It's an unexpected tale, full of curious developments and inside-Hollywood machinations, with a square-jawed leading man at its center.
The awards-season odyssey of "Argo," the Iran hostage drama with a Hollywood twist, includes Ben Affleck's glaring Oscar snub in the directing category, subsequent awards from other Hollywood awards bodies and the picture's current status as favorite for the best picture Academy Award.
History and conventional wisdom tell us that without a director nomination, "Argo" does not stand a chance at winning the best picture statue next Sunday. The last movie to win best picture without a directing nod was 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy," directed by Bruce Beresford.
But "Argo" is all about unlikely scenarios. The film has swept the pre-Oscar film awards, winning the drama Golden Globe, British Academy Award, Producers Guild of America Award and Screen Actors Guild prize for best ensemble.
Affleck won best director prizes at the Golden Globes and British Academy Awards. He also was named best director by the Directors Guild of America, which is composed of many of the same people who make up the Academy's director branch that did not nominate him for an Oscar.
The DGA award seems nonsensical, but the long climb of "Argo" – the truth-based story of a CIA operative's plan to "exfiltrate" six Americans from Iran in 1979 via a moviemaking ruse – does make some sense.
Earlier in this awards season, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" looked destined to win it all. It carried the most impressive pedigree and the least controversy of the politically themed films released for Oscar contention – "Lincoln," "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Django Unchained."
The straightforward approach of "Lincoln" and its focus on the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery – an inarguably positive development in U.S. history – would seem to hit just the right spot. Its field-leading 12 Oscar nods bear this out.
But "Argo" has a rip-roarer of third act. "Lincoln" has too many endings. As much as awards voters like "Lincoln," they like films with clear arcs and endings more. Voters also like movies about show business, from "All About Eve" to "The Artist."
So "Argo" goes into Oscar night the favorite. Will it take home the big prize? Read on to get my predictions in key categories at the 85th Academy Awards, which will be broadcast at 5:30 p.m. next Sunday on Channel 10.
Each category contains a "will win" entry picking the winner based on pre-Oscar awards, rankings by other prognosticators and gut feelings. There's also a "should win" entry based purely on quality (and whether someone appears in "The Master").
(Next week's day-of-show Arts & Entertainment section will offer an Oscar ballot with every category, a primer on "Zero Dark Thirty" star Jessica Chastain, the best-actress nominee who once trod Sacramento stages, and a feature about how four nominees could pull off rare feats on Oscar night and other amazing numbers-based facts regarding Oscar history.)
Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"
Quvenzhané Wallis, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"
WILL WIN: Lawrence. Her depressed-widow character is lovable, unpredictable (in a good way) and complex, even if Lawrence, a still- cherubic 22, looks too young for the role.
Lawrence also has been delightful during appearances at podiums and in magazines during the run-up to the Oscars. She is fresh and uncensored – qualities that leave a good impression in Oscar voters' minds.
Chastain, who is Lawrence's closest rival, also is amiable but plays it closer to the vest in her public appearances. Chastain also lost traction as "Zero Dark Thirty," which follows the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, lost steam in the awards race. Though director Kathryn Bigelow, like Affleck, was unfairly denied an Oscar nomination, her film did not rebound with subsequent awards as "Argo" has.
SHOULD WIN: Rachel Weisz, "Deep Blue Sea." Weisz picked up the best-actress prize from the New York film critics and a Golden Globe nomination but did not score an Oscar nomination for her daring, electric performance in "Sea," a 1950s-set British melodrama.
Her character leaves her perfectly nice husband for a charming layabout, knowing full well she's on a path to self-destruction. But the girl, or rather the 40-year-old woman, can't help it. Weisz, radiating intelligence and revived sexuality, shows how much she doesn't want to help it, and dips far enough into degradation to inspire sympathy as well as a desire to scold.
Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
Hugh Jackman, "Les Misérables"
Joaquin Phoenix, "The Master"
Denzel Washington, "Flight"
WILL WIN:Day-Lewis. He immerses himself, DDL style, in a Lincoln who is principled but wily in pursuing those principles. He spins yarns and disarms until pushed, when he grows steely. He's the 16th president as we wish he really was. And in the absence of video of the real Lincoln, we can easily go with this version.
SHOULD WIN: Day-Lewis. Or Phoenix, whose alcoholic, pleasure-seeking World War II veteran embodies the human struggle between animalistic and spiritual urges. Or Cooper, pained and magnetic as a bipolar man intent on reuniting with his estranged wife and keeping an upbeat outlook.
It was a banner year for male leads, and a victory by anyone in this category would be well-deserved.
Amy Adams, "The Master"
Sally Field, "Lincoln"
Anne Hathaway, "Les Misérables"
Helen Hunt, "The Sessions"
Jacki Weaver, "Silver Linings Playbook"
WILL WIN: Hathaway. She's swept the earlier awards and looks like a sure thing to win for her short yet stunning performance as doomed factory worker Fantine in "Les Misérables."
Hathaway gets points for being the movie's only top-line cast member to hit all her musical notes.
SHOULD WIN: Hathaway. But if she subjects her close rival Field to another showy display of humility, as she did at the Globes and SAG awards, I take it back.
Alan Arkin, "Argo"
Robert De Niro, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"
Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"
Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
WILL WIN: De Niro. This category, in which every nominee already has won at least one Oscar, actually offers a true race. De Niro is neck and neck with Tommy Lee Jones, who is uncharacteristically impassioned as abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln."
Christoph Waltz, whose charismatic bounty hunter fights slavery in smaller ways in the antebellum revenge drama "Django," also is a favorite in some quarters.
De Niro will pull it out on sentiment. Achingly real as an obsessive-compulsive football fan and worried father in "Playbook," he reminds us of the great talent within the actor who has coasted for so long on "Fockers" and "Analyze" roles that traded on his persona.
SHOULD WIN: Hoffman. He's the other side of Phoenix's coin as a deep-thinking cult leader who sees himself in his feral new charge and believes he can save him and quiet his own demons in the process. Hoffman moves from kind and welcoming to firm and demanding, like all master manipulators.
"Amour," Michael Haneke
"Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino
"Flight," John Gatins
"Moonrise Kingdom," Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
"Zero Dark Thirty," Mark Boal
WILL WIN:Haneke, "Amour." Veteran Austrian filmmaker Haneke's ("Cache") intimate portrait of a long-married couple tested by age and illness plays as unvarnished, difficult truth. The Academy will want to reward this French-language film, nominated for five Oscars, here as well as in the foreign-language category.
SHOULD WIN: Boal, "Zero Dark Thirty." Boal used some shoe leather researching "Zero," interviewing people directly involved in the search for bin Laden. His resulting script maintains tension without agenda, and shows the victories and the moral costs attached to one of the most crucial moments in U.S. history.
"Argo," Chris Terrio
"Beasts of the Southern Wild," Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi," David Magee
"Lincoln," Tony Kushner
"Silver Linings Playbook," David O. Russell
WILL WIN: Terrio. Kushner is a slight favorite here, because the playwright is always a favorite when he writes a movie script and because he had many players and much history to wrangle into "Lincoln." But Terrio wrote a more entertaining film and deserves credit for turning a true-ish but tall spy-caper tale that mixes Islamic fundamentalism and Hollywood mores yet always keeps a foot in reality.
SHOULD WIN: Terrio
"Amour," Michael Haneke
"Beasts of the Southern Wild," Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi," Ang Lee
"Lincoln," Steven Spielberg
"Silver Linings Playbook," David O. Russell
WILL WIN:Spielberg. Affleck's and Bigelow's omissions from this category eliminated his main competition. Spielberg has won two directing Academy Awards already ("Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan"), but there's a feeling, as there was last year with Meryl Streep, that two Oscars is not enough for a living legend.
SHOULD WIN: Lee. He made a wondrous film, judiciously using 3-D to add depth and scope to the visual splendor of a stranded Indian boy's mid-sea survival adventure with a Bengal tiger. Lee also deserves credit for directing teenage acting newcomer Suraj Sharma to an intensely physical yet emotionally affecting lead performance.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
"Life of Pi"
"Silver Linings Playbook"
"Zero Dark Thirty"
WILL WIN: "Argo." Affleck's tightly paced, tension-filled movie works hard to earn its feel-good status. It also sheds light on one of the most fascinating episodes in the history of U.S. foreign policy.
SHOULD WIN: "Zero Dark Thirty." "Argo" and "Zero" share crisis-time Middle East settings and scripts rooted in truth. "Argo," in content and execution, feels like a Hollywood treatment. "Zero," tense and disquieting and less able to be mined for moments that make Americans proud, feels like a more authentic treatment.
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Which film will win the best picture Oscar at the Academy Awards next Sunday? "Lincoln"? "Life of Pi"? "Argo"? Who will claim the acting awards? Test your cinematic knowledge with The Bee's Red Carpet Movie Awards contest. Go to http://www.sacbee.com/entertainment and select your winners on our Oscars Poll before 4 p.m. on the big day. The person with the most correct picks wins four movie tickets and a grab bag of film-related prizes. Official rules are listed with the contest. Good luck.