There are moviegoers who still remember Steve McQueen's shocked and anguished cry at the tragic end of “The Sand Pebbles” — “What the hell happened?”
That's probably the question that shot through the befuddled minds of Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper and Quentin Tarantino when the films they helmed (“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Miserables,” “Django Unchained,” respectively) received best picture Oscar nominations while the filmmakers themselves all were snubbed for best director honors. (At least McQueen got the best actor nod way back when, even if he didn't win.)
But there are nine best pic contenders this year while the director category is still limited to five choices, which, by the way, would seem to weaken the old theory that only a movie with a nominated director has a good shot at the top prize. And while “Lincoln” leads the Academy Awards competition with 12 nominations, including best picture and best director (Steven Spielberg), there are strong indications of another in a series of “Argo” upsets. Could Honest Abe lose big the election? Here's how The Oklahoman's critics are calling this and the other Oscar races.
GENE SAYS: The prizewinning chances of the brilliant “Zero Dark Thirty” seem to have been irreparably damaged by politics surrounding the depiction of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But with “Argo,” we have a true story about movie people pulling off something heroic, helping the CIA spirit fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, and Hollywood loves to see itself look good up there on the screen. Besides, it appears that a lot of people want to right the wrong that was done to Ben Affleck by the voters in the directors' wing of the Academy. Spielberg's masterful “Lincoln” could be defeated, at least on this part of the ticket.
Should win: “Lincoln.”
Will win: “Argo.”
GEORGE SAYS: This year, the Oscar race seems to be dictated by the whims and rhythms of news cycles. At one point, “Zero Dark Thirty” looked like a lock to win best picture, but then questions of intent regarding the torture issue have sidelined the film's march to domination. And while “Lincoln” could still win as a work of uncommon gravitas and fine historical craft, the tide has turned in pre-Oscar awards to the extremely deserving “Argo.” The only factor that puts an “Argo” win in question is the lack of a best director nomination for Ben Affleck. This was a gross oversight on the academy's part, one that could potentially open the way for best director-nominated efforts such as “Lincoln” or “Silver Linings Playbook.”
Should and will win: “Argo.”
BRANDY SAYS: From the very day that Ben Affleck was denied an Academy Award nomination for best director, “Argo” has swept nearly every major awards show's equivalent of best picture. Film fans can expect the breathless fact-based adventure to ride that momentum right into Sunday's Academy Awards. “Lincoln” is the definition of classic Oscar bait, “Zero Dark Thirty” is the zeitgeist-capturing film that makes us take a less-than-comfortable look at our country and thus ourselves, but “Argo” deftly splits the difference with its still-timely political commentary coupled with its painstakingly recreated period drama. Plus, the only thing that Hollywood loves more than movies about movies saving the day — quite literally a major theme in “Argo” — is a great comeback story. It's hard to beat Affleck's turnaround tale as the multi-hyphenate young buck who broke out co-writing an Oscar-winning screenplay, floundered as a leading man and finally found his place behind the camera. While Kathryn Bigelow's immersive cinematic chronicle of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden spoke more insistently to me, it's hard to argue with all the accolades “Argo” has received.
Should win: “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Will win: “Argo.”
GENE SAYS: Daniel Day-Lewis worked his acting alchemy once again, transforming himself into the 16th president of the United States like no other actor before him, including Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey, bless 'em. This is where “Lincoln” should win a big one and Day-Lewis should become the first to win three career best actor Oscars. No one else in this category is as worthy.
Should and will win: Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln.”
GEORGE SAYS: Daniel Day-Lewis' odds of winning this year are roughly the same as the sun rising tomorrow. He richly deserves it: No other actor both fully embodied his character and forced a reassessment of how we perceive a beloved historical figure. Day-Lewis' portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is a work of genius and steely commitment. In any other year, I might throw it to Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook,” but who are we kidding?
Should and will win: Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln.”
BRANDY SAYS: Daniel Day-Lewis has been the overwhelming favorite since the first poster for “Lincoln” was unveiled. Already a two-time Oscar winner, the British thespian again stunningly immersed himself into a role, veritably transforming himself into the 16th president of the United States. Even his creative decision to change Lincoln's voice from the sonorous booms typically ascribed him on-screen to a more humbly high-pitched tone was so commandingly accomplished that it seems like that's the voice we were supposed to be hearing in the first place.
Should and will win: Daniel-Day Lewis, “Lincoln.”
GENE SAYS: Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, was the year's smallest miracle in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Emmanuelle Riva, 85, broke hearts in “Amour,” and Naomi Watts' portrayal of maternal might in the face of natural cataclysm in “The Impossible” would have been hard to beat in any other year, but all are overshadowed by Jennifer Lawrence's smart, needy, foul-mouthed young widow in “Silver Linings Playbook” and Jessica Chastain's driven, single-minded, strong-willed bin Laden hunter in “Zero Dark Thirty.” It's a hard-call contest between these two, although Lawrence may have an advantage with her “Hunger Games” success.
Should win: Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Will win: Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook.”
GEORGE SAYS: All nominees in this category deserve recognition, but the cold reality for Emmanuelle Riva, Quvenzhane Wallis and Naomi Watts is that this was always a two-woman race between Jessica Chastain for “Zero Dark Thirty” and Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook.” If Chastain does not win, it will be due to quasi-political circumstances that have nothing to do with her stunning work, and if recent buzz is any indication, this might be the case. What I constantly come back to is Lawrence's total command of her performance as young widow Tiffany, and how she stood out in a room full of great actors during the “parlay” scene — the kind of sequence that gets played during Oscar highlight reels for years. If anyone doubted before that Lawrence was the real thing, “Silver Linings Playbook” put the question to rest.
Should and will win: Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook.”
BRANDY SAYS: The award for the race with the most intrigue should go to this year's best actress category. While “Beasts of the Southern Wild” leading girl Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, the youngest thespian ever nominated for the honor, and “Amour” grand dame Emmanuelle Riva, 85, the oldest ever in the category, richly deserve their nods, they essentially cancel out each other. Naomi Watts heart-rendingly withstood a tsunami in “The Impossible,” but her fact-based drama didn't generate enough acclaim or box-office buzz for her to really contend for Academy Award glory. The race comes down to two of Hollywood's hardest working and most talented young leading ladies who are both on their second Oscar nominations: Jennifer Lawrence as a troubled and enigmatic widow in “Silver Linings Playbook” and Jessica Chastain as a driven CIA operative in “Zero Dark Thirty.” It's sure to be a close contest, but the deciding factor could and should be that Chastain had to almost single-handedly carry her film with her force-of-nature turn as a woman whose decade-long search for a terror mastermind transforms her into a walking, talking obsession.
AT A GLANCE
The 85th Academy Awards will air at 7 p.m. Sunday on ABC.