As multiple critics groups dole out their best-ofs, and the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announce their nominations for the SAGs (on Wednesday) and the Golden Globes (on Thursday), we are starting to get a more solid sense of the 2012 best picture landscape.
At the moment, that landscape is dominated by Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the intense examination of the nearly decade-long attempt to capture Osama bin Laden.
In recent days, numerous organizations — including the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the Boston Society of Film Critics and, Monday, the Washington Area Film Critics Association (of which this writer is a member) — have all selected Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to “The Hurt Locker” as the best film of 2012. So did David Edelstein at New York Magazine, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post and Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly. (In the interest of offering dissenting views, it’s worth noting that the Los Angeles Film Critics chose “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s unflinching depiction of an aging married couple coping with illness, as its best picture.)
There is a temptation to assume that all this buzz means that “Zero Dark” has this year’s best picture race completely locked up. But as Salon points out while citing the statistical prowess of none other than Nate Silver, critical triumphs do not always leads to Oscar wins.
Potentially working against “Zero Dark Thirty”among voting members of the Academy: its emotional chilliness; its reminders of 9/11, which some may be tired of revisiting in cinema and just in general; and its overall nerviness. Oscar voters have a reputation for often playing it safe — for, say, selecting a fine film about a king with a speech impediment over an (arguably) more of-the-moment depiction of the rise of a petulant social media genius.
Potentially working in “Zero Dark’s” favor, however: the fact that it allows audiences to see, in a way that feels as if we’re actually part of Operation Neptune Spear, what happened the night Navy SEALs burst into a compound in Pakistan and captured the most wanted terrorist in the world. Oh, and the fact that the film as a whole is incredibly well made. Yes, the Academy often takes the road more comfortably traveled. But — again, as Salon notes — that didn’t stop voters from choosing “The Hurt Locker” over “Avatar” back in 2009, and honoring an equally intense work by Bigelow over a mega-blockbuster made by her ex-husband and one of the higher profile filmmakers in Hollywood.
In short: “Zero Dark Thirty” looks like the movie to beat right now, even though paying ticketgoers in select cities won’t see it until Dec. 21. But right now is still a long way from Feb. 24, the night of the Academy Awards. Like the momentum shifts that characterize most political campaigns — and, as Joaquin Phoenix recently reminded us, much about awards season is political — things could always change between now and then.