Lack of clear favourites makes Oscar race more interesting
This year's Oscar race is shaping as one of the more interesting of recent times. The fact that the Academy has broken years of tradition and actually nominated the best film of the year - Michael Haneke's Amour - in the Best Picture category, regardless of what language it is shot in, is a pleasing surprise.
Only twice in the last 84 years has the winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Palm d'Or effectively done the double and gone on to take out the Oscar and on both of those occasions - in 1945 with The Lost Weekend and a decade later with Marty - the films were English-language ones.
For all that the American Academy is accused of cultural bias in privileging its own cinema at the expense of the rest of the world's, the recognition of Amour in the top category is more than the British equivalent could muster.
It remains to be seen how competitive a downbeat, realistic drama about illness and death will be. Conventional wisdom holds that Haneke's nominations for directing and writing are essentially token, given that no foreign director has ever won for work in his or her native tongue.
An organisation that thought James L Brooks a greater artist than Ingmar Bergman is unlikely to put Haneke before Steven Spielberg. On the other hand, Taiwanese Ang Lee, another of this year's Best Director nominees, has taken the award home before, although for an American film.
Another positive, relatively unexpected inclusion in the Best Picture category is the independently produced Beasts of the Southern Wild. Its director, Benh Zeitlin, also has the rare privilege of being nominated, Orson Welles like, for his debut feature.
It would be fanciful to compare Beasts to Citizen Kane, but it is unique, almost revolutionary - the type of disquieting, anarchic fantasy that the Academy usually steers well clear of.
When it comes to winning the Best Picture statue, the smarter money will be placed elsewhere. Overall nominations are led by Lincoln, Spielberg's biopic of the Civil War president, and Life of Pi, Lee's quasi-mystical adaptation of Yann Martel's supposedly unfilmable novel. Both films have their supporters yet seem more respected than admired, failing to generate the required levels of popular or critical excitement.
It is also unlikely that Les Miserables will be in serious contention, despite winning the Golden Globe in the Music & Comedy section over the better fancied Silver Linings Playbook.
A musical that dares to challenge the established conventions of its genre, having its actors sing directly to camera rather than mime to playback, it does rather expose its male leads' limited vocal range, especially a miscast Russell Crowe. While Anne Hathaway is virtually a lock as Best Supporting Actress, Hugh Jackman's chances of replicating his Globe success are minimal.
Both Les Miserables and Playbook are likely to suffer from the same bias that privileges some genres over others. Musicals, comedies and westerns have won Best Picture in the past, but seldom when they have a serious, respected war film as competition.
Quentin Tarantino's slavery-themed western, Django Unchained, also enjoyed some Globe spoils, yet will be too challenging in its post-modern pastiche of history to replicate the achievements of Unforgiven or Dances with Wolves. The Academy likes its racial-message movies to be simple and didactic and Tarantino isn't that kind of film-maker.
If Zero Dark Thirty is the critical darling of nominees, the populist choice for Best Picture is Globe winner Argo. The two are polar opposites: the former a hard-hitting account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the latter an ode to the resourcefulness of the CIA in getting stranded United States diplomats out of Iran during the Islamic Revolution.
It says as much about the deceptions and mythology of US politics that Kathryn Bigelow's carefully researched epic has come under more attack for telling the truth about torture than Ben Affleck's contrived thriller has for bending the facts in the name of a good story. As New Zealanders, we should be particularly incensed at the lies of Argo, as it slanders the good name of our embassy staff.
Given neither Bigelow nor Affleck are nominated for Best Director, it would be unusual if their films won the top gong. However, this isn't unprecedented.
At present, the race is too tough to call, a rare treat for film buffs.