Almost everyone -- including all but one of the Gold Derby pundit panel -- is writing off Christopher Nolan's mind-blowing blockbuster "Inception" as a major Academy Awards contender this year, but when looking at all the facts, figures and bigger picture, I think it could still be the ultimate Oscar champ.
There is no question that "Inception" will be a Best Picture nominee, and may well be the most nominated film which is often a telling sign towards the big winner. It is virtually guaranteed nine nominations (Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects). And some of the other below-the-line races -- Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup -- are not out of the question. Reaping bids in any of these other categories will only increase the odds of "Inception" winning Best Picture.
The film will receive major guild support, including the DGA, WGA and PGA. Nolan could win the DGA Award, and the PGA loves to honor box office successes. "Inception" contends in 10 Critics Choice categories as well as for four more with the Golden Globes.
The staggering box office success ($292 million in the U.S.) of "Inception" boosts its Best Picture chances. While Academy voters of late have favored independent, small budget films ("The Hurt Locker," "Slumdog Millionaire, "No Country for Old Men," etc.), that works in favor of "Inception." In 2003, "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" swept the Academy Awards, winning a record-tying 11 including Best Picture. It could be time for the voters to reward another big moneymaker. The only other blockbuster this year likely to be in the Best Picture race is "Toy Story 3," which, as an animated film, has little chance to win.
Now, why not "The Social Network" or "The King's Speech" to prevail? Certainly either could do it, both having positioned themselves as co-favorites in most minds. However, "TSN" is admired by many but loved by few. It is an incredible film with tremendous writing (Aaron Sorkin will win everything in his path to the Adapted Screenplay Oscar) but is also cold and unfeeling in many ways. How many people will embrace it is their favorite of they year. It is reminiscent of the reaction to "Up in the Air" last year.
As for "TKS," I keep reading reviews over and over that praise the acting and production values (even the script), but many are only giving it above average ratings (B and B+ range) with hardly any consideration for the direction or overall worthiness as a film to remember. That reminds me of the reaction to another British Best Picture nominee -- "The Queen."
This year's derby is most like the one back in 2000 when "Gladiator" prevailed. Voters were ultimately not enchanted by the late season releases and looked back to earlier in the year for a crowd-pleasing, smart blockbuster to reward with Best Picture.
Image: "Inception" poster (Warner Bros.)