Last Friday I lined up two hours early, with an early autumn rainstorm crashing down, to catch the New York Film Festival press screening of Life of Pi, because the festival has exactly one press screening for all of their films, and there was no way I was going to miss that one. Even on the surface the movie seemed to tick all the boxes of Oscar season-- based on an acclaimed book (of the same name by Yann Martel), directed by a respected auteur (previous Oscar-winner Ang Lee), and tugging at the heartstrings while also showing off beautiful images (it's about a boy lost at sea). Bingo.

Luckily for me and everyone else huddled in line with me, Life of Pi lived up to nearly all of the expectations. As I wrote in my somewhat breathless review, it "works wonders in its best moments," specifically when tightening in on the fantastical story of teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his unlikely companion on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean-- a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The movie's frame story and religions overtones hinder it at times, and nothing in the narrative matches the astonishing CGI and 3D used to tell it, but like Martel's book it's likely to be a crowd pleaser, especially for anyone actively seeking out the religious bent.

How will that play for the Oscars? It's easy to imagine Pi filling a kind of War Horse slot, nominated for Best Picture without being expected to win anything, and snagging a few nominations elsewhere (it seems guaranteed for Visual Effects ad Cinematography consideration, and possibly also the sound categories and Mychael Danna's minimalist score). Lee, despite his Oscar pedigree, will have a lot of competition for the five-wide Best Director category, but that's where box office could come into play. If Life of Pi is a big box office hit when it opens in time for the Thanksgiving holiday November 21, it could start looking like an even stronger contender.

It's a pretty thin field out there for new releases with awards potential, though in limited release there's the documentary The House I Live In, which ought to be a Best Documentary contender. There's news about an awards hopeful already out in theaters though. The Screen Actors Guild announced yesterday that Beasts of the Southern Wild, the independently produced Sundance sensation picked up by Fox Searchlight, won't be eligible for the SAG Awards because director Benh Zeitlin didn't hire union actors and relied on non-professional locals, including likely Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis. No one would argue that the film would be better with professionals, and I'm sure Zeitlin and company have no regrets, but it's unclear how much a lack of SAG eligibility might hurt the film's Oscar chances. SAG's Best Ensemble nominations are often strong precursors of Best Picture favorites, and the momentum of the earlier awards can help push films-- especially smaller ones like Beasts-- over the Oscar finish line. Then again, this one is likely to pop up among critic's awards, so it may be able to do without that help.

Oh, and you might have heard some news out there about a talking teddy bear being hired to host the awards. You can read my arguments in tentative support of Seth MacFarlane over there, and take heart that he's not going to affect the actual awards race one way or another.

Other than that, it's on to the charts, where not much is changing but things are solidifying in a few spots.

oscar winner prediction
BEST PICTURE

I've bumped up Life of Pi to a Likely Contender, though it's hard to know where it stands without having seen some of the other competition arriving. And I should emphasize that I have a lot of faith in Les Miserables, which looks every inch the strong contender-- it's just that, until somebody's seen it, it's hard to promise anything either way. This weekend I'll get a look at both Silver Linings Playbook and Argo for myself, though I doubt I'll have much to add beyond the rapturous consensus already out there.

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
The Master
Silver Linings Playbook
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Amour
Anna Karenina
Django Unchained
Flight
Hitchcock
The Impossible
Les Miserables
Lincoln
Moonrise Kingdom
Promised Land
Zero Dark Thirty
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Arbitrage
The Avengers
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Cloud Atlas
End of Watch
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Killing Them Softly
Not Fade Away
Quartet
Rust and Bone
The Sessions
Skyfall
This Is 40
oscar winner prediction
BEST DIRECTOR

No changes here, with Ang Lee still facing a tough road into this category unless the movie does really well-- it's weird, because Lee's directorial vision is still a huge part of Life of Pi, but he doesn't seem as strong as any of the top three yet.

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Ben Affleck, Argo
Michael Haneke, Amour
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Gus van Sant, Promised Land
Robert Zemeckis, Flight
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
Jacques Audiard, Rust and Bone
Juan Antonio Bayona, The Impossible
Sacha Gervasi, Hitchcock
Peter Jackson, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Sam Mendes, Skyfall
Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas
Joe Wright, Anna Karenina
oscar winner prediction
BEST ACTOR
No big changes here either, though I feel confident it might soon be time to bump down Ben Affleck, whose Argo is looking like a big hit, but his lead performance is supposedly nothing spectacular. .

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Ben Affleck, Argo
Matt Damon, Promised Land
Anthony Hopkins, Hitchcock
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Denzel Washington, Flight
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Jack Black, Bernie
Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained
Richard Gere, Arbitrage
Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch
Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs
Tom Holland, The Impossible
Liam Neeson, The Grey
Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly
Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi
oscar winner prediction
BEST ACTRESS
Still no idea who might be able to join those top 4 in this category, though I'm wondering if there's some surprise I'm totally overlooking. I'm dying to get a look at Anna Karenina to know if Keira Knightley might really fit in..

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Halle Berry, Cloud Atlas
Melanie Lynskey, Hello I Must Be Going
Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
Meryl Streep, Hope Springs
Barbra Streisand, The Guilt Trip
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed
oscar winner prediction
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Even just looking at some clips from Argo it's easy to see how Alan Arkin is a comic highlight in that movie, though we'll see if there are too many other strong supporting performances in there for him to stand out. I'm also wondering if Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook is strong enough to make it in, since the movie seems to be mostly about Cooper and Lawrence.

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Bryan Cranston, Argo
Russell Crowe, Les Miserables
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Ewan McGregor, The Impossible
Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being A Wallflower
Michael Pena, End of Watch
David Strathairn, Lincoln
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Jim Broadbent, Cloud Atlas
John Goodman, Flight
Tom Hanks, Cloud Atlas
Woody Harrelson, Seven Psychopaths
Garrett Hedlund, On the Road
Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
John Krasinski, Promised Land
William H. Macy, The Sessions
Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables
Jim Sturgess, Cloud Atlas
Christopher Walken, Seven Psychopaths
oscar winner prediction
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Rewatching her little musical bit with Hugh Jackman from the beginning of the 2010 Oscars made me want Anne Hathaway to just win this, now. But I guess we probably ought to see Les Mis first? (No change here).

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Amy Adams, The Master
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Samantha Barks, Les Miserables
Judi Dench, Skyfall
Sally Field, Lincoln
Amanda Seyfried, Les Miserables
Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina
Kerry Washington, Django Unchained
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Pauline Collins, Quartet
Salma Hayek, Savages
Frances McDormand, Promised Land
Jacki Weaver, SIlver Linings Playbook

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