85th Academy Awards contenders set the bar high

Albeit a couple of exceptions (Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway are practically shoo-ins for their given categories), the 85th Academy Awards (though apparently it’s just “The Oscars” now?) offers a higher level of competition compared to previous years.

CGI stunner · The film adaptation of Yann Martel’s widely acclaimed Life of Pi novel is a nominee for best picture and best director at the 85th Academy Awards. Using vivid CGI, director Ang Lee brings to life the tale between man and tiger. This film has been well-received all over the world, breaking records in India and even making more in China than in the United States. - Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

CGI stunner · The film adaptation of Yann Martel’s widely acclaimed Life of Pi novel is a nominee for best picture and best director at the 85th Academy Awards. – Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Did anyone doubt that The King’s Speech would sweep at the Oscars a couple of years back? Was anyone really surprised when Meryl Streep beat out Viola Davis at last year’s show?

Thankfully, this year the gap between the quality of nominees has closed significantly, giving viewers something more to look forward to than red carpet fashion and an inevitable embarrassing moment from Ryan Seacrest.

Now, if you’re looking for some last-minute predictions so you can finally win the office Oscars poll, think again. Rather than predictions, here’s a look at those contentious contenders (the ones that close the gap and offer some exciting competition), what they have to offer and what their fighting chances might be.

Best Picture

The Nominees: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty.

Though there are clear front-runners (Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Argo), the other options trail pretty closely behind — Les Misérables, not so much — in the best picture race.

Amour stunned with its painfully realistic portrayal of love at the end of life. Beasts of the Southern Wild left viewers in awe with its ingenuity and honest, gripping story. Django Unchained proved to be more than another Tarantino bloodbath, instead prompting viewers to reflect on their sense of morality. Life of Pi wowed with staggering special effects and challenged viewers to examine their faith.

Doesn’t exactly sound like weak competition, does it? Still, said front-runners seemingly have the best chances at claiming that tiny, gold man we’re all so obsessed with.

Silver Linings Playbook isn’t your typical best picture nomination (it’s a bit more comedic than the Academy usually likes), but with a fantastic ensemble cast (all four leads were nominated) and an emotionally gripping narrative, the film is a strong candidate.

Zero Dark Thirty, another great film from Kathryn Bigelow (sorely missed in the best director category this year, ditto: Ben Affleck), confronted the brutal practices used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, prompting viewers to question whether the end justifies the means. And with Jessica Chastain delivering a raw performance as a frustrated CIA agent who finds dead ends at nearly every corner, Zero Dark Thirty soars.

That leaves Argo and Lincoln, a battle between the fun historical drama (the unconventional choice) versus the traditional period piece (it practically screams “best picture nominee!”). Argo, from director/star Ben Affleck, grabbed critics’ attention for its ability to walk the thin line between Hollywood satire (see Alan Arkin) and a dramatic representation of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

Daniel Day-Lewis, supported by Hollywood elite Sally Fields and Tommy Lee Jones, delivers a staggering performance that fully immerses you in the Civil War era in Lincoln. The cinematography and direction of Oscar favorite Steven Spielberg is stunning, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay reads like poetry.

Best Director 

The Nominees: Amour (Michael Haneke), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin), Life of Pi (Ang Lee), Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell), Lincoln (Steven Spielberg) .

Haneke and Zeitlin are both wildcard choices, but worthy nonetheless. The former shines with his honest and raw portrayal of love and loss, and the latter with his fantastical, coming-of-age tale of a little girl trying to find her family.

Still, the directors receiving the most attention this year are Lee, Russell and Spielberg.

Lee blew viewers away with his beautiful landscapes, special effects (3D done right) and his charismatic young lead, Suraj Sharma, in Life of Pi. The versatile director makes you really, truly believe in and empathize with the protagonists, Pi and (CGI) tiger Richard Parker, giving their extraordinary relationship a sense of realism.

Part love story, part exploration of mental health issues, Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook convinces and immerses you in both. The endearing dark humor, brilliant performances and quick wit certainly add to that.

Then, Spielberg wowed viewers with his detailed look at President Abraham Lincoln’s uphill battle for justice, delivered in an eloquently written, beautifully shot and brilliantly played cinematic package.

Best Actress

The Nominees: Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, Emmanuelle Riva, Quvenzhané Wallis, Naomi Watts.

Wallis proves she’s worth her salt with a deeply emotive performance, reflecting on the loss of her parents and home while still offering a sense of youthful hopefulness and adventure. And she’s only 9 years old, making her the youngest best actress nominee ever.

Emotional and physical pain plastered across her face, Watts delivers one of the best performances of her career in The Impossible, playing a wife and mother devastated by the 2006 tsunami while on a family vacation.

At 85 years old, Riva would be the oldest actress to win an Oscar, but more important is how Riva conveys fear and loathing at the end of life in Amour. Her potential Oscar-winning moment? After a second stroke, Riva’s character Anne can muster few words, giving Riva the challenge of communicating her character’s desire to end her life through a facial expressions — a task she pulls off.

Chastain immerses us in a 10-year pursuit for Osama bin Laden, making viewers feel for her every single time (and there were many) she and her team encountered a dead end. Still, Chastain keeps viewers fully engaged with her vigor and determination to put an end to the issue at hand.

Lawrence strikes the perfect emotional balance in Silver Linings Playbook. Rather than playing the part of Tiffany— a woman recovering from the death of her husband — as too crazy or mushy-in-love with her new dance partner, Lawrence lends the character a real human quality, one with which viewers can sympathize and relate.

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees: Alan Arkin, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Christoph Waltz.

“Argo f-ck yourself” jokes aside, Arkin left a memorable impression with his cheeky performance as a Hollywood producer, poking fun at the industry’s elite and, in effect, winning audiences over to root for Affleck and company.

De Niro’s turn in Silver Linings Playbook is his best role in recent memory. Though he spends most of the movie trying to convince the audience that there really is no better team than the Philadelphia Eagles, underneath all that football mayhem, you can see a father who loves his son and wants to help him through his recent divorce and mental breakdown.

The Master as a film might have fallen short of expectations, but Hoffman still shined as a self-righteous, manipulative leader of a religious movement called The Cause. Played with charisma, strength and vitality, Hoffman delivered yet again.

In Jones, we see a hard-headed man, set in his ways but with purpose. We encourage his stubbornness. We like how brash he is, because when it comes down to it, we see a man who sees past color, a man who believes in principle, human rights and (as we see later on) love.

Similarly, Waltz also plays a stubborn man, but we root for him nonetheless because his heart is in the right place: He sees people, not slaves. Quick wit and hilariously snarky attitude aside, it is this compassion that gives Waltz another chance at Oscar gold for Django Unchained.

Best Original Screenplay 

The Nominees: Amour, Django Unchained, Flight, Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty.

With painful honesty and overt realism, Amour captures the fragility of life. And Moonrise Kingdom, the quirky, dark horse of the group, shines with its endearing eccentricities.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film that builds slowly, but it is through this series of frustrations that the story really pays off. Poignantly, the film prompts viewers to question their morality: How far would you go to take down the leader of al-Qaida?

Flight also deals with issues of ethics. A true character study, Flight allows Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle and company to excel. Again, this film prompts viewers to question their morality.

Django Unchained challenges viewers, encouraging them to examine the way they understand race. In accordance with Tarantino’s directorial style, Django Unchained is a homage to Western films, and yet it goes a step further by prompting the viewers to look at the ugly and often untold truth that is slavery.