Contender Countdown: 24 hours till Oscar nominee voting deadline

Tomorrow, Friday Jan. 13, at 5 PM, it will be all over.  Well, sort of.  The first half of the Oscar season will be complete as the Academy’s mailbox will slam shut and no more nomination ballots will be accepted for the 84th Academy Awards.  And, in so doing, another strange awards season will start the final turn towards completion.  While many of the nominees seem secure in their standing there is an air of uncertainty over almost every category.  In fact, its been quite a long time since the feeling of upset was in the air after so many weeks of critics lists and precursor awards. 

Granted, much of the discomfort for publicists, filmmakers, studio heads and movie fans is how the Academy’s new 5% rule will work out.  Just in case you’ve missed it — and no doubt many Americans will be confused by the number of nominees announced — this year the number of best picture nominees is determined by the percentage of first place votes each film receives. There will be no more than 10 nominees and no less than five.  If a film doesn’t have at least 5% of the first place votes it is automatically disqualified from contention.  The Academy has 5,783 voting members this year and that means a movie needs at least 289 first place votes to qualify.  According to the Academy’s accountants, there has never been a year over the past decade where there were more than 9 films that reached that threshold.  Therefore, most consultants are expecting between 7-8 nominees, but prepared for the minimum of five.  Don’t get me started on the ridiculousness of this new rule when 10 nominees were working just fine, but it’s caused many sleepless nights for those movie players living in the 323 and 310 area codes.  So, who will make the cut?  I’m not making final predictions now, but recent guild snubs for “War Horse” are making some question whether it finds itself without the honor and long expected contenders such as “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Tree of Life” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” may find themselves out of the race completely.  With that in mind, however, let’s look at this pundit’s top 10 contender countdown before ballots are due.

1. “The Artist”

The frontrunner to win it all, but the box office has to pick up to seal the deal.  The industry will understand how hard it is to sell a silent film, but with this much acclaim it needs to do more than say, “The Hurt Locker’s” $17 million.  Right now its at $7 million and clearly slowing down.  Nominee lock, however.

2. “The Descendants”
Has a clear shot to upset “The Artist,” but needs major support from SAG and WGA.  If director Alexander Payne upsets at the DGA Awards or the cast wins best ensemble at SAG?  Watch out. Nominee lock.

3. “Hugo”
Oh, Hugo. I still don’t understand the love, but Marty is the new Clint.  Whatever he does critics and industry adore. No acting nominations severely hurt its chances for the best picture win, but its a nominee lock.

4. “The Help”
The feel-good card which is entertaining and features some fine performances, but really isn’t a well made film.  Incredibly hard to see it winning the big prize, but a nomination lock.

5. “Midnight in Paris”

Allen’s DGA and WGA nominations along with the films SAG nods provide it with guild support only “The Artist” and “The Descendants” already have.  However, Sony Classics don’t have the muscle behind this campaign as much as their competitors contenders.  Very hard to see them being able to turn on a full court press now for an upset win.  Nomination lock.

6. “Moneyball”
Another overrated player in a year of safe, safe, safe contenders (anyone else notice the trend?).  Solid, with enough fans that it should make the cut.  Likely nominee.

7. “War Horse”
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  Not one major guild nomination puts “Horse” on the periphery of a nomination.  If there were a guaranteed 10, it would be in.  At this point?  We might be stretching it to label it a likely nominee.

8. “Bridesmaids”
Just enough support from the guilds (WGA and SAG), just enough critical support (who knew it would make so many best of lists?) and increasing buzz categorizes Paul Feig’s blockbuster comedy as a possible nominee.

9. “The Tree of Life”

Ignored by the major guilds.  Barely lost best picture titles from the major critics groups, but a staple of this year’s top 10 lists. Terrence Malick pulled magic out of a hat when “The Thin Red Line” landed seven nominations in 1999, but that picture had a lot more critical and guild accolades.  Tough call.

10. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

The shocker of all shockers, how “Tattoo” can even be considered a candidate for best picture is startling, but director David Fincher’s DGA nomination and the films WGA best adapted screenplay nod (granted, in a field which found many Oscar players disqualified because of WGA rules) make a best picture nod a distinct possibility.  Still, incredibly hard to foresee though.  Tough call.

Major upset nomination players would include: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (should have released earlier in the year to allow for more repeat viewing), “Drive” (not the right campaign behind it), “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (a number of issues) and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2” (WB pushed the pedal, but the Academy sadly hasn’t bought it). 

That being said, there are important performances and categories Academy members should consider one more time before mailing their ballot or delivering it tomorrow.

Felicity Jones – Best Actress – “Like Crazy”

Yes, I’m a long time fan of the Sundance Jury Prize winner, but Jones is absolutely superb in this heartbreaking performance. Like Elizabeth Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the achievement has somehow gotten lost amongst the fall deluge (Although you could argue both movies would have performed better and found more room to breathe if released as counter programming in the summer).

J.C. Chandor – Best Original Screenplay – “Margin Call”

Not only is it a very strong screenplay that avoids the cliche Hollywood ending, but “Call” was on of the indie box office surprises of the year.  A nomination would be a huge recognition for the “Call” crew.

Kirsten Dunst – Best Actress – “Melancholia”
Boy, best actress is crowded field this year, but Dunst delivered a career turn in a performance that will be talked about for ages.  Will Lars Von Trier’s association really stop members for rewarding Dunst?

Gary Oldman – Best Actor – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
The idea that Oldman may make it into February without an Oscar nomination to his credit and after playing George Smiley in “Tailor” is almost unthinkable.  Look closer Academy.

Nicholas Winding Refn – Best Director – “Drive”
Was any film more the product of its director this year than “Drive”?  (O.K., maybe “Shame,” but there is no way the Academy is recognizing Steve McQueen there). 

Andy Serkis – Best Supporting Actor – “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
It’s a bold step Academy members, but rewarding Serkis for his remarkable work is rewarding an actor not a visual effects artist.  If you need any more convincing watch this.

And on a final note, if the animation branch is chicken enough to nominated “Cars 2” for best animated feature because they fear the wrath of Pixar and Academy board member (and the film’s director) John Lasseter, shame on you.  Don’t reward mediocrity when finer candidates are available.  ‘Nuff said.

Are you expecting any surprises on Oscar nomination Tuesday?  Share your thoughts below.

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