The Best Picture Contenders, Part 1

The first in a three-part series in which AwardsLine breaks down all nine of the best picture contenders. This article appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of AwardsLine.

Lincoln leads in Oscar nominations among every other film in contention with 12.


What the Academy says: 12 nominations (Picture: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg; Directing: Steven Spielberg; Lead Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis; Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones; Supporting Actress: Sally Field; Adapted Screenplay: Tony Kushner; Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski; Original Score: John Williams; Film Editing: Michael Kahn; Production Design: Rick Carter, Jim Erickson; Costume Design: Joanna Johnston; Sound Mixing: Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, Ronald Judkins)

What the public says: $168.0M domestic boxoffice; $14.5M international (as of Feb. 1)

What Pete Hammond says: From the announcement that Steven Spielberg was going to direct Lincoln, this one had the hallmarks of a film that defines what the Oscars are all about. The fact that it was not an easy road for the iconic director and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, only adds to the gravitas of the whole project. And with Daniel Day-Lewis scooping up best actor awards left and right—plus a sterling cast of supporting players led by nominees Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field—this one smells like a winner. With a leading 12 nominations, Lincoln is also in a good place statistically because usually it is a positive sign when a film lands the most nominations. In terms of ambition, scope, and achievement, Lincoln has been the one to beat all season long. Unfortunately, expected victories at some of the earlier awards shows, like the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Movie Awards, didn’t happen (although Bill Clinton’s ringing endorsement at the Globes couldn’t have hurt). Nevertheless, the guilds might bring it back full force. Or not. Still, if you had to design an Oscar movie from scratch, it would probably be this one.

What other awards say: 1 best dramatic actor Golden Globe for Daniel Day-Lewis; 3 CCMA wins for actor, adapted screenplay, and score; 10 BAFTA noms, including film, lead actor, supporting actor, and supporting actress; 2 SAG wins for lead actor Day-Lewis and supporting Tommy Lee Jones; and other guild noms from the DGA and WGA.

What the critics say: “This is politics as it is really played, yet few writers have found a way to make it as compelling as Kushner does here. That success owes in part to the extensive character-actor ensemble Spielberg and casting director Avy Kaufman have enlisted, repaying them with dramatic roles for not only Lincoln’s entire cabinet, but more than a dozen key allies and opponents of the 13th amendment.”—Peter Debruge, Variety

What the producer says: “What’s wonderful about Lincoln is that it’s a reflection of the political process, and it’s not an attempt to show which political party is better, rather recognize the scene of the political process,” Kathleen Kennedy says. “Nowadays, ‘politician’ has become a bad word, and politicians should be lauded because our political process works. You can see that the process is working. (In Lincoln), you recognize what the founding principles are behind this political process and how it defines us and how we get things done or shouldn’t get things done. That’s why politicians on either side, Democrats and Republicans, are going to see themselves in this—by talking to one another, stepping across the party lines and identifying what’s good for the country. That’s why they’re engaged in what this movie is about.”

What the filmmaker says: “I never saw it as a biopic. I sometimes refer to it as a Lincoln portrait, meaning that it was one painting out of many that could have been drawn over the years of the president’s life, but had I done the entire presidency, had I done his entire life, that would have qualified as a biopic. I don’t believe this is a biopic,” Spielberg explains.

Life of Pi deals with issues of faith and existence.
Life of Pi deals with issues of faith and existence.

Life of Pi

What the Academy says: 11 nominations (Picture: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark; Directing: Ang Lee; Adapted Screenplay: David Magee; Cinematography: Claudio Miranda; Film Editing: Tim Squyres; Sound Editing: Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton; Sound Mixing: Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Drew Kunin; Visual Effects: Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer, Donald Elliott; Original Score: Mychael Danna; Original Song: “Pi’s Lullaby,” music by Mychael Danna, lyrics by Bombay Jayashri; Production Design: David Gropman, Anna Pinnock)

What the public says: $104.0M domestic boxoffice; $421.3M international (as of Feb. 1)

What Pete Hammond says: Ang Lee’s ambitious adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestseller Life of Pi certainly seemed to resonate with the Academy. The book—an extraordinary story of a boy and a tiger fighting for survival while stranded at sea—was once thought unfilmable and went through several directors in the process until Lee finally cracked the code of how to bring to the screen. Even more impressive is the fact that none of the film’s 11 noms were for acting, making this, along with 2003’s big winner Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the most nominated film to do it without the help of the actors branch. This triumph immediately took Pi from the outer fringes of leading contenders and put it in a position to really go for it. “Slow and steady” is how one Fox publicist put it, and, just for the technical achievement alone, it can’t be counted out of the running, although its best chances are in the below-the-line area and possibly for Lee.

What other awards say: 9 BAFTA noms, including film, screenplay, and director; 2 CCMA wins for visual effects and cinematography; 1 Golden Globe for Mychael Danna’s score; plus guild nominations from DGA and WGA.

What the critics say: “The movie does for water and the sea what Lawrence of Arabia did for sand and desert, and one thinks of what Alfred Hitchcock, who used 3D so imaginatively in his 1954 film of Dial M for Murder, might have done on his wartime Lifeboat had he been given such technical facilities.”—Philip French, The Observer

What the producer says: “It’s in keeping with the kinds of movies that I personally am interested in making,” says Gil Netter. “Most of my movies are all positive, they hopefully are putting something good into the world, they’re about something, there is a spirituality available to people if they want to read that into the material. These are all important things in the films that I want to make. This movie stoked all those things in strong terms.”

What the filmmaker says: “3D is very daunting. You cannot trust anything people tell you, because it could be wrong, because it’s so new,” Lee explains. “And the audience hasn’t had a relationship with that yet. There’s no regulation, there’s no set of mind to watch it yet. People think, ‘Ah, it’s like tricks.’ I think it’s time that people show respect to the medium as an artistic form.”

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables.
Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables.

Les Misérables

What the Academy says:  8 nominations (Picture: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh; Lead Actor: Hugh Jackman; Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway; Production Design: Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson; Costume Design: Paco Delgado; Sound Mixing: Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson,  Simon Hayes; Makeup & Hairstyling: Lisa Westcott, Julie Dartnell; Original Song: “Suddenly,” music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, Alain Boublil)

What the public says: $138.7M domestic boxoffice; $175.7M international (as of Feb. 1)

What Pete Hammond says: Many thought this movie-musical adaptation of the long-running stage phenomenon would be the one to take it all based on the early ecstatic response to screenings over the Thanksgiving weekend and the fact that the cast sings live in the film. It is the kind of big-scale movie-musical that has won throughout Oscar history (though not in at least a decade), which added to the inevitability of a possible Les Mis triumph. But despite a nod from the DGA, the lack of a best director Oscar nomination for Tom Hooper and nothing from his native BAFTA dampened the film’s overall chances. Include the lack of a writing and editing nomination, and you have to go all the way back to 1931’s Grand Hotel to find a best picture winner that didn’t have at least one of those nominations. Its triumph at the Golden Globes certainly kept it in the race to fight another day, and its strong presence at PGA, SAG, and DGA was nothing to sneeze at, but a best picture win at this point has to be considered a long shot by conventional wisdom standards.

What other awards say: 3 Golden Globes for best musical/comedy film, best musical/comedy actor for Hugh Jackman, and a supporting actress trophy for Anne Hathaway; 4 SAG noms for ensemble, actor, supporting actress, and stunt ensemble; 1 CCMA for Hathaway; 9 BAFTA noms, including best film, best British film, plus noms for Jackman and Hathaway; and a supporting actress SAG Award for Hathaway.

What the critics say: “What helps make Les Misérables so vibrant and thrilling onscreen is Hooper’s daring decision to have his actors sing live. No mouthing the words to prerecorded songs. The actors wore earpieces to hear a piano give them tempo. A 70-piece orchestra was added later to bring out the beauty and thunder in the score, by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer. The risk pays off. The singing isn’t slick. It sometimes sounds raw and roughed-up, which is all to the good. It sure as hell brings out the best in the actors.”—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

What the producer says: “This was one of the hardest films we’ve done,” says Eric Fellner. “It’s a genre that’s challenging by its very nature—people aren’t used to going to see a musical in a movie theater. Also, no one has ever done a live musical from beginning to end with no prerecorded music. We also had to make sure that in adapting Les Misérables, we didn’t alienate fans, and (in) having the original team, we were able to keep all the original DNA intact.”

What the filmmaker says: “There’s a moment where Jean Valjean achieves a kind of happiness where he sees that he’s done his only job in this life, which is to look after his girl, Cosette,” Hooper told Deadline Hollywood’s Mike Fleming Jr. “The moment offers us this feeling that one can transcend death, that there’s a way of coping with it that makes it meaningful. There’s a way of dealing with that moment that we’re all going to face and that will actually be a beautiful end. There’s something in that which is the secret as to why the musical’s been such a phenomenon. And we’re lucky that this film is tapping into that old-fashioned word, catharsis. It takes you to that place of suffering in your life, in your head, whether it’s the suffering of yourself, or the suffering of others, or suffering to come, and it has a way of processing it, so that you actually feel better about it by the end of the story.”

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