It's mid-December, and everybody's a winner, what with critics' prizes and best-ofs and award nominations being announced seemingly around the clock. Has any of this changed the best picture race? And how are the documentary and foreign-language categories shaping up? Let's take a look.
"Saving Mr. Banks"
"Inside Llewyn Davis"
Bubbling under: "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "Blue Jasmine," "August: Osage County," "Fruitvale Station," "Dallas Buyers Club," "All Is Lost," "Prisoners," "Enough Said"
Analysis: Golden Globes! SAG! L.A. Film Critics! Southwestern Indiana Film Lovers United! Every day brings a new round of nominees and winners and, as academy voters prepare to go into hibernation for the holidays, perhaps a small shuffling amid the stacks of DVD screeners. The sheer number of excellent contenders this year makes any kind of consensus impossible. As long as studios have some kind of victory to trumpet, a movie can remain in the conversation, which is why even a win from a nebulous group like the National Board of Review (to quote Paul Newman's Butch Cassidy: "Who are those guys?") can be meaningful.
"12 Years a Slave" remains the front-runner and will likely lead the field with the most nominations when the academy makes its announcement next month. Scoring three acting nods — Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o — will give it solid footing with the actors' branch, easily the largest bloc of voters. "Gravity" will have only Sandra Bullock in that fold, and "American Hustle," even with its standout cast, can solidly count only on Jennifer Lawrence to secure a nomination. (Amy Adams and Christian Bale face tougher challenges in the lead categories, while Bradley Cooper has a decent chance for supporting actor.)
Of course, movies can score a double-digit number of nominations and still not win anything. It happens all the time; just ask the Coens ("True Grit"), Steven Spielberg ("The Color Purple") or Martin Scorsese ("The Gangs of New York"). It's difficult to see that happening this year, though, and not just because "12 Years" is a great movie. (Though it is.) Unlike their counterparts in the television academy, Oscar voters believe in making statements. And to shut out a movie that offers a clear-eyed history lesson never before seen in film would be the wrong kind of statement, particularly after three consecutive years of honoring lighter fare. The pendulum has to swing sometime, doesn't it? Doesn't it?
"20 Feet From Stardom"
Bubbling under: "Tim's Vermeer," "God Loves Uganda," "Dirty Wars," "The Armstrong Lie," "The Crash Reel," "Cutie and the Boxer," "First Cousin Once Removed," "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington," "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," "Life According to Sam"
Analysis: The 15 shortlisted documentaries bear witness to a great year in nonfiction filmmaking, ranging from the haunting look at the way orca whales respond to captivity with "Blackfish" to the crowd-pleasing music movie "20 Feet From Stardom," which celebrates the backup singer's role in creating the soundtrack of our lives. Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell," a fearless investigation into the mysteries of her family life might be not just the year's best documentary but the movie of the year. Full of warmth and humor and impeccably constructed, it's the latest chapter from a filmmaker ("Away From Her," "Take This Waltz") who has become one of cinema's most accomplished storytellers. The other spots could come down to choosing between tough-minded critical favorites "The Act of Killing" and "The Square" and illusionist Teller's entertaining art investigation, "Tim's Vermeer."
"The Great Beauty"
Bubbling under: "Omar," "Bethlehem," "The Broken Circle Breakdown," "Ilo Ilo," "Child's Pose," "Neighboring Sounds," "The Grandmaster," "Gabrielle," "The Rocket," "Stalingrad"
Analysis: With a field of 76 submissions, there's likely going to be a surprise or two when the contenders are narrowed to nine finalists in mid-January. Asghar Farhadi's intricate drama "The Past" certainly seems a safe bet, given its strong reviews and the fact that Farhadi's last movie, "A Separation," won this prize two years ago. Festival crowd-pleaser "Wadjda," the first-ever Oscar submission from Saudi Arabia, has been celebrated as much for the circumstances behind its making (it's written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Mansour, in a nation where women aren't allowed to drive, much less make a movie) as for its considerable quality and should win a nomination. We also like the chances for Thomas Vinterberg's knotty Danish drama "The Hunt," which, like Paolo Sorrentino's gorgeous "The Great Beauty" and Wong Kar Wai's epic triumph of style "The Grandmaster," enjoyed high profiles in the United States.
Two possible shortlist surprises: Belgium's "The Broken Circle Breakdown," a heartbreaking relationship drama that recalls "Once" in its use of music, and the Brazilian entry, "Neighboring Sounds," a nightmarish portrait of paranoia that, yes, owing to its title, rewards a close listening.