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Hostage thriller best picture favourite
Ben Affleck in Argo. Picture: Claire Folger

Argo has firmed as outright favourite to win this year’s best picture Oscar but it may well be the only prize for Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage thriller in one of the oddest and most intriguing Academy Awards in memory.

Indeed, the absence of Affleck on the best director shortlist and the fact that Argo is a contender in only one of the acting categories has opened up this year’s Oscars, with plenty of competitive tussles amidst several sure-fire victories.

The anomaly occurred because the Academy included Argo on the best picture shortlist yet could not find a place for Affleck in either the directing or acting categories.

That decision came to look stranger and stranger as award season dragged on, with Argo and Affleck winning all the major prizes and completely decimating Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which was initially the Oscar frontrunner with 12 nominations.

The last time a film won best picture without a corresponding best director nomination was when Australian Bruce Beresford was overlooked for his work steering Driving Miss Daisy, which host Billy Crystal famously dubbed “the movie that directed itself”.

Argo’s rise to outright favoritism and the absence of Affleck in the director category along with other high-profile snubees such as Zero Dark Thirty’s Kathryn Bigelow, Les Miserables’ Tom Hooper and Django Unchained’s Quentin Tarantino makes this the most open and intriguing Oscars in memory.

However, it wouldn’t be an Academy Awards without a few dead certainties, with Daniel Day-Lewis so assured of a record-breaking third best actor Oscar the others in his category, including Hugh Jackman, should forget the acceptance speeches and rehearse gracious nodding and applauding.

Jackman’s Les Miserables co-star Anne Hathaway can also lock in the supporting actress category for her brief but devastating performance as the wronged waif Fantine. Even those who hate the movie – and there are a lot – concede that Hathaway is a heartbreaker.

Lincoln’s Tommy Lee Jones is the favourite in the supporting actor category but his four rivals – Robert DeNiro (Silver Lining’s Playbook), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Alan Arkin (Argo) and Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) - are all previous Oscar winners so don’t be surprised if there is an upset. It’s the most open category.

Another race that could deliver an upset is best actress, where veteran French star Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) has been creeping up on favourites Jennifer Lawrence (The Silver Linings Playbook) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty).

Actually, that race has whittled down to two because of the political backlash against Zero Dark Thirty, with Hollywood leftists angry with Bigelow for linking the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden with torture.

Indeed, there’s so much animosity toward this superbly made movie that it could walk away empty handed, despite being anointed the early Oscar frontrunner when it was released in the US late last year.

There are no such controversies surrounding Riva and her movie, Michael Haneke’s masterpiece Amour, which has been stunning critics since it was unveiled at Cannes last may.

I’ll even go out on a limb to suggest that Amour will not only win best foreign-language film but the Haneke will surprise everyone in the Affleck-free best director category. A French twist to an already fascinating fracas.