As a rule, by the time all of the boards, guilds, associations and other factions that make up the film community are done handing out their awards, a consensus has arisen and it is possible to predict with some degree of certainty who will win the major awards at the Oscars, the big dog of awards shows that closes out the season of self-congratulatory excess. Not so much this year.
The failure of Ben Affleck to receive a Best Director nomination for "Argo" has seemingly triggered a groundswell of support for that film. Affleck won the Director's Guild award among other trophies, but while not unprecedented it is unusual for a film to win Best Picture when its director is not nominated. Both of the actress categories appear to be hotly contested, as is the case for supporting actor.
Even though the best song nominees will be sung live this year -- usually a show-stopper for the wrong reason -- after being dropped in 2010 and again last year, Sunday night's telecast shapes up as intriguing and entertaining.
Will win: "Argo"
Deserves to win: "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Argo" were 1 and 1A in 2012.
Doesn't belong here: "Amour," "Les Miserables," "Silver Linings Playbook."
"Zero Dark Thirty," which explores the post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden, and "Argo," a recreation of the unlikely rescue of U.S. embassy workers trapped in Iran, are based on painful moments in American history. While neither is a documentary, each rings true, with "Zero Dark Thirty" knowingly portraying the inner workings of government under stress and "Argo" going inside Hollywood with a sardonic side story about the assistance of film-makers in contriving a cover for the thrilling rescue.
The controversy about "Zero Dark Thirty" supposedly endorsing the use of torture (a gross oversimplification) to extract information will hurt its chances of winning. If the Oscar doesn't go to "Argo" it will go to "Lincoln," a winning portrayal of the Great Emancipator that suffers periodically from Spielbergian schmaltz.
"Amour," "Les Miserable" and "Silver Linings Playbook" are all sincere films, but "Amour" drags and tips its hand too early, "Les Miserables" could use four or five fewer redundant songs and "Silver Linings Playbook" fails the plausibility test in its plotting and portrayal of mental dysfunction. "Moonrise Kingdom" is the latest offbeat, insightful comic gem from Wes Anderson, who still can't get respect from the Academy.
Will win: Steven Spielberg
Deserves to win: Ang Lee, "Life of Pi"
Doesn't belong here: Michael Haneke, "Amour," David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook." Behn Zeitlin, "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Overlooked: Ben Affleck, "Argo," Kathryn Bigelow, "Zero Dark Thirty," Wes Anderson, "Moonrise Kingdom."
Chastened by criticism for not including "The Dark Knight" in the Best Picture category for the films of 2008, the Academy responded by expanding the field while maintaining the limit on five directors. Now chastised for snubbing directors whose films were nominated, the Academy has simply exchanged one form of deserved criticism for another.
Spielberg is a Hollywood icon who crafts old-school epics, and with Affleck and Bigelow not even in the field, his path to the Oscar is clear. Lee's parable of a young man lost at sea with a ferocious tiger is a haunting thing of beauty but "Life of Pi" has a better chance of winning Oscars in the technical categories. Newcomer Zeitlin delivered an original film, but Anderson has been doing original work for years.
"Zero Dark Thirty" will at least get the Best Original Screenplay Oscar courtesy of Mark Boal's sharp, journalistic script. "Lincoln" scriptwriter Tony Kushner appeared to be a lock for Best Adapted Screenplay a month ago but the "Argo" wave is poised to sweep over him and carry Chris Terrio to victory for his tense, darkly funny script.
Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Deserves to win: Daniel Day-Lewis
No suspense here. Everyone has an image of Lincoln, and Day-Lewis manages to fulfill it while adding a human dimension. Everybody else in the category can enjoy their good seats Sunday night.
Will win: Jennifer Lawrence
Deserves to win: Jessica Chastain
Lawrence is a terrific young actress, and while it is hard to imagine her theatrically depressive hotty widow from "Silver Linings Playbook" actually existing in the real world, she gives her character depth and believability that don't exist in the script.
Chastain's CIA agent in "Zero Dark Thirty" represents an amalgamation of female intelligence specialists who tracked bin Laden over the years, and her performance as the mysterious, intensely driven Maya helps fuel the film's growing momentum.
Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Robert DeNiro, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Deserves to win: Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
A fascinating race in which every nominee has previously won an Oscar, the repeat winner should be either DeNiro or Tommy Lee Jones from "Lincoln."
The mystique that used to surround DeNiro is long gone, worn away by lazy performances in far too many mediocre movies, but he brings dimension to his superstitious, prickly Browns fan and judgmental dad. The cantankerous Jones was well cast as the ornery, eloquent abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln" and voters may go with Jones just to hear his nasty, dismissive acceptance speech.
Quentin Tarantino ensemble player Waltz won a best supporting actor Oscar for his glib Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds" and he is equally deserving for his charismatic, hyper-articulate and ultimately moral bounty hunter in "Django Unchained."
Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"
Deserves to win: Amy Adams, "The Master"
Hathaway's tragic Fantine dies early in "Les Miserables," (oops spoiler alert!) but she gets to do a weepy death scene and, even more significantly, the actress' emotional rendering of "I Dreamed a Dream" in one up-close take, while a stunt, is the kind of stunt that wins awards. If Hathaway doesn't take the Oscar it will go to Sally Field for bringing Mary Todd Lincoln to life in all of her scheming, vituperative and despairing glory.
Joaquin Phoenix (best actor nomination) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (best supporting actor) had the showy roles in "The Master," but Adams brought to life the most interesting character, the quietly supportive wife of Hoffman's cult leader who emerges as the power behind the throne.