The start of the New Year always brings with it the usual bubbling anticipation in the film industry as to what movie will be crowned best picture at the Hollywood extravaganza that is the Academy Awards.
This year's ceremony, hosted on February 24 by Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, might seem a long way off but the nominations will be announced on 10 January, two weeks ahead of the usual date. Depending on how many times a film is chosen on the voters' ballots, anywhere from five to 10 films could be nominated for the golden statuette.
While the field is currently a lot wider than it has been in previous years, one thing is almost certain, and that is an American film will land the top prize.
Politically charged films
The last two ceremonies saw British movie The King's Speech and French film The Artist walk off with the best picture award, though it is easy to understand why tales of the British royal family and the early days of Hollywood would play well with academy voters.
There is little chance of a foreign film triumphing this time, with Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty the three films that currently lead the field. As President Barack Obama is set to start his second term in office later this month, it's interesting to note how the current favourites are all based on true stories of heroic American figures confronting issues of US policy both home and abroad.
Whilst Honest Abe's battle to abolish slavery in Lincoln is well-known; Argo and Zero Dark Thirty deal with the thornier foreign affairs issues of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The IB Times UK looks at why each of three current front-runners might triumph on the big night.
The third film directed by Ben Affleck, Argo is one of the red hot favourites leading the Oscar race at the moment.
Set during the Iranian revolution of 1979, Affleck also stars as the CIA agent Tony Mendez who must orchestrate an elaborate ploy to try and rescue the US diplomats trapped in Tehran.
Evoking old-school Spielberg, the movie has all the ingredients needed to win best picture; a tense thriller, acts of American heroism, a strained father-son relationship, and to top it all off its based on a true story.
Similar to Zero Dark Thirty, the film looks at America's strained relationship with the Middle East and the delicacy of foreign interventions in parts of the world hostile to the United States. The difficult exfiltration of the six escaped US hostages who are hiding at the Canadian embassy highlights the dire relations between America and Iran ever since the CIA-assisted Iranian coup d'état of 1953.
The prologue to Argo lays out such a context, though some commentators have criticised the film's depiction of the Middle East state. Jiam Ghomeshi in The Globe and Mail noted, "In Argo, somewhere amid the exciting escape of six sympathetic American victims, we are treated to hordes of hysterical, screaming, untrustworthy, irrational, bearded and lethal antagonists".
American academy voters will most likely ignore such criticisms and instead be enthralled by the film's affectionate look at how Hollywood helped in the crisis. In order to save the hostages, the fugitives pretend to be a Canadian film crew shooting a Star War-esque sci-fi flick in the Iranian desert.
Academy voters love comebacks as well, and seeing Affleck emerge from the 'Bennifer' years to win best picture would see the 40 year old come full circle, after his Hollywood career was kick-started by winning a writing Oscar with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting in 1997.
The latest from veteran filmmaker Steven Spielberg is certain to become his eighth film to be nominated for best picture, though to date Schindler's List is his only film to go on and win the award.
His long-gestating biopic of arguably the most revered American Abraham Lincoln has won praise for the performance by British actor Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States. Day-Lewis is likely to win the best actor Oscar for a record third time, after previously triumphing for his performances in My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood.
He's bolstered by Sally Field playing Lincoln's loving wife Mary, and Tommy Lee Jones as congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. Focusing on the President's efforts to have the abolishment of Slavery written into the United States constitution, American commentators have drawn parallels with the recent clashes between Obama and the US House of Representatives over avoiding the 'fiscal cliff' asking, "What would Lincoln do?"
The film, cleverly released after the US elections to avoid charges of partisanship, portrays not only the first Republican President as a noble and charismatic leader, but also a shrewd manipulator who realised how to reform the nation through political pragmatism. His Low-handed tactics and political vote-buying saw the passage of the 13th Amendment, and the eventual reconciliation of a nation that at the time could not have been more divided. As Joe Klein noted in Time, "Thanks to Spielberg, we're now reminded that a master politician always needs some grease to get the wheels turning".
Such topical comparison can only boost the film's chances of success, with the impassioned examination of one of America's most idolised individuals likely to wash down well with voters.
Zero Dark Thirty
The dark horse for the best picture prize, Zero Dark Thirty is Kathyrn Bigelow's follow-up to her 2009 academy award-winning film The Hurt Locker. Her latest is another thriller set in the Middle East, this time based on the decade-long manhunt to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden.
The film has sparked controversy in the states over its depiction of torture as a tool in the eventual discovery of Bin Laden. In The New York Times Frank Bruni called Zero Dark Thirty, "the political conundrum of the year," saying that the film suggests, "No waterboarding, no Bin Laden". Bigelow fired back at the critics when upon receiving the best picture and best director prizes for the film at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
"I thankfully want to say that I'm standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time," she said.
Aside from such controversy, the film can be compared to Argo in that it details the efforts of a maverick CIA agent going beyond the call of duty to serve her country. Based on a young woman working for the intelligence agency, Jessica Chastain's Maya is a gutsy and spirited officer who is relentless in her quest to find the leader of al-Qaeda. Chastain, who was nominated for best supporting actress last year for The Help, looks set to battle out with Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) for the best actress prize.
Discussions in the Oscar race are likely to turn towards the woman behind the camera as well. Bigelow made history at the 2009 awards when she became the first, and to date the only, woman to win best director. Sadly, she seems certain to be the only woman nominated this year.
Others in the running
There's no clear front-runner amongst the three at the moment, and a surprise choice could still be made between now and the ceremony in February. The other films almost certain to be nominated could not be more different; British musical Les Miserables, Quentin Tarantino's slavery western Django Unchained and manic-depressive romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook.
Art house filmmaker Ang Lee and Michael Haneke might find themselves nominated for Life of Pi and Amour respectively, whilst the two Andersons, Wes and Paul-Thomas, could find themselves on the shortlist with their features Moonrise Kingdom and The Master.
Whilst it's extremely unlikely that the two biggest films of last year, Marvel's The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, will be nominated, there remains a slim chance that the other film to make a billion at the box office in 2012, Skyfall, could become the first ever Bond film to be nominated for Best Picture.
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