Why ‘Argo’ still isn’t a sure thing at the Oscars

After taking top honors from Producers Guild, Directors Guild, and Screen Actors Guild, in addition to previous wins from the Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globes, “Argo” is now the frontrunner to win Best Picture at the Oscars according to our experts, an overwhelming number of whom have jumped ship from “Lincoln” in recent weeks.

“Apollo 13” pulled off the same guild sweep in 1995, but couldn’t overcome its fatal Best Director snub at the Oscars, losing to “Braveheart.” However, Tom O’Neil warns that comparison may be misleading: “Braveheart” sent screeners to the Academy and “Apollo 13” didn’t. He too is predicting “Argo” for the win.

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But sometimes momentum is fleeting, especially during this year’s race. Earlier in the season, “Silver Linings Playbook” seemed like the film to beat, then “Argo,” then “Les Miserables,” then “Lincoln,” and now “Argo” again.

In such a divided contest, the heat from “Argo’s” current winning streak could die down, especially when you consider that Oscar voting doesn’t begin until Feb. 8, giving voters a chance to process these recent kudos and decide to either go with the flow or against it.

And there also remains the issue of Ben Affleck‘s Best Director snub. Some attribute that category’s upsets to the drastic changes in Oscar voting: this was the first year for online balloting, and the deadline was much earlier. But, despite those changes, overall voter turnout was up from last year and it’s not clear why those changes would have hurt Affleck in particular.

RELATED: Ben Affleck wins DGA — will he wreak Oscar revenge next? 

One could understand how the accelerated nominating process might have hurt Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty“) and Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained“); their films didn’t see the light of day until late in the season, and both films were embroiled in still-developing controversies involving their respective uses of torture and the N-word. (Ironically, Tarantino earned a nomination for writing those N-words, just not directing them.)

But “Argo” opened back in October to universal acclaim and became a box office hit long before ballots went out. If anything, earlier voting should have helped Affleck. And though one can understand why passionate support for “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” could have pushed their directors into the race, how did David O. Russell get in ahead of him? “Silver Linings Playbook” certainly has passionate support, but the quirky romantic comedy was never considered as director-driven as Affleck’s tense political thriller.

True, “Driving Miss Daisy” managed to win Best Picture without a directing nomination, but Bruce Beresford was never a major contender for directing; he earned a BAFTA nomination, but nothing else. Affleck’s surprise exclusion is more reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann‘s for “Moulin Rouge” in 2001; Luhrmann had received nominations from the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and the Directors Guild, and he won Critics’ Choice. Like “Argo” that film also won the Producers Guild. For the Academy’s directing branch to leave them out of the Oscar lineup, despite their films being nominated everywhere else, is almost to make a point of it. What that point might have been is anyone’s guess.

We should also consider the reason the Academy moved up their voting schedule in the first place: they wanted to undercut the influence of precursor awards. In bestowing Hollywood’s top honor, they didn’t want to be seen as taking their marching orders from Critics’ Choice, the Golden Globes, and the like.

In recent years, the Oscars have seemed like the inevitable finish line of a race long since decided at earlier events. And though voters often like to be on the winning team, which helps the surging “Argo,” they also know how to dig in their heels from time to time, as they did with “Braveheart,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Crash” in years past.

That’s not to say “Argo” necessarily won’t win Best Picture. It has one pivotal advantage against “Lincoln”: the rooting factor. Steven Spielberg‘s historical epic is widely admired but is comparatively dry and has not inspired as much widespread passion as “Argo.”

The same factor has hurt other liked-but-not-loved epics like “The Aviator” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” both of which led with the most Oscar nominations but lost Best Picture to the Little Film That Could: “Million Dollar Baby” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” respectively.

Plus, Affleck’s directing snub may have rallied his base, sort of the way Barack Obama did after he lost the first presidential debate to Mitt Romney.

But it’s not a lock. If DGA, PGA, and SAG are good Oscar predictors, the Academy directors’ branch is an even better one: only three films in 84 years have won without their seal of approval. And the “Lincoln” troops could rally in response to the “Argo” surge, creating, in a sense, a backlash to the backlash. Even “Life of Pi,” which has 11 nominations and received key nominations from the PGA, WGA, DGA, and Oscar’s directors’ editors’, and writers’ branches, not to mention its unmatched blockbuster success worldwide, could be a stronger contender than we’re giving it credit for.

One could argue there aren’t as many passionate supporters for those films as there are for “Argo,” but those 371 members of the directors branch might disagree.

RELATED: Directors Guild Awards rewind: Steven Spielberg won in 1985 but was snubbed by Oscars

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