Tom O’Neil on Oscar’s Best Picture race: ‘Lincoln’ vs. ‘Silver Linings’ vs. ‘Life of Pi’

Three movies have now emerged as the frontrunners to win the Oscar for Best Picture: “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Life of Pi.”  That’s because they all earned nominations in the four categories key to victory: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Editing. It’s rare that a film prevails without all four key areas of support.

The big surprise today was the absence of “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo” in the race for Best Director, snubs that radically reduce their hopes of nailing the top prize. Sure, “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) won without helmer Bruce Beresford getting a bid, but that was a rare exception unlikely to repeat anytime soon.

Kathryn Bigelow was probably left off the list because of controversy surrounding the film’s depiction of U.S. military torturing suspected terrorists, but there’s no explaining why Ben Affleck got skunked. He recently nabbed noms from the DGA and Golden Globes, so he’s considered worthy by other Hollywood award groups. The academy is a notoriously peculiar gang. The directors’ branch is small – comprised only of about 300 members who can often be quite snobbish. Witness the inclusion of Michael Hanake (“Amour”) in this category. Actors-turned-directors may seem a bit trashy by comparison and they only make the cut on rare occasions, come to think of it.

So what happens next? “Lincoln” seems like a safe choice to bet on. Movies with the most bids win Best Picture about 75% of the time and there’s a lot of love for this film and a strong desire by Hollywood to hail the comeback of the town’s king, Steven Spielberg. It may be hard to stop.

But if any film can do it, it’s “Silver Linings Playbook” – because it’s the little movie with Big Heart and voters adore that. Heart is what “The King’s Speech” had and “Social Network” didn’t. Heart helped “The Artist” to go all the way last year.

“Silver Linings Playbook” has impressive support within the academy’s acting branch, which is, with 1,300 members, its largest. The movie scored bids in every one of the four top races – that’s only happened a few times in Oscar history. Having strong support within the acting branch is what many pundits believe sparked the upset of “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” back in 1998.

But what about “Life of Pi”? Some pundits think it’s cursed because it doesn’t have an acting nomination, but “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Last Emperor” won without acting bids. Strangely, this film has been routinely downplayed by leading Oscarologists, who don’t take it seriously as a contender. However, consider this: “Pi” and director Ang Lee have pulled strong consistently across all early awards. Other than “Lincoln,” it’s the only film that’s been nominated in the top races by DGA, PGA, Golden Globes, Critics Choice and now Oscars.

Personally, I’d love to think that it’s a secret, rumbling volcano. “Pi” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are my favorite two films of 2012, but, alas, I’m not an Oscar voter.

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