A movie needs more than mere critical praise or hefty box office to win Best Picture. The whole production must have a compelling backstory.
Think of Kathryn Bigelow's vengeance against ex-hubby James Cameron ("Avatar") when "The Hurt Locker" prevailed in 2009. A few years earlier, think of how Cameron kept "Titanic" afloat amidst prophesies of doom and then sailed into Oscar history with a dazzling cargo of box office gold aboard.
A film competing for the top award needs to shape the narrative of awards season and frame itself as the hero of the story. It's how “Lord of the Rings” was able to overcome its genre bias, “No Country for Old Men” its violence, and “The Hurt Locker” its dismal box office.
Last year “The Artist” used it’s novelty as a black and white silent film in 2012 to position it as a nostalgic call back to Hollywood’s golden years. The year before, “The King’s Speech” became the feel-good film with heart against the critically loved but heartless “The Social Network.” In 2009, “The Hurt Locker” turned its poor box office into an asset by being the critically hailed ‘David’ taking on the $760 million grossing ‘Goliath’ of“Avatar.” In 2008, “Slumdog Millionaire” was the fun lovable film that had an important global focus while “No Country for Old Men” was the hip, edgy and critically acclaimed film of 2007.
“The Departed” made for a long-overdue coronation of Martin Scorsese in 2006 with a film that, unlike his recent other contenders, did not seem tailor-made to court Oscar. With a reluctance to go along with the consensus choice in 2005, “Crash” emerged as an alternative due to a racial message, large respected cast and being the little film that could. “Million Dollar Baby” was the film that came out of left field in 2004 with one heck of an emotional punch from one of the most respected directors in the industry (Clint Eastwood). “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was rewarded in 2003 for being the end of one of the most acclaimed, successful and epic trilogies of all time while "Chicago" won in 2002 for ushering in a renaissance of enthusiasm for the musical.
When analyzing this year's Best Picture race, focus on the lead ponies (as determined by nominations, pre-cursors, etc.) and see how each fits into the narrative.