"Les Miserables" And "Zero Dark Thirty" Debut To Cries Of Oscar Gold

    Why two very different films are suddenly at the top of awards-watchers' lists.

    Last Friday night, the house lights had barely gone up at New York's Alice Tully Hall at the conclusion of Les Miserables’ first screening before the Internet was ablaze.

    Les Miserables wows at first screening, clearly headed for Oscars,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg. “It's 100% successful, absolutely great on every level,” screamed one “Lynn Stairmaster,” who had taken in the screening. “Les Miserables is the New Frontrunner for Best Picture,” declared The Daily Beast shortly after.

    By nightfall, a consensus was taking hold: Les Miserables — the film adaptation of the forever-running Broadway musical by The King’s Speech director Tom Hopper — had swept the field in one screening. After several confusing months that tried Oscar pundits' souls, as of Saturday the race was officially over.

    That is, until Sunday, when Kathryn Bigelow's bin Laden movie, Zero Dark Thirty, screened for the media in Los Angeles.

    "Great great Zero Dark Thirty. Great. Great. Great," was the instant reaction of Awards Daily pundit Sasha Stone. Oscar savant David Poland — himself not having yet caught the weekend's other biggie — tweeted, "Saw the prohibitive favorite to win Best Picture (and actress) tonight. Bring on Les Mis, the only potential roadblock."

    Of course, instant reviews from these Oscar-season media screenings must be taken with a few pounds of salt; the reactions at these events generally run the gamut from ecstasy to euphoria. Even so, the instant declarations of Oscar pay dirt were striking, given how tight the race already is.

    The last of the major anticipated contenders to be screened (less likely Oscar bait Django Unchained and The Hobbit are still in the wings), Les Mis and Zero Dark — both Oscar-winning directors' follow-ups — have jumped into a very crowded field. Two films — Lincoln and Argo — were already rated as heavy favorites in the pundits’ pools, while two others — Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook — are considered plausible dark horse candidates.

    At this point in the race, the predictors have usually coalesced around a single favorite. By December the vast majority of contenders have generally failed to live up to their promise, or become less interesting on second and third glances. By this date over the past four years, Slumdog Millionaire, Hurt Locker, The King's Speech, and The Artist had locked up their status as the likely favorites, and the capitulation of the would-be challengers was under way. But shockingly, this year a relatively large handful of films are maintaining their position at the center of Oscar talk.

    Les Mis and Zero Dark Thirty are each favorites partly because they represent two very different schools, both of which have seen success on Oscar night in recent years. Les Mis comes from the traditional prestige school of Hollywood filmmaking: big historical topics, sweeping camera work, heart-wrenching climaxes, lots of costumes, casts of thousands, and big-name respected stars (Les Mis features no less than two former Oscar hosts in Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman). Hooper's previous film The King's Speech comes from this school. Zero Dark, meanwhile, represents what has been the more dominant Oscar stream of late — films with edgier, more contemporary trappings than the Driving Miss Daisys of yore, fewer bigger stars hamming it up, heavier on the flashy directing than scenery-chewing thespians. Zero Dark fronts with no star bigger than Jessica Chastain in its ensemble. These films give Oscar the chance to show he can take off the tux and kick back with the kids. The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men are this school's exemplars.

    In most campaigns, gauging momentum tells you very little. But with Oscars, the bandwagon effect can change everything. Perpetually insecure about their opinions, Oscar voters like most of all to stand with a winner. Once the sense forms that one film has it in the bag, the voters tend to move quickly in that direction.

    But Oscar commentators are a fickle bunch. Now, the favorites of just a few days ago are fading slightly and the race has reasserted itself into its previous confused state. On the Gold Derby charts, 11 pundits are predicting a Les Mis victory, Lincoln and Argo have five a piece, Zero Dark has two, and Silver Linings one. The momentum for the moment is still with the musical, but with a host of other still well-liked favorites on the field that can change by the hour. If Zero Dark cleans up in its opening weekend or Les Mis stumbles at the box office, there's plenty of room for the race to scramble itself up again.