Oscar watch: The 10 movies most likely to score Best Picture nominations

Get an early leg up on your Oscar pool with this comprehensive guide

The 84th annual Academy Awards don't air until February, but we're already in the thick of Oscar season, as Hollywood studios begin to make the case that their film deserves to take home the trophy for Best Picture. Some frontrunners have been in theaters for months; others have yet to be released. Which films are leading the Best Picture race? Here, a primer on 10 Best Picture hopefuls:

1. Zero Dark Thirty

Release date: Dec. 19

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton

Points for: Kathryn Bigelow's drama, which chronicles the hunt to catch and kill Osama bin Laden, got a major boost on Monday when the New York Critics Circle awarded it the top prizes for director, cinematography, and overall film. Bigelow's last collaboration with screenwriter Mark Boal — The Hurt Locker, which mined similar territory to thrilling effect — won Best Picture at the 2009 Academy Awards.

Points against: While Zero Dark Thirty has been universally praised by critics who have seen it, it may be a harder sell to audiences, who have largely shied away from Hollywood dramas about America's wars in the Middle East. And Osama bin Laden was killed less than two years ago, which may make some Americans who already have vivid memories of the news wonder why they need to see it play out on the big screen.

Overall chances: The Oscar race remains far too close to call, but if you have to make a bet right now, bet on Zero Dark Thirty.

2. Les Miserables

Release date: Dec. 25

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe

Points for: A star-studded musical set against the backdrop of France's revolutionary era? This couldn't be more of a classic Hollywood prestige picture. It doesn't hurt that early buzz has been very positive — or that director Tom Hooper earned both Best Picture and Best Director awards in 2011 for The King's Speech.

Points against: Chicago won Best Picture in 2003, and since then, Hollywood musicals have struggled to connect with critics and audiences alike, including similar adaptations of popular stage musicals like The Phantom of the Opera and Rent

Overall chances: Les Miserables seems poised to wow audiences and critics, and its Christmas Day release date is a huge vote of confidence from distributor Universal Pictures. It's a strong Best Picture contender.

3. Lincoln

Release date: Nov. 9

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones

Points for: Steven Spielberg's well-received biopic has been hailed as the best depiction of Abraham Lincoln ever released on film (even if he doesn't hunt any vampires). Two-time Academy Award winner Daniel-Day Lewis, who plays Lincoln, anchors a massive cast that includes fellow luminaries Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.

Points against: Day-Lewis' stunning performance as Honest Abe has so completely dominated the conversation about Lincoln that it threatens to overshadow the movie itself.

Overall chances: Lincoln is more likely to score trophies in the acting categories than in the Best Picture race, but Spielberg's biopic certainly shouldn't be counted out.

4. Silver Linings Playbook

Release date: Nov. 21

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

Points for: David O. Russell's sharp, quirky romantic comedy, which tells the story of a man who attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife after leaving a mental asylum, continues to pick up steam as it expands into more theaters across the United States. Silver Linings Playbook scored an early victory in September when it won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which has also gone to previous Oscar winners like The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire. 

Points against: Silver Linings Playbook is the lone comedy earning serious Oscar buzz, which could make it look frivolous and slight when compared to the many serious-minded films vying for the award.

Overall chances: It's a serious contender — but certainly a dark horse. 

5. Argo

Release date: Oct. 12

Stars: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

Points for: Affleck continues his upward arc in Hollywood by directing and starring in this dramatization of an actual 1980 CIA mission to extract six Americans from revolutionary Iran by pretending to make a sci-fi film. With 95 percent positive reviews on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Argo is the best-reviewed movie of the currently released films on this list.

Points against: In the weeks following its release, Argo was criticized by some for the extensive liberties it takes with the true story on which it's based. And nearly two months after the film's release, the Oscar conversation has generally shifted away from Argo.

Overall chances: Argo is a bona fide hit, but Warner Bros. will need to mount an impressive campaign to ensure that it remains in the top tier.

6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Release date: Dec. 14

Stars: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage

Points for: The impending release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey marks the first of three new films set in Middle-Earth, which Peter Jackson first visited in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Fantasy fans are already in a frenzy, and Jackson's last adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's work, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, tied 1959's Ben-Hur and 1997's Titanic to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture — the most ever earned by a single film.

Points against: The Return of the King's dominance at the Oscars was widely interpreted as an unofficial hat tip to all three Lord of the Rings films, so the first Hobbit film is far less likely to receive the same accolades. And the sillier, younger-skewing Hobbit is a harder sell to the Academy than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Overall chances: A nomination isn't out of the question, but a win looks unlikely. Early reviews of The Hobbit have been generally admiring, but for the film to have a real chance, they'd need to be ecstatic.

7. The Master 

Release date: Sep. 14

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Points for: Director Paul Thomas Anderson's previous film, There Will Be Blood, ran neck-and-neck with eventual winner No Country For Old Men in 2007. The Master has earned a ton of hype, partly because of its implicit, widely reported critique of Scientology, and has earned strong reviews, particularly for Joaquin Phoenix's unhinged lead performance.

Points against: The Master may simply prove to be too dark and strange for the Academy, which tends to give its top prize to films that play a little closer to the mainstream. The buzz around The Master's release has largely faded since its September release, and Phoenix didn't help the film's chances when he called the Oscars "total, utter bullshit" in a much-publicized October interview.

Overall chances: It's a probable nominee, but don't bet on it taking home Best Picture.

8. Django Unchained 

Release date: Dec. 25

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio

Points for: Quentin Tarantino's follow-up to Inglourious Basterds applies the same revisionist history treatment to the pre-Civil War era, with Jamie Foxx's freed slave Django teaming up with Oscar-winning Basterds star Christoph Waltz. Though Tarantino has been nominated for Best Director and Best Picture twice, his only Oscar win came for the Pulp Fiction script in 1995, which has led some to argue that he's overdue for the Academy's top prize.

Points against: Tarantino's violent, pop-culture heavy films may not play as well with the Academy's voting body, which skews older than Tarantino's target audience. And like Basterds, which won its sole Oscar for Waltz's supporting performance as a Nazi villain, much of the buzz for Django surrounds Leonardo DiCaprio's against-type portrayal of a vindictive Southern slave owner, which may draw attention away from the film as a whole.

Overall chances: Django Unchained is a bit of a wild card since critics haven't seen it yet — but early buzz doesn't seem to herald a Best Picture win.

9. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Release date: June 27

Stars: Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly

Points for: Though Fox Searchlight's fantastical bayou-set drama came out way back in June, months ahead of any other serious Oscar contender, the well-received film has managed to stay in the Oscar conversation for the better part of the year. Both first-time director Benh Zeitlin and young star Quvenzhane Wallis have been showered with praise.

Points against: With so many Oscar contenders currently in theaters — and a few still left to be released — it may be difficult for a film released so long ago to remain a major part of the conversation.

Overall chances: It remains a dark horse, but it's worth keeping an eye on as the Oscar race heats up.

10. Life of Pi

Release date: Nov. 21

Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain

Points for: Life of Pi, which chronicles the voyage of a young man stuck in a lifeboat with a tiger, has been heralded by critics as an epic in the style of Hollywood's olden days, with a stunning visual palate that demands to be seen on the big screen.

Points against: Amid so many films that feature splashy performances by A-List actors, the subdued performances offered by Life of Pi's unknown cast may feel underwhelming to some Oscar voters. And the last time a film with a PG rating won Best Picture was in 1989, when Driving Miss Daisy took the top prize.

Overall chances: Life of Pi is a possible nominee, but its chances of actually taking Best Picture look pretty thin.


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