By Owen Gleiberman
January 15, 2013 at 01:59 PM EST
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Last Thursday, when the Academy Awards nominations were announced, it was one of those moments when the nominations were very clarifying. Lincoln leading the pack (with 12), combined with the shocking roll call of snubs in the Best Director category (No Affleck! No Bigelow! No Quentin! No guy-who-made-The King’s Speech-and-Les Miz as if he’d been placed on this earth to be the 21st-century answer to middlebrow Oscar taste), instantly brought a fuzzy, multi-movie race into absolute focus, with Lincoln and its director and screenwriter, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, the obvious — and, to my mind, deserving — front-runners, and everything else fading to the sidelines. I don’t necessarily think any of that is wrong. Yet the whole reason I like writing about the Oscars is that, while I don’t pretend to have any special powers of prognostication (especially when compared to the reigning odds-makers at EW), I do think that the reasons that certain movies, and actors and actresses, and writers and directors triumph over others on awards night is not a question that can be divorced from critical/aesthetic analysis. Even mediocre choices reflect an aesthetic, and also a way that movies interact with the world; the critic’s task is to define what that is. In that spirit, here are a few observations about why I think the winners will win.

Has Zero Dark Thirty been hurt by the torture issue? My gut says yes. At first, I thought it might be quite the contrary. When that letter went out from Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin attacking the film for endorsing the effectiveness of torture, my early instinct was that Hollywood, stung by criticism from Washington that smacked of intimidation (even if it wasn’t exactly censorship), might circle the wagons and come to view support of Kathryn Bigelow’s film as a righteous, almost ideological vote for creative freedom. After garnering an orgy of critical accolades, Zero Dark Thirty opened strongly last weekend in wide release, and there’s every chance that the controversy is helping to sell tickets. Apart from the electrifying hook of the hunt for bin Laden, aren’t you curious to see and decide for yourself what the film’s take on torture is?

The trouble, I think, is that Bigelow and her screenwriter/collaborator, Mark Boal, in working to protect their movie, have spent far too much time in frantic/defensive damage-control mode. They have dealt with these issues in a way that has left too many questions unanswered and has felt, frankly, as if they’re not coming clean. At the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner (which I attended), Bigelow, in her Best Director acceptance speech, was widely quoted as saying, “Depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices. No author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.” That’s an eloquent statement (and who would disagree?), but I’m sorry, it’s also an elaborate red herring. No one has criticized Zero Dark Thirty because it “depicts” torture. The criticism has been that the film portrays torture as having been an integral part of what led the CIA to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden — a view that Bigelow and Boal haven’t copped to, even though I believe it’s exactly what their film says. Their defense of the movie in interviews has seemed slippery and disingenuous. And that’s just the kind of thing that makes people in the movie industry squirm: an unresolved controversy over a hot-potato issue, and a controversy that is being parsed to death. It’s as if Zero Dark Thirty started off as All the President’s Men, and it has now become an Oliver Stone movie over-managed by liberal spin control. So far, at least, not a killer recipe for a grand awards night.

The most competitive category this year: Best Actress. Just because Zero Dark Thirty has lost its December momentum doesn’t mean that we should count out Jessica Chastain. As the CIA analyst whose obsession with uncovering bin Laden fires her up as it wears her down, Chastain is feral, vulnerable, and concentrated, a forceful study in absorption. We take in the whole movie through the prism of her resolve. And the time seems right to honor her arrival in the industry as a major actress. But Jennifer Lawrence (my choice, if I were voting) has been on the radar every bit as long, and her performance in Silver Linings Playbook has something that Chastain’s, at least in ZDT, isn’t allowed to: the full flower of personality. Chastain does fiery, intense acting; Lawrence gives a fiery, intense movie-star performance. I wouldn’t want to guess which one of those rises above the other. And let’s not count out Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild — a very pure piece of child acting in a (mysteriously, to me) beloved movie, the perfect adorable-kid winner for our ragged and impoverished times.

How the Golden Globes could influence things, and why the Globes matter a little more each year. Even with spiking ratings, and with Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler proving, as co-hosts, to be infinitely more winning than Ricky Gervais (and — neat trick – every bit as biting), the old myth of the Golden Globes won’t die. They are, of course, the faux Oscars, voted on by a collection of flakes and fakes, and so they don’t matter! But, of course, the night is also known to be a better party than the Oscars, because everyone drinks, and so it’s officially really fun to watch. (But none of us take it seriously.) Well, yes, I get it, except that the whole distinction is starting to look a little academic. Insiders know that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a shadow club of junketeers, but I’m sorry, when people like Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway got up to accept their Golden Globe awards on Sunday night, their speeches were heartfelt and meaningful in the same way that good Oscar speeches are, and the fabled loose-tie-and-champagne atmosphere — the far more visible joking and back-slapping, the whole seating-chart vibe of who’s with whom — just gives the show a close-up rubbernecking garcinia cambogia extract celebrity vibe that is, by now, a central (and undeniable) part of why we love to watch the Oscars. All of which is to say that movie fans around the country, increasingly, do watch the Globes, and closely, even if no one pretends to take it seriously. And here, I think, is the message that was sent, almost coincidentally, by Argo and Ben Affleck’s big wins. Sure, the actual voting for the Golden Globes was completed before the announcement of Thursday’s Oscar “snubs,” but the effect of seeing those Argo wins was still a kind of rebuke. It said, in essence: Maybe a Best Director nomination doesn’t matter. I still think that Lincoln will sweep the Oscars, but if you told me that it wasn’t going to win Best Picture, I would now place my money on Argo — despite its lack of a director nomination for Affleck. Like The Artist, Argo is that infinitely precious thing in Hollywood, a wonderful movie about Hollywood. At this point, Affleck’s not getting that nomination almost gives him a righteous-underdog status that makes him all the more visible for not being there.

Anne Hathaway is this year’s lock that can’t be unlocked. It seems, more and more, that there’s one of these each year — an actor contender so sure-fire that it’s not just that everyone adores him or her. It’s that the win seems etched in stone from the earliest tea leaves of Oscar buzz. Natalie Portman was declared the inevitable Oscar winner for Black Swan from the moment the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, and the scenario never really changed. The aura of inevitability became part of the engine of what made it inevitable. Ditto for Anne Hathaway from the moment Les Misérables was wheeled out to the press. Personally, I thought Hathaway was brilliant — her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” all soft vowels and ravaged hopes and soaring Liza Minnelli/Karen Carpenter crescendos, is an epiphany of sorrow that seems to carry all the movie’s emotions, which is why once that song is over, Les Miz, for all its pagan Broadway bluster, never seems quite as full. Yet I would love to see Sally Field win the Oscar for her extraordinary and defining performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. You’d think that she’d have a shot. And maybe she does. Yet Hathaway’s fate, like Portman’s, seems to have been decreed in advance by some cosmic media star chamber. The dream of her victory has already been dreamed.

A prediction: One of the evening’s big winners will be Seth MacFarlane. When it comes to choosing a host, sometimes the Oscars go nice, and sometimes they go naughty. The ideal choice would be a host who can be both at once, and that makes MacFarlane the perfect Academy Awards emcee for an era that, more and more, likes to worship celebrities by roasting them. The thing about MacFarlane is that he has spent the heart of his career literally out of view, as the fearless creator and vocal sock puppet of the great Family Guy and as the voice of the Boston-dickwad Teddy bear in Ted, his summer-smash-hit directorial debut. Yet out from behind the scenes, he has star presence to spare. Handsome, with eyes that twinkle like mischievous twin lasers, he looks like some clean-cut letter-sweater jock from the ’50s, yet when he talks, he’s a stupendously bad boy, like Howard Stern with the face of Gene Kelly. I predict (and hope) that he goes “too far,” yet does it with such charm that even those who say they’re offended will secretly enjoy him.

Why the third time’s the charm for Daniel Day-Lewis. If Day-Lewis wins for Lincoln (and it would be a crime if he didn’t), he’ll become the first actor in Hollywood history to have won three Best Actor awards. (Jack Nicholson has two, and one for Supporting Actor; Walter Brennan has three for Supporting.) To me, that’s significant, because it places Day-Lewis in a category all his own, and it raises the question: What is unique about his genius? I think the simplest way to say it may be this. If you had to name the two most mythical great actors of the past hundred years, many would agree that those two names should be Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. What’s telling is that they’re such opposites. Olivier is the high magician of language and technique, the sculptor of character who worked, without peer, from the outside in. Brando, of course, was our god of the Method, who worked from the inside out, with a confessional/cathartic animal intensity that paved the way for the age of screen naturalism that has lasted from the postwar era to this very day. Olivier was our great Apollonian shape-shifter, Brando our great Dionysian soul-searcher. And Daniel Day-Lewis? He is both. A Dionysian shape-shifter. A sculptor of animal intensity. And a man whose Method of submerging himself in a character is so famously consuming and extreme that there’s a madness to it — and a radiant sanity. He doesn’t act. He becomes. And it took nothing less than that level of becoming to become Abe Lincoln. That’s what the world will be honoring on Oscar night.

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