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For Your Consideration: The Oscar buzz begins
Look for 'Argo,' 'Zero Dark Thirty' among best picture contenders
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Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook." - photo by JoJo Whilden

Best actor contenders

  • Daniel Day-Lewis for “Lincoln”
  • Joaquin Phoenix for “The Master”
  • Bradley Cooper for “Silver Linings Playbook”
  • Hugh Jackman for “Les Misérables”
  • John Hawkes for “The Sessions”
  • Denzel Washington for “Flight”
  • Jack Black for “Bernie”

This week we begin our annual look at the movies likely to compete for best picture at the Oscars, as well as the actors who might take home a statue. Studios use the award season as low-cost publicity, so this series also serves as a winter preview since some of these films will hopefully make it to area theaters over the next month or two.

As always, certain films are almost guaranteed a nomination. But 2012 was a strong year for American movies (been a while since we could say that, eh?), and with the best picture category expanded to 10 nominees, the field becomes rather unpredictable given the number of quality films.

We’ll kick things off with two movies that are locks for a nomination. They also have a great deal in common.

Argo

Director and lead actor Ben Affleck’s political thriller seamlessly combines white-knuckle tension, heart-rending drama and comedy. The movie also wades into a potential political minefield yet emerges without so much as a flesh wound.

This story of a lone CIA agent spiriting six hostages out of Iran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis by posing as a Canadian film crew is based on history but is a largely unknown tale. It has a familiar backdrop but feels fresh.

The movie also walks the line between art and mass appeal. Other directors might have taken the production in a direction that would lose much of his or her audience, but Affleck has a good sense of how far he can go into historical detail and political posturing without either boring or alienating most viewers.

The result is a movie that plays like a hard-hitting drama much of the time but is ultimately a crowd pleaser. All of these are qualities Academy voters love.

“Argo” has already been nominated by the Golden Globes, is in the top 10 of virtually every film critic organization in the country, and has been named Movie of the Year by the American Film Institute. It will be nominated and is a strong contender to win.

Zero Dark Thirty

If there is an odds-on favorite to win the Oscar this year, though, it’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” garnered Best Picture and Best Director in 2010, and Bigelow brings the same authenticity, taut pacing and expert characterization to her telling of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Like Argo, “Zero Dark Thirty” focuses on recent U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but it’s a very different kind of film. This is an intense drama with only the occasional ironic chuckle.

Jessica Chastain commands the screen as her character, based on a real (anonymous) CIA agent, relentlessly tracks couriers and anyone else who might lead to bin Laden and fights with her superiors over the slow pace of the work.

If “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t win the Oscar, it will be for two reasons. The Academy rarely gives the award to highly controversial films, and this one might be too hot for them to endorse.

The film includes scenes of waterboarding and other types of ... ahem ... interrogation. CIA superiors, Sen. John McCain and others have condemned the movie’s depiction of American agents using torture. (Although the CIA stops short of blatantly denying it was used.) And some of the details in the movie’s account of the raid on bin Laden’s compound differ from official reports.

So though Bigelow focuses on the human drama of the story, this one comes with plenty of controversy.

The Academy also likes to spread the wealth, so to speak, and it may be too soon for Bigelow to win her second Oscar, though “Zero Dark Thirty” absolutely deserves it.

Watch for my full review of “Zero Dark Thirty” next week.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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