The most unpredictable Oscar race in modern history suddenly became very predictable this morning. Barring an unprecedented upset, the Oscar will go to... Steven Spielberg and Lincoln.
In past years, the shape of an Oscar race has tended to be a straight line upward for one film that gradually builds momentum and support starting in September, as the other contenders fall away by the January nominations. This year, however, the race has careened wildly from one favorite to the next, with Oscar voters flirting shamelessly with a number of contenders.
The biggest "snubs" coming out of this morning's announcement were the omissions of Argo's Ben Affleck and Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow from the Best Directing nominations. Of the two, however, the snub of Bigelow, a past Oscar winner, was the most surprising. In the film community, the response to Zero Dark has been rapturous. With a stratospheric Metacritc score of 95, it is the best reviewed film of the year. However, its depiction of the use of torture by CIA operatives seeking Osama Bin Laden has come under attack from some who accuse the film of glamorizing torture. (An accusation the filmmakers deny.)
Whatever the facts of the Zero Dark debate there is exactly zero precedent for films dealing with hot button contemporary issues to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Nothing like that has ever occurred. The strongest stances the Academy likes to take are about issues at a very safe remove — like the Holocaust, colonialism and slavery.
Which brings us to Lincoln. Widely well received, the film has remained in the top tier of contenders through all the race's ups and downs. Against it was the sense that historical costume dramas have not been in Oscar fashion for awhile, with the most recent trend favoring more genre-busting, indie-infused pieces like Slumdog Millionaire or No Country for Old Men. But despite its outward stodginess, Lincoln had a few big things going for it: It was anchored by a performance that is as near to a lock as anything on the boards this year with Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of Lincoln, with supporting nominations for Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field. Oscar also loves to bestow the big trophy as recognition for a filmmaker's larger body of work when he's failed to recognize the auteur for a long stretch. Spielberg has been perennially in the running for three decades now, but has lost out every time since he took the prize for Schindler's List 20 years ago. There may well be a feeling that he has earned another trophy for general recognition of services rendered.
The case for a Lincoln Best Picture nod grows stronger when you consider that no film has won Best Picture without its director being nominated for Best Director since Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. When the announcement was made, Zero Dark and Les Misérables were both among the nine Best Picture nominees, but neither of their directors received nods. While different branches decide different nominations and their choice can, in theory, be overruled by the larger Academy, that tends not to be what happens. The notion that the Academy would give the Best Picture prize to a film that it didn't consider one of the five best directed of the year is a real stretch.
For those anxious to keep the race alive a little bit longer, there is, however, one long shot possibility still on the field. If one major contender overperformed expectations today, it was Silver Linings Playbook. The movie did what has not been acheived since Reds in 1981, earning nominations in all four acting categories, as well as nods for Best Picture, Directing, Editing and Adapted Screenplay. At this weekend's Golden Globes, Silver Linings stands in the Musical/Comedy category against Les Misérables. If it can pull off an upset against the fading goliath and pick up some other smaller prizes in the coming weeks, including perhaps some Screen Actors Guild awards at the end of the month, it just possibly could become a late momentum comeback story, that just maybe, could unseat Mr. Lincoln himself.
But that, in all likelihood, would be far much too Hollywood an ending for the Academy to get behind.