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How Oscar's Wide-Open Best Picture Race Is Shaping Up

11:46 AM PST 12/16/2011 by Scott Feinberg
"The Descendants"

THR's Scott Feinberg names the frontrunners for the Academy Awards' top honor as well as a few wild cards.

At the Academy Awards, the highest honors a full-length live-action film can receive are the Oscars for best picture, best documentary feature and best foreign-language film. This year, unlike any other in recent memory, none of those categories has a clear front-runner, which makes them considerably more interesting to follow.

As dictated by a new voting system the Academy adopted this year, there will be five to 10 best picture nominees. I can say with a fair degree of confidence that I know what five of them will be: Michel Hazanavicius The Artist, Alexander Payne's The Descendants, Tate Taylor’s The Help, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. All received Golden Globe nominations for best motion picture in the musical/comedy or drama categories, with many of those films’ key actors and directors also receiving mentions.

PHOTOS: THR's 2011 Director Roundtable

Artist, a black-and-white silent film, sounds like something that should never have been greenlighted, but it has managed to charm and move even the most reluctant of moviegoers while playing nearly every stop on the festival circuit since Cannes, picking up audience awards all along the way.

The dramedy, set in late-1920s/early-1930s Hollywood, focuses on a silent-era matinee idol (Jean Dujardin) whose career rapidly declines after the advent of talkies, just as that of a young woman whom he literally bumped into and took under his wing (Berenice Bejo) begins to flourish. Oddly, it captures the current zeitgeist even more than most films set in the present by showing how technological advances coupled with an economic downturn can upend literally anyone, but that — with drive, determination and a little help from one’s friends (and animals) — a comeback is always possible.

PHOTOS: The Making of 'The Artist'

It was voted the year’s best film by the New York Film Critics Circle, nominated for the best ensemble SAG Award and nominated for best picture for the Critics’ Choice Awards (one of a field-leading eight noms) and Golden Globes (musical/comedy).

The Descendants, Payne’s first film since 2004’s Sideways, stars George Clooney as Matt, a scruffy, aloof, penny-pinching heir to a plot of pristine Hawaiian land now worth a fortune. Matt has grown emotionally distant from his family, but he is forced to change his ways and reevaluate his priorities when his wife suffers a traumatic injury that leaves her in a coma, his oldest daughter (Shailene Woodley) returns home from boarding school and he learns that his wife had been cheating on him at the time of her accident.

PHOTOS: The Making of 'The Descendants'

Although not a feel-good movie, it is not nearly the downer it could have been thanks to Payne and his co-writers’ witty script and first-rate performances from Clooney, Woodley and — in only a few minutes of screen time — Judy Greer as the other cheated-on spouse. It was voted the year’s best film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and has been nominated for best picture for the Critics’ Choice Awards (one of seven mentions from that group) and Golden Globes (drama), as well as the best ensemble SAG Award.

The Help, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Taylor, movingly recounts the story of a black maid (Viola Davis) in 1960s Mississippi -- not the most tolerant time or place -- who reluctantly agrees to be interviewed about her life by a young white woman (Emma Stone) who is much more open-minded than her family, friends and neighbors (except Jessica Chastain), and also to encourage her best friend (Octavia Spencer) and other acquaintances to do the same.

PHOTOS: How 'The Help' Was Cast

Released in August, the film was quite well-reviewed (it’s 75 percent fresh on RottenTomatoes.com) and made a fortune at the box office (nearly $200 million worldwide). Its ensemble was named the year’s best by the National Board of Review, and it has been nominated for the best ensemble SAG Award (one of a field-leading four nominations), the best picture Critics’ Choice Award (one of a field-leading eight noms) and the best picture Golden Globe (drama).

Hugo, a 3D family film, is unlike any other movie Scorsese has made, but it has quickly become just as revered as many -- and more profitable than most -- of his most celebrated. Adapted from an acclaimed novel by Brian Selznick, the film unfolds almost entirely within a bustling Paris train station, in the bowels of which lives a young orphan (Asa Butterfield) and in the heart of which works a toy-shop owner (Ben Kingsley) who menaces the boy but is -- in the film’s third and best act -- ultimately changed immensely by him.

PHOTOS: Martin Scorsese on Set

A loving ode to the early days of cinema and an impassioned plea for the preservation of old movies, Hugo was voted the year’s best film by the National Board of Review and has been nominated for the best picture Golden Globe (drama).

Globe nominee Midnight in Paris, Allen’s most critically and commercially successful film in years (it’s 93 percent fresh on RottenTomatoes.com and made more than $139 million worldwide), features a large ensemble cast led by Globe-nominated star Owen Wilson as Gil, a nervous writer obsessed with the past (think Allen himself).

PHOTOS: The Making of 'War Horse'

It humorously and poignantly illustrates — through a disbelief-suspending time-travel device reminiscent of the one used in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) — that the “good old days” (say, Paris during the 1920s or La Belle Epoque) about which people like Gil are so nostalgic weren’t necessarily all they’ve been cracked up to be, and that the real “golden age” might actually be the one in which we’re living. Midnight has been nominated for best picture for the Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globes (musical/comedy), as well as the best ensemble SAG Award.

As for the five other possible slots, I believe that three big studio adaptations of popular books stand a solid shot: Bennett Miller’s cerebral and Globe-nominated Moneyball, which stars Globe nominees Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill as baseball executives who adopt a revolutionary approach to the game; Steven Spielberg’s epic War Horse, also a Globe nominee, which features a large cast comprising primarily young and foreign actors; and Stephen Daldry’s tear-jerker Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which centers on a young boy (Thomas Horn) with Asperger-like behavior whose father (Tom Hanks) was killed on 9/11.

I’d also keep an eye on: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a meditation on the meaning of life that lacks a traditional narrative and has deeply divided audiences but has passionate industry backers and recently won the best feature Gotham Award; the political thriller The Ides of March, which was co-written and directed by Clooney, features an incredible cast and was nominated for the best picture Golden Globe (one of its four noms); Academy favorite Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, a biopic of the former FBI chief that has taken a lot of hits from critics but falls within the Academy’s historical wheelhouse; and, if you can believe it, the raunchy Globe-nominated comedy Bridesmaids, which has been nominated for the best ensemble Critics’ Choice Award and SAG Award and earned a spot on the AFI’s list of the year’s top 10 American films.

And finally, a few long shots: the neo-noir actioner Drive, the slow-burn British spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the second big-screen adaptation in three years of the hit novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the timely Wall Street drama Margin Call, the quirky indie Beginners and the franchise-closing blockbuster Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

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