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November 16, 2012 at 09:55 PM EST

It’s going to be a brutal battle to the finish this Oscar season.

Right now, at least four films have an even chance of claiming the Academy Award for best picture — Ben Affleck’s Argo, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook  — with a handful of challengers such as Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty, and Django Unchained coming soon.

Today we’re launching EW.com’s Prize Fighter, a new fixture that aims to be the movie-lover’s front-row ticket to the showdown.  Since this is the inaugural post, let’s do a little introduction and then dive into the state-of-the Best Picture race so far.

Prize Fighter’s mission statement is simple:  We’re still going to track who’s up and who’s down in the Oscar race, but the goal is to use Hollywood’s award season as a way to explore why these films are the best of  2012, and tell the stories of their storytellers.

To me, the question “What’s going to win Best Picture?” is more interesting than the eventual answer. Truth be told, I’ve never cared very much about who goes home with a trophy, but I love the Oscars and award season because it’s a fiesty winter-long conversation about the films that get under our skin, into our heads, and make our hearts pump a little faster.

A lot of writers at EW will be contributing to Prize Fighter (and we’re also going to highlight some of the best award-season reporting done by outsiders), but as the chief Oscar correspondent you’ll be hearing from me the most. That’s me, smile-squinting at you from the banner above. (Hi, Grandma!)

After the impeccable Dave Karger departed EW for Fandango, I’ve taken over the Oscar beat. Dave leaves big shoes to fill, and all I can do is try not to scuff them up. I’ve been covering movies for 12 years, and my tastes are as broad as they come: Sundance is my favorite movie marathon of the year, and my personal Top 10 is more likely to follow the Independent Spirit Awards than the Oscars, since I’ve got a thing for underdogs. But I’ve also got a serious cinematic sweet-tooth for big, crazy blockbusters. I can’t resist Marvel superheroes, Star Wars, James Bond movies, and anything with giant, killer robots or aliens. I don’t know if Transformers of the Southern Wild would be a good film, but I would pay money to find out.

My goal with EW’s Prize Fighter is not just to predict winners, though I am out there talking to voters at every opportunity, trying to get an accurate read on where the race stands. I’m eager to expand the awards season conversation at this point to include smaller movies that you should put on your must-see list before making your best-of list.

I also intend to look beyond just the celebrity categories to highlight the work of brilliant “below-the-line” artists – the costume designers, cinematographers, editors, and visual effects and sound supervisors who bring these stories to life. We’ll also be taking you behind the scenes of the Feb. 24 Academy Awards telecast, with Ted and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane hosting for the first time.

If all that interests you, please bookmark EW.com/PrizeFighter and check back with us for all our Oscar coverage.

Right now, here’s some intel on where the Best Picture race stands right now.

In past years, it seems like one movie has run away with the prize early. But this time, it’s shaping up to be a knock-down, drag-out.

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ARGO

We’re still almost a month-and-a-half away from the close of nominations on Jan. 3. Academy voters have seen a lot already and have a few heavy favorites, but some potential contenders haven’t even begun screening for them yet. (Reporters sometimes get to see rough cuts, but voters must wait for the finished product.)

Based on the voters I’ve talked to, it’s close to a four-way tie between Ben Affleck’s Iran rescue drama Argo, Ang Lee’s mystical Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and David O. Russell’s manic romance Silver Linings Playbook. (See here if you want a run-down of how votes are tallied. And check out Gurus O’ Gold and Gold Derby for aggregate rankings from others.)

If voting were held today I think it would go down like this. Again, it’s not my personal preference, but an estimation based on anecdotal sampling of voters. The safe thing would be to make this prediction now and stick with it for the long term, but voters seem to change their minds constantly. I think a lot could evolve, so I’m going to take a risk on an alternate scenario for how the final ranking could shake out. (More on that later.):

1. Argo

2. Lincoln

3. Silver Linings Playbook

4. Life of Pi

Both Argo and Silver Linings Playbook debuted in September at the Toronto International Film Festival to raves, but Argo has the advantage because it has already opened nationally to solid and enduring box office, is one of the best-reviewed wide releases of the year, and has been out long enough to build into  a consensus choice. It’s a safe bet, so if you ask voters to rank their favorites of the year, it’s usually the first one they say. “Solid” is the word I hear again and again from admiring Argo voters. Support for it could easily be the same, leading it straight to Best Picture victory.

But the downside to being such an early frontrunner is maintaining that momentum.

Argo is a sure-fire nominee, but Warner Bros. has to walk the line between maintaining its support and not wearing out its welcome. It’s easier for a film like The Artist to cling to front-runner status in a year when there isn’t a lot of major competition, but Argo will face an especially strong line-up of heavy-hitter challengers.

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SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Silver Linings Playbook opens in limited release today (expanding wider on Nov. 21), and also has rave reviews on its side, but it remains unclear whether the movie will be embraced by average moviegoers. This story of bi-polar Bradley Cooper’s offbeat romance with an equally unstable Jennifer Lawrence is smaller in scale than Argo and many of its rivals, but the Oscars love to make room for intimate films among the epics.

Those who have seen Silver Linings Playbook love it with the same frantic energy the movie emanates, and that’s a good thing. Radical passion endures. I know a number of voters who are slam-their-hands-on-the-tabletop certain that this movie will not only be nominated, but win. First, it absolutely must connect with moviegoers at the box office, and that is still a question mark.

Its limited debut this weekend will undoubtedly be strong, based on the word-of-mouth already out there, but it will need a solid nationwide expansion to catch the attention of Academy voters who aren’t already sold. If it tanks, or struggles, that fuels the naysayers, and there are just too many other crowdpleasers with equal acclaim that could roll over it.

That’s why I rank it at No. 3 below Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln. These super-sized rivals could divide voters and cancel each other out, clearing a path for Silver Linings, but it will need all the box office love it can get to help it along with popular support.

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LINCOLN

This is the biggest movie of the season, not in terms of budget but in sheer immensity of subject: President Abraham Lincoln’s last months in office, and his fight to pass a constitutional amendment eradicating slavery before the end of the Civil War.

Most Academy members are already enthralled, and that admiration is only going to grow if the film does steady box office over the next several weeks.

This is epic moviemaking on the scale of David Lean and John Ford, two of Spielberg’s idols, who painted with intense emotion on massive canvases to make the kind of films Academy voters of yesteryear adored. In recent years, the Oscars have shown a tendency to go small — Slumdog Millionaire, The Artist, The Hurt Locker — but they still love their epics.

Even some voters who have a stake in rival Best Picture contenders rave about Lincoln: “I loved it. Oh my God, Christmas came early,” said one. “Daniel-Day Lewis perfectly recreated the look and just made me believe. I can’t wait to see it again.” And this is from someone who wants it to lose.

Lincoln could be the only film this year with a real chance of sweeping the Oscars, but in years where there are many top-rate films vying for Oscar attention, the Academy has been known to spread out its awards.

Maybe a victory for clear front-runner Day-Lewis will be considered recognition enough by voters, who have a lot of other choices for Best Picture. Spielberg could find himself in the same position as Saving Private Ryan in 1999: winning for director, while the top prize goes to another film that’s equally worthy in the Academy’s eyes.

Tony Kushner’s script, built from a portion of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s historical best-seller Team of Rivals , is another sure-thing Oscar contender for adapted screenplay, and Tommy Lee Jones is at the top of his field for supporting actor, playing the fearsome abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, while Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln is a top choice for supporting actress. Add in likely nominations for production design, cinematography, editing, music, costumes, and make-up and you see what I mean: Lincoln is the biggest movie of the season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it claimed the most total nominations on Jan. 10.

But all of this makes it a very big target, too. Lincoln is the opposite of an underdog in every way, and Spielberg is like James Cameron: deeply admired within the industry, but facing a lot of pent-up jealousy, too.

Lincoln could be Titanic — winning best picture and director and almost every one of its nominated categories — or it could be Avatar, lots of nods, but few wins.

It needs to watch out for the movie about a kid, a boat, and a tiger.

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LIFE OF PI

For years, this was the book no one could film.

Three major directors tried and quit before Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon filmmaker Ang Lee stepped in to make this mystical story of survival, about a boy stranded at sea on a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger.

Even Academy members who say they were turned off by the somewhat touchy-feely trailer admit to coming out of this film in awe, and Lee’s single-handed efforts will make him a formidable Best Director contender. Not only does he fuse fantasy and reality (the photo-real tiger is almost entirely CG, as are most of the lost-at-sea settings), but he turns 3-D into a tool of emotion instead of just a gimmick, since how close or far away the boy is from things (his family’s sinking ship, the predator sitting at the other end of the boat) is the heart of the story.

Sharma does excellent work, but isn’t likely to break into an especially jammed Best Actor field this year. The character of Pi is a bit of a cipher, a stand-in for  moviegoers who project themselves into that boat, and the only other star turn is Irrfan Khan as an older Pi, recounting his story of being lost, and found again. Khan could break into the supporting actor race, but there aren’t many other above-the-line parts to grab nominations. (It would be difficult to imagine Life of Pi getting an ensemble nod from the Screen Actors Guild Awards, since its cast is so small.)

Life of Pi has won many supporters from its festival screenings (Here’s a great assessment called “Into the Mystic,” by AwardsDaily.com’s Sasha Stone). And as it hits theaters on Nov. 21, just a few days away, I’d expect it to do solid, steady business — building on word of mouth over the weeks. Lee has been doing a strong press push this week, but as with the making of the movie, he’s kind of a one-man show.

The Academy will surely recognize it for visual effects, and perhaps a number of other below the line fields, but Life of Pi just doesn’t have enough actors to be represented in the showy top categories. For that reason, if voters decide to spread around the honors, they might find themselves giving Pi the top prize with no actor nominees, just as they did with Slumdog Millionaire. With fewer individuals to single out, the overall Best Picture honor could make the most sense.

With that theory in mind, and a sense that out of the top four contenders Pi has the most room to grow, I currently rank it number one in my projections for the Feb. 24 ceremony.

On the next page, I do my full rundown for the top 10 (with a little cheating).

But keep in mind — it’s a shaky No. 1 spot for Pi.

Argo, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook could easily take it. And there are a some other serious rivals still to come.

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STATE-OF-THE-RACE: NOV. 16, 2012

Things can, and will change, but in trying to predict the weather three months ahead of time, this is what I’ve got:

1. Life of Pi

2. Argo

3. Lincoln

4. Silver Linings Playbook

… And now the rest:

5. Les Miserables — Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried star in this adaptation of the Tony-winning musical about the 1832 Paris Uprising. Not only is the source material beloved, but this is director Tom Hooper’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. With that pedigree, a nomination is its to lose. I’ve seen a rough version of it, and voters will begin screening the film at the end of next week. Once that happens, and audiences get their turns on Dec. 25, I believe the four-way neck-in-neck race for Best Picture will have a fifth member.

6. Zero Dark Thirty — It’s fashionable right now to say the incredible James Bond thriller Skyfall could slip into the Best Picture race. I loved Skyfall, and most voters I know did, too. But they shake their heads like it’s crazytalk when I ask if it has a shot at a nomination. Instead, Zero Dark Thirty, another thrilling and intense story about the hunt for a terrorist mastermind, is likely to overshadow it. And of course, ZDT is a true story — chronicling the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain (an Oscar-nominee for The Help) leads this ensemble drama, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, who each won Oscars for Best Picture-winner The Hurt Locker.) When Zero Dark starts screening next week, it’s going to make 007 look like a very well-made popcorn film. (But if you really want 007 to have his day at the Academy Awards, Kris Tapley of HitFix has a good piece on some overdue Oscar-worthy talent from Bond’s latest.)

7. The Impossible — Voters have been slow to embrace this one, perhaps because even those who love it find it intimidating and uncomfortable. But those who do see it can’t forget this harrowing survival-story of a family caught up in the 2004 tsunami. Naomi Watts is sure to claim a Best Actress nomination as the mother of three, trying to save who she can, and Ewan McGregor is a possibility for supporting actor, while teenager Tom Holland, playing their eldest son, is vying for Best Actor. (Holland is a longshot in that crowded category, but he certainly deserves consideration for playing a kid who is caught in the wave, only to emerge an adult.) Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez (who made the creepy 2007 Spanish ghost story The Orphanage) use their horror-filmmakers’ bag of tricks to amp up the visceral qualities of this true-life heartbreaker, pushing away any sense of maudlin with adrenaline. The film, opening on Dec. 21, leaves you wanting to curl in a ball and cry your eyes out, even if they’re happy tears.

8. Moonrise Kingdom — Wes Anderson’s adorable and hilarious coming-of-age saga, about two runaways and the gaggle of misguided adults trying to find them, had a solid debut this summer, and though it has been off the radar a while, voters remember it with a wide smile when they look back at 2012. Critics hailed it, and continue to champion it, and with Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Bob Balaban headlining an eclectic cast that also includes newcomer kid-stars Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, I would bet good money on a SAG Award nomination for best ensemble. Quite a few voters rank this one high, though it’s not a sure-thing. In a season of such pain and dark emotion, this light-as-a-feather yarn could be a welcome respite in those top-five lists of nominees. A recent Blu-ray release will help win over those who missed it in theaters.

9. The Master — This film seemed like a lock a few months ago but is barely maintaining a pulse as time goes by. Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of a new-age messiah (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his moonshine-addicted follower (Joaquin Phoenix, who will still get a nomination, no matter how much he disses the politics of award season) left many voters cold, even as they admired its technical achievements. One voter told me it felt like “a slam-dunk contest” between actors, showing off brazen performances but lacking in narrative and drama. I’ve also heard more than a few refer to it as “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — an inscrutable story that some were hesitant to criticize at first, for fear of seeming out of touch. But with audiences failing to turn out, and critics somewhat mixed, The Master is barely hanging on to its award-season clout, and voters aren’t as keen to name it a Best Picture player anymore, even though respect for the actors remains high.

10. Flight — The initial reactions I heard to this Denzel Washington drama about a pilot who saves almost all the passengers aboard a crashing airliner — but was coked up and drunk when he did it — was decidedly mixed. Some felt Washington’s performance was Oscar worthy, but that the movie lost direction after the first act’s spectacular crash sequence. It’s Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action movie since 2000’s Cast Away, and like that Tom Hanks film Flight is another deep character study, focusing on one desperate man’s struggle with addiction. I had counted it out of contention due to a few “meh” early reactions, but a strong box office debut followed, and more and more voters are starting to mention it as a favorite. “It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. I was captivated the whole time,” an Academy member tells me, one of several who said they’d rank it as their No. 1. “What’s brilliant is it’s so not about the plane wreck, it’s about his flight from the truth.” I still hear some “meh,” but there’s enough passion behind Flight for it to crack Prize Fighter’s top 10.

11. Beasts of the Southern Wild — I’m cheating here, since the Academy only allows a maximum of 10 nominees. If the voting closed today, this might get in, but like The Master it’s fading fast. The dream-like fable about a little girl facing the end of the world wowed Sundance, but didn’t really catch on with moviegoers when it hit theaters this summer. Newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who was just 6 when she made the movie, could still place in the Best Actress category, but the independently made film was hurt by its disqualification from the SAG Awards, since it wasn’t shot under a guild contract. It’s an undeniably beautiful and original film, but I’m not sure what distributor Fox Searchlight can do at this point to reignite enthusiasm for it. The Independent Spirit Awards will likely nominate the hell out of it, but that could be its last, best hope for an award-season comeback.

12. Anna KareninaAtonement‘s Joe Wright has an innovative way of bringing Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel of a woman’s self-destructive romantic rebellion to the screen — make it a play. While the settings are lush, and the costumes breathtaking, the entire tale takes place in a hypnotic theatrical setting that divorces (no pun intended) the story from hard reality, and transforms it into a fantasy. It’s getting a strong push from Focus Features, and star Keira Knightley seems to be a likely Best Actress contender, but this is another film that could benefit greatly from a wave of audience appreciation. (It opens in limited release this weekend.)

Let’s cheat even more now, and just throw out some other possible players …

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WILDCARDS

The Dark Knight Rises — I’m not picking up much of an awards heartbeat for this one, but Warner Bros. is beginning a big campaign push. Maybe Academy voters just need a reminder, but this feels like a longshot to me. Cracking the the Top 10 won’t be easy, but if there is one thing we’ve learned from this film, it’s that Batman can climb out of even the deepest pits.

The Sessions is one I considered a sure-thing during Sundance last January, but although there is a lot of love for John Hawkes’ witty portrayal of a severely disabled man trying to lose his virginity, as well as Helen Hunt’s turn as an unconventional sex therapist, the movie itself doesn’t seem to inspire much Best-Picture consideration. Maybe that will change, but the fine performances will be recognized regardless.

Sony Pictures Classics insists that Amour, Austrian director Michael Haneke’s French-language drama about an elderly couple facing the end of their lives, has struck a deep nerve with the Academy’s many older voters. I don’t doubt it, and its a heartbreaking and elegantly told drama, but the voters will get a chance to reward it in the foreign language category, where it is the official submission of Austria. Stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are being pushed for performance. (She’s the much better bet.)

A few readers have asked about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, so I’ll add my intel on that one, too. There is great admiration for Peter Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but since then he has struggled to crack into the Oscars with King Kong and The Lovely Bones. The Hobbit has been kept very tightly under wraps, and with word that he is splitting J.R.R. Tolkien’s 330-page novel into not just two, but now three different movies, there’s a bit of skepticism. Most people are expecting good entertainment, but Best Picture? Listen, if it’s great — yes. But right now, nobody knows and it doesn’t have a lock on a nomination. Fans can rest assured, however, that it will get due consideration.

Finally, there’s Django Unchained. Never, ever count out Quentin Tarantino. His blood-drenched slavery western may be just the shock to the system the Oscar race needs. It’s not hitting theaters until Christmas, and hasn’t screen yet for voters. So all we have are a handful of savagely funny trailers, a leaked script (which Tarantino says has changed a lot), and the filmmakers’ long-time reputation for never letting us down.

All right, that’s it from me. Let’s hear your own thoughts in the comments: What was your No. 1 movie of the year, and why?

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