Don't Peg an Oscar Frontrunner Yet - Haven't We Learned Anything?

September 17, 2013

Oscar Frontrunner

Almost without fail, when I get asked about the Oscar race, regardless of what point in the year it currently is, the questions always surround what's going to win Best Picture. Folks want to at least know what the frontrunner is, if not what film is definitely taking home the Academy Award next March. This year, I've mostly refused to play that game, and I'll tell you why - because of last year's Oscars. The way that race went should be evidence enough that no film is a frontrunner right now, even something as universally beloved as 12 Years a Slave. I'm right there with everyone else. Steve McQueen's film is a tremendous film, easily one of the best of 2013 so far and a near lock for my personal Top Ten list at the end of the year.

Still, 12 Years a Slave hardly fits the MO of a standard issue Best Picture winner. You see, sometimes it's not about why the movie is so good, but why it might be a hard sell for the Academy to vote for in the end.

Look at Ben Affleck's Argo last year? Beyond being a great film (my favorite of 2012, actually), it had the benefit of not having anything really to hold it back in terms of content. Not everyone felt that it was a masterpiece, but almost no one found anything in it that would keep an Academy member from selecting it. I'll get into the way the race evolved last year shortly, but being easy to like and breezy to watch is often a winning formula for Best Picture.

In terms of 12 Years a Slave, besides containing some graphic violence, male nudity (a real sticking point for the Academy), and an often bleak tone, the film doesn't focus on a Caucasian overcoming adversity. It's not a nice thought, but it's the truth. The Academy rarely embraces African American centered films. Many have compared McQueen's movie to Schindler's List as a way to show how the flick can overcome its tough subject matter, and while there are certainly similarities (especially how Michael Fassbender could lose Best Supporting Actor like Ralph Fiennes did for being too evil), the latter film was about World War II, Oscar's favorite subject. They still have a hard time with non Quentin Tarantino depicted slavery.

Maybe the content won't be a problem (though I doubt that and remain skeptical of voters going against their own nature), but there's still the issue of last year showing us how foolish it is to declare the race over. There were so many twists and turns that it was easily one of the least predictable years on record. Argo won out in the end, but even a backer of the Ben Affleck film like myself didn't stick with it the whole time.

Once the precursor awards began, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty began cleaning up, leading some to move towards that, while of course a decently large bunch thought that Steven Spielberg's Lincoln would eventually win no matter what. While the former lost momentum due to political interference, the latter was emboldened when Affleck missed out on a Best Director nomination. Argo was done, right?

Folks thought the race would ultimately be between Ang Lee's Life of Pi, Lincoln, and David O. Russell's crowd pleasing Silver Linings Playbook. Then, a funny thing happened… Argo started winning just about every award left. Was it pity for Affleck? Was it the various guilds wanting to turn the race back towards Argo? Was it just the way things might go from now on due to changes in voting? Regardless, it signaled a new day where you really can't jump the gun on frontrunners and declare the race over, or at the very least shouldn't be making those kind of claims this early on.

As an Oscar prognosticator, I'm essentially paid to guess. That being said, I'm also sort of supposed to be a professional skeptic. I can vouch for how amazing McQueen's movie is, how tremendous the performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender are, and how it deserves tons of accolades, but I also have to try to poke holes in its Best Picture candidacy. Last year that was hard to do with Argo, but this year it's not so hard to do with this "frontrunner".

12 Years a Slave still could win Best Picture like Argo did (winning the Audience Award at Toronto is a big get for it and should help build momentum), but I can all but guarantee that it'll spend a portion of the season taking a back seat to a film that's easier for voters to digest. That's just almost always the name of the game. Could it be Russell's American Hustle? George Clooney's The Monuments Men? Something a little more surprising like Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? That all remains to be seen, but calling anything the frontrunner in September just sets folks up for disappointment as the months progress.

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Reader Feedback - 18 Comments


It definitely is a massive star-alignment math problem...but is also helps big time if there is no clear favorite- turn to the movies that were shot in and around Los Angeles and California....we have the highest percentage of Academy voters and Guild members...putting a lot of connected people to work on your film is a great way to get them to vote for you...see as well 'Crash' and 'The Artist'...and many other movies that were softly reviewed critically...but spent their money in LA.

Linkfx on Sep 17, 2013


That's a factor from time to time, yes...

Joey Magidson on Sep 19, 2013


I meant to write Argo in there, as well...mostly shot in LA. Obviously it's not a rule to vote by or follow...just something that is easier to examine in retrospect if it was a factor or not...when viewing the aftermath of the awards season.

Linkfx on Sep 19, 2013


It certainly doesn't hurt...

Joey Magidson on Sep 21, 2013


Well I thought "The Color Purple", and most recently "The Help", won best picture?I could be wrong, but more than anything, IMO , I think the Academy will not award best picture to a black director period! and I have a problem with that..this year, two of the most talked about films about race relations and oppression towards African Americans as in "12 Years and The Butler", are both directed by black men. If any year, a black director would have a chance to win best picture, I'd say it would be this year, but we all know how the Academy thinks...and I won't get into that argument.

rage72 on Sep 17, 2013


'The Color Purple' was nominated for 11 Oscars and didn't win anything, including Best Picture. (And Spielberg didn't even get a Best Director nom). And 'The Help' didn't win either, but had a Best Pic nomination.

whoa on Sep 17, 2013


I did say I could be wrong didn't I?

rage72 on Sep 17, 2013


wasn't trying to condescend.. was just letting you know.

whoa on Sep 18, 2013



Joey Magidson on Nov 8, 2013


I caught the sarcasm.

Joey Magidson on Nov 8, 2013


'12 Years a Slave' will get a crazy amount of nominations. Best Pic, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supp. Actor, Best Supp. Actress, Screenplay, Score, Editing... Who knows if it'll win though.

whoa on Sep 17, 2013


I fully expect it to be one of the most nominated films of the year, though it could wind up losing them all...

Joey Magidson on Sep 19, 2013


No! Let them keep proclaiming it a frontrunner! That way the real big dogs in the race can be seen as 'underdogs'! Lol!

thatpj on Sep 17, 2013


Well, there will inevitably be a backlash around Christmas, as is always the case for the "frontrunner"...

Joey Magidson on Sep 19, 2013


Yeah. Guessing this early is not reasonable. Just hype.

DAVIDPD on Sep 17, 2013


It's slowly evolving, but nothing is set in stone just yet...

Joey Magidson on Sep 19, 2013


Is there a front runner yet?

Kim on Nov 8, 2013


In certain categories, yes...but not everywhere.

Joey Magidson on Nov 8, 2013

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