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Every awards season comes with the tantalizing promise of a late-arriving game changer, movies that have kept off the fall festival circuit and emerge in November or December to completely change what everyone assumed about the race. Some years it works out-- Million Dollar Baby famously opened in December and ran away with the Oscar season from there. Some years it doesn't-- last year The Artist cruised directly from its Cannes premiere to Best Picture, with December releases like War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close lucky to even get a nomination alongside it.
It's exciting when even one movie manages to change the conversation, but it's downright thrilling when two do it. That's what happened just after the Thanksgiving holiday ended, as both Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty premiered for critics in New York and Los Angeles, and both earned enough raves to become serious contenders not just for awards, but for recognition as some of the year's best films. That was something of a given for Les Miserables, which many pundits had pegged for a Best Picture nomination before anyone even saw it-- and just after a glimpse at the first trailer, Anne Hathaway seemed like a guaranteed Best Supporting Actress nomination, a hunch that is apparently proven by a reportedly phenomenal performance from her as the "I Dreamed A Dream"-singing Fantine.
But Zero Dark Thirty was a bit more of a wild card, despite being the follow-up to Best Picture-winning The Hurt Locker from Best Director-winning Kathryn Bigelow. The movie was kept under wraps for ages, to the point that nobody knew until a few weeks ago that Jessica Chastain was considered a lead actress in the film. Turns out she's the vital anchor of the movie, giving a strong and utterly engaging performance that has instantly rocketed her to the top of the Best Actress conversation; it's looking like a showdown between ingenues Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, and it's impossible to tell at this point which of them might have the leg up. And while it's still too early to make bold predictions about the film's performance, Zero Dark Thirty is an even more gripping and thoughtful war film than The Hurt Locker, with an ensemble cast to die for and some of the most tense scenes of espionage and assassination you can imagine. A film this gritty and forcefully unsentimental might not seem like the usual Oscar thing, but then again, neither did The Hurt Locker.
Some writers are going so far as to predict a Les Miserables sweep at the Oscars, and it's hard to argue with the logic; it's been 10 years since a musical won Best Picture (Chicago), but it's a genre the Academy has loved in the past, and the presence of The King's Speech director Tom Hooper sure can't hurt for prestige. But while a nomination and Best Picture frontrunner status seems all but guaranteed, and Anne Hathaway has very little competition for cruising toward that Best Supporting Actress statue, the rest of the picture is a little fuzzier, as we'll get into in the charts below. Can Hugh Jackman break through the packed Best Actor crowd? Can the period piece trappings overcome the many other strong competitors in the technical fields? And maybe most importantly, can a musical still be a Best Picture behemoth, when the genre itself has been so moribund onscreen for so many years?
I'm seeing Les Miserables for myself later this week, and I hope that will give me a clearer sense of just how significant a powerhouse it is (I'm a goner for musicals in general, though, so I'm not necessarily the best guide for skeptics). But even as we wait patiently for the season's last remaining question marks to emerge-- both Django Unchained and The Hobbit start screening within the next week-- the excitement around Les Miserables feels very real, if only because it looked like a frontrunner from the very start, and now that the movie is actually good, we can all feel justified in our predictions. As would-be contenders like Silver Linings Playbook and Hitchcock stumble while presenting themselves to audiences, there's a vacuum for a movie to get the same kind of fervor that Argo did back in September-- and Les Miserables is by far the most likely to get it.
Briefly before we get into the charts, the Gotham Awards were handed out in New York last night, and Moonrise Kingdom surprised quite a few people by taking Best Feature away from the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Wes Anderson's childhood fable has seemed like a potential feel-good Best Picture nomination for a while now, and though the Gothams are no guarantee of anything, that win is a show of strength at the exact time the film needs it. Elsewhere Beasts of the Southern Wild unsurprisingly won Best Breakthrough Director for Benh Zeitlin, though it's still hard to see how that shaggy and much-beloved film could fit in at the stuffier Oscars. A presence on critic's top 10 lists in the coming weeks will be a much stronger sign for that one.
And at last, on to the charts, where we start taking Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables into account.
Les Miserables may not be exactly the powerhouse some are predicting right now, but it's pretty much impossible to imagine it not scoring a nomination now that the word is so positive. So in it goes to Mortal Lock, even though I haven't seen it yet to determine for myself. Zero Dark Thirty is just behind it as a Likely Contender now, since as I mentioned above, it's not as automatically Oscar-friendly as the musical. Moonrise Kingdom has also gotten a bump, though what feels like the Gotham Awards stamp of approval on its momentum could easily fizzle as the conversation focuses on the newer releases.
STILL IN THE RUNNING
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