Place your bets, ladies and gents. With the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globes and Producers Guild nominations in hand, the lineup for the 2013 Oscars tightens. But beware, there are no sure wagers. Until the academy's roster is announced Thursday morning, many tantalizing mysteries remain.
The number of best picture nominees could be five, 10 or somewhere in between, depending on how many first-place votes each title receives. There were 10 contenders in 2011, nine last year.
The acting categories are also fluky. There's the possibility of a youngest-ever best actress nominee (9-year-old New Orleans schoolgirl Quvenzhané Wallis as the bayou sprite of "Beasts of the Southern Wild") and an oldest nominee in the same category (85-year-old French screen legend Emmanuelle Riva in the stark drama "Amour"). We may have a best actor candidate who sings virtually every line (Hugh Jackman in "Les Misérables") and another who delivers his entire performance lying on his back (John Hawkes as an immobilized polio survivor in "The Sessions").
The best picture frontrunners fall between two poles: mainstream hits ("Argo," "Skyfall," "Lincoln," "Les Misérables") and trailblazers charging headlong into uncharted territory ("Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Life of Pi") with a few hybrid models falling in between ("Django Unchained," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Silver Linings Playbook"). My top 10 guesses for Oscar nominations, alphabetically:
"Argo" is a spy-movie crowd-pleaser about Hollywood, solidly directed by Ben Affleck, whose evolution from star to director is the sort of back story that industry types love. Having everybody's pal George Clooney as producer doesn't hurt, either. Reviewed Oct. 12.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the art-house movie everyone embraced last year, proof that a starvation budget and a singular vision can make an outsider-chic masterpiece. Reviewed July 13.
"Django Unchained" is Quentin Tarantino's most mature film yet, a stylistically flip, grisly yet morally serious slave revenge saga. True to the form of classical westerns yet infused with audacious, knowing wit, it lassoed audiences and critics alike. Reviewed Dec. 26.
"Les Misérables" is grandiose in scale and passion. Director Tom Hooper creates a you-are-there vitality no other musical can equal. It's an epic to warm the hearts of oldsters who love "Dr. Zhivago," "Gone With the Wind" and "Cabaret." Reviewed Dec. 26.
"Life of Pi" is sheer enchantment on-screen, the movie with the highest degree-of-difficulty in the lineup. One boy, one tiger, one boat, one transcendent odyssey that never loses its grip on verisimilitude. Reviewed Nov. 21.
"Lincoln" stands tall beside Steven Spielberg's best work. Following the political intrigue surrounding the end of slavery, it gives us an indelibly vivid sense of Lincoln, leader and man. Reviewed Nov. 16.
"Moonrise Kingdom" is Wes Anderson's sweetest, best constructed film, a pre-teen Romeo and Juliet yarn as seen from the vantage point of kids watching the adults around them behave like children. Anderson has proven that he has staying power and a deepening vision. Reviewed June 7.
"Silver Linings Playbook" is an offbeat heart-warmer about not so lovable kooks we fall in love with. Topping a dream cast, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence dazzle as lonely people who have almost resigned themselves to never being truly valued. Reviewed Nov. 20.
"Skyfall" is the best in the money-spinning 50-year-old James Bond series. With its Producers Guild nomination, who's to say it won't win for old time's sake? Reviewed Nov. 19.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is smart, ferociously powerful filmmaking, charting the turbulent decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Even though you know the outcome, the final 45-minute assault in Pakistan is an exercise in piano-wire tension.
In the best actor ranks, there's the searingly emotional Jackman in "Les Miz" and the dryly minimalist Hawkes in "The Sessions," a miraculous transformation by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president in "Lincoln" and Cooper's career-best performance in "Silver Linings." Other front-runners include Denzel Washington as a morally compromised, alcoholic airline pilot in "Flight" and Joaquin Phoenix as a hard-drinking religious cult member in "The Master."
Young miss Wallis' breakout performance in "Beasts" and Mme. Riva's turn in "Amour" seem to be guaranteed awards bait. Lawrence could get the second nomination of her career as the pushy, manipulative dream girl of "Silver Linings." Screen Actors Guild nominee Naomi Watts deserves consideration for her breathtaking portrait of a tsunami survivor in "The Impossible," and Jessica Chastain, as "Zero Dark Thirty's" grimly determined terrorist hunter, is a shoo-in. The longshot in the field would be Helen Mirren as the director's long-suffering wife in "Hitchcock." It's not a performance for the ages, but she plays a relatable figure to voters, and everyone adores her.
There's an overabundance of talent in every category, but only a lucky few can move on to the next round.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 • Follow on Twitter: @ColinCovert