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How Oscar's Best Picture Race Is Shaping Up

Colin Firth
Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company
"The King's Speech" has gotten the royal treatment on many critics' lists.

If Hollywood’s awards season were conducted like a starrier version of American Idol, we’re near the moment when Ryan Seacrest would step to the front of the stage — the surviving contestants arrayed in a giddily excited line behind him — to announce, “America, meet your new top 10.”

Ten, of course, became the magic number last year when the Academy decided to broaden the field, taking a cue from a practice it abandoned during the 1940s, by nominating 10 movies for best picture.

The first trophy presentations are looming on the horizon: First come the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics’ Choice Awards and then the Golden Globe Awards. By the time the Academy Award nominations are unveiled Jan. 25, the crucial top 10 question will be answered.

But in the meantime, as the race tightens, it’s already clear which movies have moved into the inner circle, which are hanging onto the outer rings and, like a game of musical chairs, which are circling the group, waiting for an open chair they can grab when the music stops.

Right now, one group of films — The King’s Speech, The Social Network, True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter and The Kids Are All Right — is sitting pretty.

Megahits Toy Story 3 and Inception appear ensured of best picture nominations, but both are considered long shots to win.

A couple of other pics — 127 Hours and The Town — have muscled their way into the conversation. And a fourth group, which encompasses such critically applauded features as Winter’s Bone, Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole and Another Year, is nervously hanging around  the edges.

Since Labor Day weekend, when the rousing British drama King’s Speech debuted to a standing ovation at the Telluride Film Festival, handicappers have declared it a best picture front-runner. Then when the brainy Social Network opened the New York Film Festival later in September, a two-picture contest began to emerge.

At least that’s the way it began shaping up within the fevered world of Oscar bloggers. Whether the tiny, awards-obsessed blogosphere influences the race or merely reflects it is a question for another day, but it did help script one of this season’s running story lines: The Social Network-King’s Speech contest became a struggle between the head and the heart.

Citing its lean direction, sharp writing, deeply felt performances and distinctive score, Awards Daily’s Sasha Stone, a big Social booster, has written: “Whether it’s an ‘Academy movie’ or not is beside the point, really. Excellence in filmmaking should be lauded.”

But Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger, who has been stalwartly carrying the banner proclaiming Speech the eventual winner, has countered, “I keep hearing from many Academy members who absolutely adore The King’s Speech.”

Lay all of the run-up nominations out on a homemade spreadsheet, though, and it’s not so much a two-pic race. At the very least, it’s more of a three-way, with Black Swan — which many predicted would divide audiences with its frenzied plunge into madness — showing surprisingly consistent strength.

Set aside the critics awards for a moment, with the exception of the broadbased BFCA, which usually marches in sync with the Academy. Tally up Globe best pic and SAG ensemble noms. Add in the noms that have been recently announced by the producers and writers guilds. Add those from the Art Directors Guild and the sound mixers at the Cinema Audio Society. And toss in the 10 U.S. movies judged the year’s best by the American Film Institute.

That gives you a field of eight organizations, and among them, Social and Swan have run the board, securing nominations from all eight.

Close behind, Fighter, a dysfunctional-family tale disguised as a sports drama, and Inception, the high-tech Rubik’s Cube that triumphed at the summer box office, each notched seven mentions. Fighter beat its competitors when the SAG noms were unveiled — earning an ensemble nom as well as individual citations for Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams — and came up short only with the CAS. Inception, on the other hand, didn’t earn any love from SAG but has been solid in the technical categories while earning the PGA and the WGA’s attention.

Next in line is True Grit, which started slow. It was ignored by the Globes, and though it copped individual noms from SAG for reliable old pro Jeff Bridges and impressive newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, it didn’t ride home with an ensemble nomination, which serves as an approximation of a best picture nom. But the reimagined Western, which didn’t hit theaters until Dec. 22, has unexpectedly shot up the box office and has been on a nominations tear ever since.

The next group of contenders — Speech, 127 Hours, Town and Kids — are all clumped together with five mentions each. But here, a number of caveats are in order.

Speech would have placed higher if it weren’t so very British. Because it didn’t film under a WGA contract, or that of an affiliated union, it was disqualified from the WGA heat. Similarly, because it was not a U.S. production, it didn’t qualify for the AFI list, though the AFI jury went out of its way to reward the film with a special citation.

Kids, an alternative family dramedy, didn’t figure in the ADG or CAS voting, and the BFCA didn’t include it among its list of 10 best pic nominees — though it did give the film a nomination for its ensemble. So for the moment, its spot looks secure.

127 Hours got three Globe noms but not for best drama. and though SAG nominated its star James Franco, it didn’t include the movie among its best ensembles. Then again, the film essentially focuses on a cast of one.

At both the Globes and SAG, Ben Affleck’s Beantown crime caper Town was represented only by nominations for supporting actor Jeremy Renner. But since those first two runoffs, it has shown more momentum.

If any movies are to fall out of the current top 10, Hours and Town probably are the most vulnerable. True, in this accounting, the popular animated hit Toy Story 3 appears on only three lists, but that’s because as a toon, it isn’t eligible in several contests or was relegated to an animation category — given that the Academy welcomed fellow Pixar entry Up into its 10-pack last year, there’s every reason to believe Toy 3 will follow suit.

That makes the situation precarious for a number of  highly regarded features, which could find themselves without a best picture seat at the Oscar party.

Along with Kids, the backwoods drama Winter’s Bone led the list when Film Independent’s Spirit Award noms were announced in December; it also picked up three trophies at New York’s equally indie Gotham Awards and a best pic nom from the BFCA, but it could breathe more comfortably had it picked up a few more credentials. It may have to settle for being the belle of the ball at the Oscar-eve Spirit Awards.

Come Oscar nom morning, Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole and Another Year certainly could figure in the acting categories. Year’s Lesley Manville, proclaimed best actress by the National Board of Review, visited Hollywood in December to raise her profile. Valentine’s Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams earned Globe noms; Rabbit’s Nicole Kidman was hailed by the Globes and SAG.  Hours and Rabbit also appear to be encountering some resistance Academy members who are leery of watching an amputation or facing the question of the death of a child.

But whether one or two of those movies can overtake any of the 10 films that currently command the best picture Oscar field — well, that’s a question that won’t be answered for several weeks.