscar pick and the tearjerker, this category of Best Picture nominee is usually something decidedly commercial that's also uncommonly well-made for a studio film. Think The Departed and The Aviator and, uh, other non-Scorsese movies in recent years past. Ben Affleck's Argo looks to be the obvious choice for this time around — it was a financial and critical hit made by Hollywood darlings. And that's not a bad thing! It was indeed a vastly engaging movie. Despite all that buzz and acclaim, though, we see Affleck winning for Best Director before we this winning the big prize.
The Quirky Little Feel-Good Thing: Remember when Little Miss Sunshine and Juno were nominated for all those awards? Well, the same will likely be true of Silver Linings Playbook this year, which satisfies two niche interests: It's an indie, so Academy voters can feel edgy and with-it, but it's comfortably feel-good and accessible, so it doesn't scare anyone off. This movie is way more likely to rack up awards in the acting categories than to win the night outright, but we'd still be surprised to see it not get a Best Picture nod come January.
The Surprise Blockbuster: That Inception and District 9 were box-office smashes wasn't a surprise, but maybe that they both got Best Picture nominations was. In that same vein, the latest Bond flick Skyfall, which was clearly heavily influenced by the work of Inception's Christopher Nolan, ought to squeak into this category this year. That way the Academy can show that its tastes are evolving, and so is the industry's level of execution. Listen up, potential consumers! Even our big action blockbusters are works of art now. It's possible that the Academy might instead opt for The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Nolan's epic Batman trilogy, but we suspect that the tragic associations with that film will keep it out of the running.
The WTF Costumer: Atonement was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, even though its critical reception was marred by some notable pans (sure it's got an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, but some of the country's most influential critics — including those at The New York Times and The New Yorker — didn't care for it), and it was only a moderate success at the box office. But the Academy is more than just all pretentious auteurs and actors; it's also craftspeople and behind-the-scenes folks who know good technical work when they see it. So Atonement, with all its lavish period gloss, sneaked in, and so, too, might director Joe Wright's latest Keira Knightley joint, Anna Karenina. Reviews for this one have been decidedly less positive, but if the Academy has to fill out a roster of ten films, it seems that all the impressive costume, set, and photography work could put it on the list.
The Foreign Darling: Though foreign-language films rarely receive Best Picture nominations, with the newly expanded list, it's possible that Michael Haneke's shattering Cannes Palme d'Or winner Amour could wind up in the big race this winter. The subject matter is bleak and unforgiving — an elderly man watches helplessly as his wife slowly deteriorates and dies — but might strike a chord with the older segment of the Academy, which is to say a large part of it. This is definitely the longest shot of them all, but we'd love to see it up there. And, hell, win. It's probably our favorite movie of the year. If you can call something so devastatingly depressing a "favorite," anyway.
The Wild Card: It could be argued that most of these are wild cards, but in recent years there have been real outside-the-box nominations that had no chance of winning but still made the race a little more dynamic. You know, like Toy Story 3 or, well, The Blind Side. This year that movie could be Ang Lee's Life of Pi, for all its digital wonderments, it could be Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (because the Academy owes it to Quentin Tarantino at this point), or it could be something even more unexpected. Maybe Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom? Perhaps even the tsunami drama The Impossible? Or, you know, maybe the existence of The Master — which, like Paul Thomas Anderson's previous nominee There Will Be Blood, sort of defies all categories, and might deserve the nod — makes this slot a moot point entirely.