Ben Affleck is the star and director of "Argo." (Keith Bernstein / Warner…)
With Oscar nominations arriving Thursday and Golden Globes given out next Sunday, the awards season is poised to emerge from its holiday dormancy. There'll be high-profile tributes at the Palm Springs and Santa Barbara film festivals, talk show appearances, a few more special screenings and enough hors d'oeuvres to keep shrimp farms thriving well into the new year.
Unlike last year, when "The Artist" emerged as the clear front-runner at the outset, this year's best picture race sports five strong contenders — "Argo," "Les Misérables," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty" — for the academy's highest honor. The field could go as high as 10, but these films have clearly established their best picture bona fides. The victor may well be the film that counters its opponents with a new wrinkle on the initial approach, making the necessary adjustments to counter the barbs opponents are throwing its way.
With that in mind, we spoke to Oscar consultants about this year's best picture field — what are the selling points so far and what modifications need to be made to the original game plans to take home the top prize.
The model: "The Departed"
The game plan: Do the Telluride-Toronto two-step and rack up ovations and ecstatic reviews at these early awards-season festivals. Emphasize Hollywood's role in the true story of the hostage liberation and the common ground between spies and showbiz types, brothers under the skin when it comes to pulling a con job. Note the absence of political messages and how skillfully the filmmakers — screenwriter Chris Terrio and director Ben Affleck — blend the story's dark humor and thriller elements. Patiently watch as other high-profile contenders come and go, content in your ability to appeal to voters' hearts and minds.
The counter: Sure, "Argo" works. It's a well-crafted throwback to those fine '70s thrillers like "Three Days of the Condor" and "Dog Day Afternoon." It's a rousing, suspenseful crowd-pleaser. Due respect. But in terms of filmmaking, it's a poor man's "Zero Dark Thirty." Just ask any critics group.
The adjustment: "Argo" is just as good as "Zero Dark Thirty" — without the troubling morality. Maybe it isn't your favorite movie of the year. But it's probably No. 2, right? And, deep down, you probably like it more than the movie you tell your friends is your No. 1 choice. So why not vote for your actual favorite and not the one that sounds like it should be?
The model: "Oliver!"
The game plan: Did anyone mention that the actors did all their singing live on set? (Is there anyone who doesn't know that by now?) Discuss the musical's circuitous route to the screen, how so many tried and failed to make a movie from the lavish show, underscoring the ambition of the project. Play up the contemporary relevance in this tale of have-nots rising up against the elites for their fair share of bread crusts. Then sit back and let those musical earworms burrow into people's brains, incapacitating all resistance.
The counter: "Les Miz" sports a 63 rating at review aggregator Metacritic. Even "Crash" had better reviews. And while the film plays OK when you're watching it with an audience (all that sniffling is contagious!), the screener viewing experience is markedly different, making director Tom Hooper's bizarre, canted camera angles, wacky compositional shifts in scale and all-consuming affinity for asymmetry all the more distracting. Sure, you can hear the people sing. But watching them do so here can also make you cringe.
The adjustment: Everyone learned from watching "Ratatouille" that critics don't have a heart. Think on this: When was the last time you saw people give a movie a standing ovation? Hooper will tell you that he has screened "Les Miz" all over the world, and no matter where he goes, he leaves puddles behind. Any movie can engage your mind. "Les Miz" bypasses your brain and goes straight to your heart. (OK, it takes a left turn at the tear ducts, but you get the idea.) And everyone wants the Oscars to better reflect popular taste, right? Right?
AWARDS: OSCAR WATCH 2013
The model: "Schindler's List"
The game plan: Daniel Day-Lewis is Abraham Lincoln. In a movie directed by Steven Spielberg. And written by Tony Kushner. Behold the glory. Thank us in the morning.
The counter: All can agree that there is much to admire in "Lincoln," but nobody really loves the movie. Where is the passion vote? Do you see a passion vote? We don't see a passion vote. Why? Well, how do we put this in a way that maintains respect for the historical accomplishments outlined in the film and yet still puts the point across? It's a little bit … dull. There. We said it. It runs too long, contains too many speeches and, at times, feels claustrophobic.