Oscar buzz, at least for Best Picture, at least for people who really care, is kind of like the stock market. The studio sells and keeps pushing, the audience buys and keeps speculating, the analysts guess and flail and guess some more. Everybody wins until almost everybody loses, and at the end of a cycle, you look back and see what everyone got so worked up about. Consider this an earnings report of sorts for this year's never ending awards season, which, really, when you take a look back, began when we first saw Joaquin Phoenix and his Scientology sandcastle. That's when Hollywood pundits started placing their bets—long before they got excited about Lincoln, and then another kind of pundit altogether jilted Zero Dark Thirty, and then everyone seemed to get into Argo again. Of course, audiences went for the ride; here's a look at the home stretch, as we Googled the eventual nominees:
And here's the conventional wisdom, as it ebbed and flowed, all the way to the big show—even if it was, as Joaquin Phoenix said, "bullshit," and even if there never was a clear "winner," even if, by now, we're in for just a few surprises on Oscar night itself:
At the Sundance Film Festival Beasts of the Southern Wild (↑) makes a splash debut to rave reviews and a war among distributors. The New York Times's Manohla Dargis writes: "Nothing else at this year's festival came close to stirring up the excitement and sense of discovery generated by 'Beasts.'"
The Paul Thomas Anderson picture with potential Scientology undertones becomes the Paul Thomas Anderson picture with probably Scientology-like overtones as a trailer for The Master (↑) debuts online. It's interesting, if kind of befuddling—a good sign of things to come, and even better for early Oscar buzz.
Setting records in a grand total of four theaters on its first weekend, Beasts of the Southern Wild (↑) debuts, the reviews are fantastic, and the Daily Beast asks: "Could Summer Indie 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Nab Oscar?"
Even though it doesn't take the Golden Lion, early reviews out of the Venice Film Festival make a possible frontrunner out of for The Master (↔). But it has immediate competition from Argo (↑), which is looking good out of the gate in Toronto, and Silver Linings Playbook (↑), which claims the People's Choice Award at that festival. Kyle Buchanan at Vulture writes that Jennifer Lawrence, Ben Affleck, and Joaquin Phoenix are "are ruling Toronto with their widely lauded work," noting that with no clear Oscar front-runner already "the Toronto Film Festival's reputation as a major awards season launchpad seems more important than ever." Anna Karenina (↑) gets some love in Canada, too. And then the rest of the reviews for The Master (↓) don't know quite what to make of it. Lincoln (↑) is already making a stir and raising some eyebrows with Daniel Day-Lewis' not-what-we-thought-Lincoln-would-sound-like accent.
After it is enthusiastically received during a screening at the New York Film Festival, Lincoln (↑) comes on strong, and will receive sloppy kisses from 60 Minutes later in the month, even if some, like our Richard Lawson, wondered if something was the matter with it. Then things take a turn for the silly as Joaquin Phoenix renounces the Oscars, calling them "bullshit." Though there's talk that he "ruined" his Oscar chances, Entertainment Weekly's Anthony Breznican says the comments might actually help The Master (↓), which "was already fading in the Oscar race." Meanwhile, Argo (↑) keeps up the really strong reviews and holds steady at the box office. And you know what nobody ended up caring about? Cloud Atlas (↓), that's what. And The Sessions (↔), despite good reviews, stayed small.
Now things really get going. Lincoln (↑) arrives and the buzz is palpable. It does well at the box office—along with Life of Pi (↑), which is declared "now a best picture player" in an increasingly crowded field. Skyfall (↑) also premieres and starts generating some talk, especially in the best supporting actor category for Javier Bardem, even though it is a James Bond film. Silver Linings Playbook (↑) is being discussed as a possible surprise Oscar champion. Anna Karenina (↓) begins to get wind down its Oscar hype cycle earlier than expected with some stinky reviews upon arrival in theaters. All that said, by the end of the month, focus is already turning to Zero Dark Thirty (↑), which gets early raves, and Les Misérables (↑) as well.
As the month opens Zero Dark Thirty (↑) is getting a bunch of prizes from critics groups. It looks like it's about to take the race away from Argo (↓), which tackles similar themes. But soon enough waters begin to sour from outside Hollywood for Zero Dark Thirty (↓). Pundits begin criticizing it for its depiction of torture. Soon enough senators are getting involved and big Oscar glory is somehow slipping away. And there's talk that Django Unchained (↓) might not be up to par for Oscar. Lincoln (↑) cleans up in Golden Globe nominations, where Beasts of the Southern Wild (↓) gets shut out. Both Les Misérables (↑) and Django Unchained (↑) open on Christmas Day, and do well at the box office despite depressing and/or gruesome subject matter. While some are ditching Best Picture hopes for Les Misérables (↓), Anne Hathaway begins her steamrolling march to her little gold man. Things are looking unsettlingly quiet, despite the spectacle, for Life of Pi (↓). Meanwhile, the quiet underdog creeping into the race? That would be Amour (↑). The movie that's not even being discussed? That's The Hobbit (↓).
A true roller coaster of a month, with actual momentum sending Hollywood pundits to rethink their self-made conventional wisdom. The Oscar nominations come out with Lincoln (↑) and Life of Pi (↑) leading the way. Best Picture hopes for Skyfall (↓), once buoyed by a Producers Guild nomination, are dashed. More surprisingly, Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow are shut out, making it look like there may not be an easy path ahead for Zero Dark Thirty (↓) or Argo (↓) toward a Best Picture win—given that only three films have won that prize without a nomination for their director. Some wonder whether this means that Weinstein could pull a Shakespeare in Love for Silver Linings Playbook (↑), which pulls the rare feat of nominations in all four acting categories. But wait! The Golden Globes! While it might be true that Zero Dark Thirty (↓) now seems like a long shot for Best Picture, Argo (↑) wins the Best Drama. Then it wins the PGA and the SAG. And suddenly Affleck's movie is the frontrunner, leaving Lincoln (↓) looking sad.
Ben-mentum continues. Argo (↑) wins the BAFTA and the WGA award for adapted screenplay—indeed, its status as The One seems ever more secure. Lincoln (↓), once perhaps a Best Picture lock, is dogged by late-in-the-game accuracy challenges from a Connecticut congressman and Maureen Dowd. The awards are Sunday. What have we learned? Oscar pundits still matter. But somehow, real politicians like John McCain may have actually affected the landscape of the Academy Awards.