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‘Life of Pi,’ ‘Argo,’ ‘Lincoln’ show Oscar promise in a strong field

This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharmas Pi Patel scene from 'Life Pi.' (AP Photo/20th Century

This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in a scene from "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox)

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Updated: December 30, 2012 3:36PM

With the 2013 Oscar telecast looming on Feb. 24, movie fans are already in a lather over the possible nominees, especially since again this year the best picture category could have up to 10 contenders. I claim no inside knowledge (I’m still waiting to hear from my friend Deep Oscar), but it’s never too early to speculate.

First, this caveat: I’ve still not seen three films said to be strong candidates for an Academy Award for best picture, so it’s too early to list them here: “Les Miserables,” directed by Tom Hooper, who made “The King’s Speech”; Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the killing of bin Laden, and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” with Jamie Foxx as an escaped slave and Leonardo DiCaprio as a plantation owner.

Among the contenders I have seen, the most warmly loved by moviegoers seems to be Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” In many seasons as a critic, I can’t remember a film more universally applauded. I wrote a blog entry about it, and my often dubious readers embraced it all but unanimously. Will public affection influence the academy? Maybe.

Another sure thing is Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” which is not only a terrific thriller but tells a true-life story sure to be enjoyed by Hollywood voters, about how the escape of Americans during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis was pulled off by a bold scheme involving the production of a fake sci-fi movie.

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is this year’s most prestigious candidate, and its title performance by Daniel Day-Lewis is sure to win a best actor nod. It is, first of all, a great film. Also important is that at Oscar time the academy likes to nominate the kinds of films that reflect well upon the industry.

David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” is an offbeat comedy with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro as son and father who are both manic Philadelphia Eagles fans, although only the son has been hospitalized due to bipolar disorder. The family is held together by Jacki Weaver as a resilient mom and wife with long experience with such men.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s image-transforming work as a very tough cop in David Ayer’s “End of Watch” may help the film win a best picture slot, and Chicago native Michael Peña is no less effective as his partner in a dangerous Los Angeles police district. They forge a relationship during a series of brilliantly staged action sequences.

Richard Gere should win a long-delayed best actor nomination for his focused, intense work in Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage,” a taut thriller about a financial wheeler-dealer who tries to escape his responsibility after a fatal car crash. This fine actor has produced high-caliber performances for year after year, and the academy hasn’t given him the praise he deserves.

Another good bet for best actor is Denzel Washington in Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight,” one of his career highlights. Will the film make the best picture list? I haven’t heard a lot of buzz, but it deserves to.

“Cloud Atlas,” by the Chicago-born Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, is considered a strong contender, although many audience members (including me) found it difficult to follow. Its story lines span centuries and trades genders, and I eventually realized it was the wholeness of the experience, not the plot details, that is important. It’s an awesomely ambitious film.

The performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” are likely to win nominations for Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix (welcome back!), but I’m not sure the purpose of the story (said to be based on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology) is very clear. Plus, the academy rarely singles out enigmatic films.

Few of the year’s films have had the emotional impact and courage of Ben Lewin’s “The Sessions,” with John Hawkes as a polio victim in an iron lung who dreams of having sex with a woman, and Helen Hunt as the sex therapist who helps him. A supporting nod could go to William H. Macy as his parish priest.

If I had my way, and I don’t, a best picture nomination would certainly go to Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” with its extraordinary lead performance by Quvenzhané Wallis as a young Louisiana girl named Hushpuppy. She lives in an isolated community in the New Orleans bayou called the Bathtub, which is threatened by the effects of global warming.

This film, which will make many best 10 lists and year-end awards, is said to be handicapped in the Oscar race because it was filmed outside the jurisdiction of the Screen Actors Guild. If you’ve seen the film, how many SAG members do you think could replace Quvenzhané?

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