Contender Countdown: Is this a ‘Departed’ or ‘Chicago’ type season?

As the annual Oscar season unfolds, there are a number of expected events that traditionally make or break a best picture winner.  These signposts usually indicate who is the frontrunner, who is gaining traction and who isn’t.

First off, Academy and industry reaction.  More than anything, the buzz on the street, er, holiday party circuit is a big indicator of where Oscar may shine its lights.

Secondly, there are the influential critics’ groups. The two most important are the Los Angeles Film Critic’s Association and the New York Films Critic’s Circle. A notch below is the “who are these people?” National Board of Review (the National Society of Film Critics doesn’t hurt although it’s unclear if they will announce before the nomination deadline this year).  Other orgs such as critics representing Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. are nice to put on a trade ad, but it’s the LAFCA and NYFCC choices that the media drives home and members usually remember the most.

Third, and this ties into no. 2 somewhat, is top 10 lists. For a member teetering on whether they should vote for it or not, nothing helps more than reminding them that 50, 75, 100 or even 200 critics named it to their top 10 list or even named it best picture of the year.  Perception is everything in Hollywood and while many members insist they vote with their hearts and experience, you can pressure them one way or another (that’s why studios spend a lot of money on consultants and advertising – they know it works to an extent).

Fourth, and this is somewhat obvious, is box office. It’s very hard to win best picture with sup par theatrical results.  In fact, last year’s winner “The Artist” and 2010’s winner “The Hurt Locker” are very rare examples of winners over the past 20 years that had grossed under $20 million by the time nominations were announced. Moreover, no one believes this trend will really hold if the field is truly competitive. Oh, and guess what? It looks like 2013 is just that.

Fifth is guild awards love. If you land major nominations from SAG, PGA, WGA and DGA you’re in pretty good standing. And if you win a bunch of them?  Well, you’re likely the winner.

When you look at these markers on Nov. 15 it doesn’t appear that any film will run the table with most of them (at least, not today).  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Master” are the assumed LAFCA and NYFCC favorites and the organizations could split their votes among the two pictures or surprise in a totally different direction.  “Argo,” “Les Miserables,” “Flight,” “Skyfall,” “Django Unchained” and “Silver Linings Playbook” should qualify with big box office. Whether “Life of Pi” or “Lincoln” will really play to broad audiences remains to be seen.  So far, the industry really doesn’t seem to favor one film over another. That’s not surprising at this juncture, but it’s worth noting many have been screening for weeks.

Taking this into account, it appears that the 2013 season could be a somewhat wide-open race for the actual win.  In 2003 it was a three-way fight with “Chicago” battling it out with Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and the up and comer “The Pianist” for the big prize (in fact, many still believe if there had been two more weeks of voting the latter would have won it all). In 2007, there were signs that “The Departed” could win, but “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Babel” and even “The Queen” were favored by many. Confusing matters was the fact star Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for another film, “Blood Diamond,” while it was generally believed his better work had been in “The Departed.”  “Sunshine” also surprised by winning the PGA Award and SAG ensemble instead of “Departed” making many question where the film’s guild support actually was. Of course, on Oscar night “The Departed’s” win made perfect sense after it took home editing, writing and directing honors, but no one thought that as they walked into the theater.

So, will a solid frontrunner finally reveal itself? If you ask many of my peers in the Gurus of Gold there really isn’t one at the moment. Our panel’s latest polling has “Argo” out in front with “Lincoln” gaining fast and “Silver Linings Playbook” not that far behind.  Moreover, “Life of Pi,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Les Miserables” all have at least one first place vote.  Will things settle down into a more conventional race over the next month or so?  Many pundits think so, but I’m not convinced yet. I’ve seen these tea leaves before.

With that in mind, here is the current contender countdown as this pundit sees it.

1. Argo
Should eventually cross the $100 million mark. Should be on many top 10 lists. Still the frontrunner until it isn’t.

2. Silver Linings Playbook

Really needs to shine at the box office over the next two weeks. Snagging best picture from the National Board of Review in a few weeks wouldn’t hurt either.

3. Lincoln
Hard to see it winning unless it becomes the critics groups’ favorite.

4. Les Miserables
We’ll know more next week when it begins screening. In terms of a best picture nod, is it this year’s ‘Chicago’ (great), ‘Sweeny Todd’ (not so good) or ‘Moulin Rouge’ (not bad)?

5. Life of Pi
Wildcard of epic proportions. Will need solid box office and a passionate fan base. For now, we’re assuming at least the latter is on target.

6. Flight

Possibly the one true surprise of the season. Strong box office and those who love, love.

7. The Impossible

Impressing with guilds. December’s stealth candidate.

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

On the cusp of making the field. If there is an indie – Sundance alum voting bloc it could use it.

9. The Master

It’s still in the conversation unless it misses out on LAFCA or NYFCC’s best picture honor.

10. Skyfall

Is this the film expanding the field to 10 was meant for?  Riding momentum and industry love now. Has to figure out how to maintain it through Jan. 3.

Waiting for their moment:

11. Zero Dark Thirty

We’ll know the last week of November.

12. Django Unchained
Um, we’ll know when it’s done. Maybe.

Do you think there is a real frontrunner this year or is the race wide open for the first time since 2007? Share your thoughts below.