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11/05/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Where Is The Best Picture Front-Runner?

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Welcome to For Your Consideration, HuffPost Entertainment's breakdown of all things Oscar. Between now and March 2, 2014, HuffPost senior entertainment editor Christopher Rosen and Vanity Fair digital director Mike Hogan will chat about awards season both here and at Vanity Fair.

Rosen: Hello, Mike! For Your Consideration is back. Oprah, for one, is excited.


A lot has changed since we last had one of these chats -- remember making the case that Hugh Jackman was a potential Oscar nominee for "Prisoners"? -- including that you're now digital director at Vanity Fair. Fortunately, bloviating about the Oscars knows no corporate bounds.

Also unbound? This year's crop of contenders. To wit: "The Monuments Men," "Foxcatcher" and "Grace of Monaco" may have exited awards season, but "The Wolf Of Wall Street" and "Lone Survivor" threw their hats into the ring last week. The former by actually hitting a 2013 release date, the latter with a splashy awards screening in Los Angeles. Those films join the already crowded Best Picture field, which includes but is not limited to "12 Years A Slave," "Gravity," "Captain Phillips," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "Nebraska," "Saving Mr. Banks," "Her," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "American Hustle." It's busy this year, and there isn't a front-runner -- "12 Years A Slave" included. Here's Grantland's Mark Harris:

The challenge for '12 Years a Slave' will come after the nominations, when the memory of being moved is less fresh and the question "I liked it, but did I love it?" begins to kick in. That's because McQueen is an easier director to admire than to love. His initial training was as an artist, and his use of stillness and painterly composition is, at different moments, the strength of '12 Years' and its weakness.

That's it right there: "I liked it, but did I love it?" Even if McQueen's film is the most important movie in 20 years, does that also mean it's the best film? I had some issues with "12 Years A Slave" -- notably Brad Pitt's performance and the final scene, which feels tacked on from another movie -- and wouldn't rank it near the top of my personal 2013 best-of list. Yet it's more significant than any movie on that list. Is it possible to acknowledge the impact of "12 Years A Slave" but also discuss its flaws? Will Oscar voters want to have those separate conversations? I actually don't know.

Hogan: Hey, Chris. Yes, it's good to be back with you on the awards-pontification beat. Your question about "12 Years a Slave" raises an issue with which every Oscar watcher must contend: the difference between quality and winnability. As you suggest, there really isn't much doubt in the minds of most people who've seen "12 Years a Slave" that it is more "important" than the others contenders you've mentioned. (True, almost no one has seen "American Hustle" or "Wolf of Wall Street," but we can assume that neither of them will outweigh Steve McQueen's slavery epic.) But even if you sweep aside the "Will they watch it?" question, as Mark Harris does in the essay you referenced, you still have to ask, "Will they rally behind it?"

And by "they" I'm referring to the 6,000 or so voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who turned out in something less than droves to a special screening last month. The theater seats 1,000, but the Los Angeles Times said it was only two-thirds full. One person who did show up quoted a fellow member who'd declined the invitation as saying, "I've read all about the Civil War and slavery. I don't need to see a movie repeating what I already know."

I don't think that's fair, but I also don't doubt that it accurately represents the way some -- maybe even many -- Academy members feel. Meanwhile, the same article reported, the Academy screening for "Gravity" was filled to capacity.

But if "Gravity" is this year's "Avatar" (and it isn't, thanks to the presence of Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and a stunning visual palette that owes more to "2001: A Space Odyssey" than "The Smurfs," but bear with my analogy anyway), could that make "Lone Survivor" this year's "Hurt Locker"?

Ehhhh, I'm skeptical. I blagged my way into a screening the other day, and though I'm not allowed to say much before the Nov. 16 embargo, I will say that this feels like a film that's going to do better at the box office than it will on nomination day.

Then again, I could be wrong. This is the fall of high-end survival flicks, and "Lone Survivor" fits right into the mix. Add Mark Wahlberg as a Navy SEAL under attack by an entire army of Taliban gunmen to the pool that already includes Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free man enslaved, Tom Hanks as a ship captain captured by Somali pirates, Robert Redford as a gentleman sailor getting his ass whipped by Mother Nature, and I guess Matthew McConaghey as a straight Texan cowboy stricken with AIDS.

What do you think, Chris, did I leave anybody out? And does it help or hurt Leonardo DiCaprio to enter this race in the final frame as a money-laundering crook who makes his own bad luck?

Rosen: Well, Forest Whitaker and Bruce Dern might have something to say about that list. Both are still legitimate possibilities -- I will beat the drum for Forest Whitaker until Jan. 16 -- but their inclusions would leave someone like Matthew McConaughey out in the cold. Like we said last time, this category is one of the deepest in recent memory.

Which is why DiCaprio feels like a real long shot. For one thing, big Martin Scorsese ensembles, "Gangs of New York" excluded, rarely earn nominations for the lead male stars (think "Goodfellas," "The Departed," "Casino"). For another, the field is already crowded, and the narrative on Leo isn't as strong as it is on the other contenders. They're going to give DiCaprio, one of the most famous men on Earth, an Oscar nomination for a playing a smug crook at the expense of McConaughey? Dern? Whitaker? Even Michael B. Jordan?

Then there's this: What if "Wolf of Wall Street" isn't great? I'm hoping it is -- Scorsese is my favorite director, by a lot -- but there are definitely some concerns, notably the running time. Matt Singer wrote a post about the 165-minute film, admonishing those who thought it was "too long." What if it's not long enough? Scorsese reportedly turned in a cut that was over three hours. What did he leave out? What if the movie was better when it was longer? What if?

What ifs are our bread and better, though, so let's try one more: What if we're over-thinking everything and "12 Years A Slave" really has this locked up?

Hogan: Well, in the time since we started talking about this, Frank Rich went ahead and added his voice to the "I'm not sure how I should feel about this" chorus of semi-guilty white people. His argument is that a film like "12 Years" holds out the promise of effecting real social change when, in fact, it has virtually no chance of reaching anyone outside the liberal sewing circle -- and says nothing about the way we live today.

I'm not sure I agree with the latter point, but the first one has its merits. What really strikes me, though, is that even the people who should be praising "12 Years" to the heavens, thereby shoring up its sure-thing status, instead seem to be worrying that there must be something wrong with it. After all, name a film about race that can't be termed "problematic" and I will sell you my beach house in Idaho.

This may all be but a prelude to a winter when sentiment finally gels around "12 Years" as the most deserving best picture possibility, but there's also a chance that "American Hustle" -- or some other late entry -- could swing in and take the lead.

I also wouldn't fully write off "Gravity" or even "Captain Phillips" as possible winners. These are satisfying movies that deliver audience-pleasing thrills under a veneer of high-concept realism. Does that remind you of any films from 2012? (Cough, "Argo"!)

Rosen: So that's the captain now? ("Argo" eff yourself is so 2012.)