Subscribe To Oscar Eye: Zero Dark Thirty And Les Miserables Change The Conversation Updates
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.

oscar winner prediction
BEST PICTURE

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.

MORTAL LOCK

Argo
Les Miserables
Lincoln
LIKELY CONTENDER

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Flight
Life of Pi
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Amour
Anna Karenina
Django Unchained
Hitchcock
The Impossible
Promised Land
Skyfall
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Arbitrage
The Avengers
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Master
Not Fade Away
Quartet
Rust and Bone
The Sessions
oscar winner prediction
BEST DIRECTOR

Here's the big question with the Les Mis surge-- can Tom Hooper really win Best Director twice in a row? It's rare enough to win Best Picture for two films in a row, but winning Best Director for two consecutive films is nearly impossible-- Spielberg came close, but a pesky Jurassic Park sequel and Amistad came between Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. It's not unheard of, and technically Oscars are supposed to be given out based on merit and not based on who's "due"-- but I still think Hooper has a much harder road toward a win than he would if he hadn't just won two years ago. As a nominee, though, he's a guarantee-- along with Spielberg, whose Lincoln is now so undeniably strong that the War Horse comparison from last year no longer seems valid.

MORTAL LOCK

Ben Affleck, Argo
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
LIKELY CONTENDER

Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
Jacques Audiard, Rust and Bone
Juan Antonio Bayona, The Impossible
Peter Jackson, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Sam Mendes, Skyfall
Joe Wright, Anna Karenina
Gus van Sant, Promised Land
Robert Zemeckis, Flight
oscar winner prediction
BEST ACTOR
So here's the problem with Les Miserables's strength in this category: it has been a long, long time since anyone won Best Actor for work in a musical. As my pal Nathaniel Rogers points out over at The FIlm Experience only three have done it ever, and the last was Rex Harrison way back in 1964. As a huge movie star Jackman has more power than anyone to bring it back, and if Les Miserables is as strong as it seems, he ought to be at least a Mortal Lock for a nomination (maybe next week!) But as mentioned constantly, the field here is strong, and aside from the mighty Daniel Day-Lewis, it's hard to know yet who will emerge from the pack. Even Jackman. Much as I want his performance to live up to all the raves it has so far.

MORTAL LOCK

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
LIKELY CONTENDER

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Anthony Hopkins, Hitchcock
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Matt Damon, Promised Land
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Jack Black, Bernie
Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained
Richard Gere, Arbitrage
Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi
oscar winner prediction
BEST ACTRESS
I still don't really know what to make of Zero Dark Thirty's chances as a film, but Jessica Chastain is perfectly positioned in every way for a nomination-- and even if the film fails to catch fire, I think her spot in Best Actress is guaranteed. She's followed that path that so many have to a potential Oscar win, just much faster than most, emerging out of nowhere last year in six different films, snagging her Supporting nomination for The Help, and now emerging with a full-fledged lead role in a film earning heaps of praise. It's still looking like her vs. Lawrence with a few others to pad things out. I'm also finally giving in and moving Helen Hunt back to Supporting, mainly because The Sessions is failing to gather enough attention to make a groundswell for putting her role in the right category. She's now set to be cannon fodder to Anne Hathaway.

MORTAL LOCK

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
LIKELY CONTENDER

Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Helen Mirren, Hitchcock
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Meryl Streep, Hope Springs
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
oscar winner prediction
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Lots of shakeups going on in here, to accommodate the supporting players from Les Mis-- who haven't gotten quite the same raves as Jackman and their female counterparts, it's worth noting-- and also Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty, who has the heftiest role aside from Chastain's and could benefit from that movie's increased profile if it happens. But aside from Jones there seem to be no locks here yet, though Arkin seems strong even as Argo's frontrunner status drops. I'll know next week if Crowe and Redmayne are strong enough in Les Miserables to shake things up here even more.

MORTAL LOCK

Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
LIKELY CONTENDER

Alan Arkin, Argo
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Russell Crowe, Les Miserables
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty
Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Jude Law, Anna Karenina
Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike
Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables
David Strathairn, Lincoln
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Garrett Hedlund, On the Road
John Krasinski, Promised Land
William H. Macy, The Sessions
Ewan McGregor, The Impossible
oscar winner prediction
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Anne Hathaway, who we figured was a lock ages ago, has now been confirmed. The rest of the category continues to look weak beneath her, so I'm starting to wonder if the top 5 listed here really will be the final group. Sally Field has been bumped up to Mortal Lock (despite my objections to her performance in general), because Lincoln continues to look strong and getting stronger.

MORTAL LOCK

Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
LIKELY CONTENDER

Amy Adams, The Master
Judi Dench, Skyfall
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Samantha Barks, Les Miserables
Kelly Reilly, Flight
Amanda Seyfried, Les Miserables
Kerry Washington, Django Unchained
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Pauline Collins, Quartet
Salma Hayek, Savages
Frances McDormand, Promised Land
Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Jacki Weaver, SIlver Linings Playbook

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