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As Oscar ballots go out, where does best picture race stand?

December 28, 2011 |  4:07 pm

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard in Midnight in Paris
What screener goes best with eggnog and leftover Christmas cookies? That’s the question academy members have been asking their families -- and each other -- while scanning the stacks of DVDs the studios have been sending them over the last several weeks.

Since (nearly) everyone’s home for the holidays and nomination ballots went out Tuesday, let’s run down the leading best picture candidates and see how they're faring as we ring out the old and ring in the new.

“The Artist”: Nomination locked. Now up to Harvey Weinstein and his awards minions to convince voters that it has enough substance to deserve a win.

“The Descendants”: It’s in, but Fox Searchlight needs to find a way to jump start interest in the film after the nominations are announced. The huge push now is to somehow land the movie a below-the-line nomination or two, particularly in the editing category. It might be a losing battle.

“The Help”: A sleeping giant. Figures to clean up at the SAG Awards with wins in drama ensemble and perhaps for actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

“War Horse”: DreamWorks has been smartly targeting older academy voters, trotting out a huge pull-quote from roughly 186-year-old film critic Rex Reed in advertisements and playing up the film’s nods to the great John Ford. Its solid crafts work should deliver five below-the-line nominations, provided voters can relieve the ringing in their ears from John Williams’ score. And if the box-office receipts are huge, watch out.

“Midnight in Paris”: “The screener,” as one academy member puts it, “that everyone can agree on this holiday season.”

“Hugo”: Ben Kingsley’s Georges Méliès character arc moistens academy members’ eyes with as much precision as anything in “War Horse” or “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and, arguably, in a much more honest fashion. As with “The Descendants,” its handlers need to keep it in the conversation. A Kingsley nomination would help.

“The Tree of Life”: A screener that, for many, goes the eject route right about the time the dinosaurs trample through the forest. The question remains the same: Do enough academy members love the film to put it at the top of their ballots?

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”: Not that Oscar voters necessarily care, but the reviews have been brutal. Again: Not just bad. Brutal. A bigger issue, though, lies with the child actor. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy writes that “Thomas Horn gives an exceptional, natural performance.” But one academy member compared that “natural” performance to “having a child kick your airline seat nonstop on a five-hour flight from New York to L.A.” Natural, yes, but also deeply annoying. Or as Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern put it: “The boy is so precocious, you want to strangle him.” That, folks, is a problem, one of many for this late-arriving contender.

“Moneyball” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”: Fine movies both. But neither has much traction in the best picture category, though as other contenders stumble, perhaps they can take some small comfort in this wisdom from Brad Pitt’s “Moneyball” general manager: “When your enemy’s making mistakes, don’t interrupt him.”

RELATED:

 Golden Globes: What do they mean for the Oscars?

-- Glenn Whipp

Photo: Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." Credit: Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics


 
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