Oscars 2013: Richard Corliss’ Picks – Best Picture

TIME's critic brings cheer to 'Argo'-nauts (and offers a conciliatory note to Ben Affleck). Which film do you think will win Best Picture?

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Or: Why Argo is a Lock

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Early last month I was called on to present the National Board of Review‘s prize for Best Directorial Debut to Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin. The NBR is a group of cinephiles who stage their awards banquet, by far the poshest on the East Coast, in the magnificent Italian Renaissance building that was once the Bowery Savings Bank and is now Cipriani 42nd Street. It’s a big, glamorous deal; everybody shows up.

One of the laureates was Ben Affleck, to be honored that night with a Special Achievement in Filmmaking Award — which translates as We Didn’t Think You Made the Best Picture (which went to Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty) But We Liked Argo and Would Be Pleased if You’d Drop By. When Affleck came on stage, a few awards after me, he said joshingly that he wished Richard Corliss had been the one to hand him his prize, because “he gave my movie no stars.” The actor was also vexed because I had written favorably about his other new film, To the Wonder, for which director Terrence Malick had reduced Affleck’s speaking role to just a few lines.

Affleck was gone before I could locate him, but I wanted to thank him for giving me my 15 seconds of notoriety — and to point out that my Argo review, which ran the day after its September world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, was not “no stars” but judiciously mixed. Under the headline “An Oscar for Ben Affleck?”, the review acknowledged that the movie had the makings of a Best Picture winner; it ended with the appraisal, “Argo is just so-so.”

(READ: Corliss’s review of Argo and judge for yourself)

What might have rankled Affleck was not that I didn’t love his movie but that, of early critics whose reviews were tabulated on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate site, I was the only one who didn’t: 24 raves (96% “fresh”) — and me. Soon after that posting, my TIME.com editor and I received emails from a Rotten Tomatoes staffer, asking if the review should be reevaluated as “fresh,” to give Argo a perfect 100% score. The request, the staffer said, had come from someone involved with the movie.

So Affleck is sensitive. That comes with the job: actors suffer in public, and, at the NFB dinner, Affleck was apparently still mildly rankled that one critic hadn’t been overwhelmed by the film he starred in and directed. Two mornings later, Affleck endured a more severe blow: though the Motion Picture Academy had named Argo a finalist for Best Picture, he didn’t make the cut for Best Director. And Zeitlin, the 30-year-old novice, did. The Academy voters had picked Benh Z. — the guy I gave an award to — over Ben A.

(READ: The Oscar nominations morning line, back when Argo was a long shot) 

Mind you, the Picture category this year boasted nine nominees, the Director category five. Simple arithmetic suggests that four directors were bound to be both pleased and crushed that Thursday morning. Bigelow, Tom Hooper of Les Misérables and Django Unchained’s Quentin Tarantino were also left off the Director list. Bigelow and Hooper had won Director and Picture Oscars for their previous films (The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech); and Bigelow is at least as good-looking and (in heels) as tall as Affleck. But her omission, and Hooper’s, raised few cries of foul from the award-tout cognoscenti. Their outrage was aimed at the slight of poor Ben.

The lamentations proved to be short-lived. That very evening, at the Broadcast Film Critics Association awards — no big deal, really, but the show is televised, so it matters — Affleck took Best Picture and Best Director. The following Sunday, he won the same prizes on a more widely watched TV show, the Golden Globes. And in the six weeks since, the Oscar Director debacle has boomeranged into a golden career move for Affleck. He endured an insult, earned Hollywood’s rooting interest and bounced back. Poor Ben quickly became Big Ben.

(READ: How the Golden Globes pushed Argo into the Oscar spotlight)

Argo went on to sweep the industry-awards circuit: the Producers, Directors, Writers, Screen Actors and American Cinema Editors guilds and, just to show Argo isn’t a purely American phenomenon, BAFTA (the British Academy of film and Television Arts). BAFTA also gave Affleck a nod that no other group had thought to bestow during the Argo awards run: a solo nomination for Best Actor.

Being an actor, a star actor, is Affleck’s ace in the hole this Oscar season, and has been a boon to actors for the past 35 years. Before then, the Academy had a compartmentalized view of film crafts: it thought that acting was what actors did, while directors directed. The first person known primarily as an actor to be nominated as a director, Orson Welles for Citizen Kane in 1942, lost to the Academy’s idea of a director: gifted, grouchy, eye-patch-wearing John Ford, for How Green Was My Valley (also named Best Picture). Seven years later, another actor-director’s movie, Hamlet, won Best Picture, but Laurence Olivier was defeated in the Director category by John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Olivier’s other consolation prize for Hamlet: Best Actor.

(READ: Citizen Kane no longer the all-time Best Film — say what?)

The notion of actor-director didn’t bloom until the ’70s, around the time of the singer-songwriter, when Woody Allen won Picture and Director (but not Actor) for Annie Hall in 1978. Affleck would be the 10th thespian-auteur to win a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar for a movie he helmed. The others: Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Richard Attenborough, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood (twice), Mel Gibson, and Ron Howard.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a famous star expanding his horizons; actors, spending their entire careers on movie sets, acquire the elements of directing almost by osmosis. And many actors, beginning with the boy-wonder Welles, have shown skill and daring the first time they have to shout, “Action!” and Cut!” But in the actor-director era, their celebrity gives them an advantage over the bearded boys who have devoted their lives to moviemaking. For proof, consider how actors behind the camera have fared in the Academy’s Best Director category against the two most lauded directors of the past 40 years: Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

(READ: Our 1982, 1985, 1997 and 2005 cover stories on Steven Spielberg by subscribing to TIME)

Spielberg lost to Allen (Annie Hall over Close Encounters of the Third Kind), to Beatty in 1982 (Reds over Raiders of the Lost Ark) and, gasp, to Attenborough in 1983 (Gandhi over E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). The two years he won Director Oscars, for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, no famous actors were competing against him. With Affleck not nominated this time, and no star directors among the final five, Spielberg has a sporting chance, though the feeling here is that Ang Lee will be cited for Life of Pi.

Scorsese’s defeats were even more ignominious. His Raging Bull, arguably the great film of the 1980s, lost to the rather ordinary Ordinary People in 1981, from first-time helmer Redford. Ten years later, Scorsese’s crime classic Goodfellas got steamrollered by debut director Costner’s Dances With Wolves. In 1996, when second-time auteur Gibson won for Braveheart, Scorsese wasn’t even nominated for another gangster epic, Casino. His Howard Hughes bio-pic The Aviator also lost to Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby in 2005, two years before he finally won Best Director and Picture — in effect, a double Lifetime Achievement Award — for The Departed. In the seven years since Eastwood’s last win, no prominent actor has won Best Director. That streak will continue, but one actor (actually two, since George Clooney is a co-producer of Argo) will win Best Picture.

(READ: Martin Scorsese talks about campaigning for an Oscar)

Why? Because, aside from the valuable product placement of Ben’s smiling gratitude at awards banquets, Argo is the kind of movie that usually wins.

We immediate eliminate Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Les Misérables and Django Unchained from contention, as they probably would have been if the Academy held to its traditional five candidates (the standard for 65 years before 2009). That leaves Argo, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty. It happens that these five are critical and popular favorites — not an art-house wallflower in the bunch — with the first four films having earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office and Zero Dark Thirty nearing $90 million. Each member of the quintet has won scads of critics’ prizes for film, director and acting. So how do we winnow from here?

(FIND: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Life of Pi at the top of Corliss’s 2012 Best Movies list)

Start with the political docudramas Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. All have gained points for dramatizing important events in U.S. history: Lincoln for the President’s fight to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, Argo for a CIA officer’s rescue of State Department personnel from Teheran in 1979 and ZDT for the CIA’s dogged pursuit of Osama bin Laden. The three films have also been challenged for their veracity: Lincoln for misrepresenting the vote of Connecticut Congressmen on the anti-slavery amendment (they were in favor, not against); Argo for fudging the particulars of the escape, and for casting a WASPy actor as the part-Mexican CIA operative Tony Mendez; and ZDT for allowing Democratic Senators to assert that the film suggests a causal link between the waterboarding of terror suspects and bin Laden’s takedown.

The last accusation seems the only damaging one. Hollywood and the Academy are proudly left-wing communities that often reward films for their liberal sentiments. And though the charge that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are defending torture is bogus, it may have lodged in the voters’ moral craw. More important to Argo’s chances over the other CIA movie is that ZDT has a churning pulse rate but a studiously cool emotional temperature. Bigelow dispenses with sentimental or erotic entanglements and foregrounds the activities of an operative obsessed with her job; the first female to win an Oscar for Best Director has made the ultimate career-gal film. Which is great for NOW (the National Association for Women), not so much for AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).

(READ: Jessica Winter’s cover profile of Kathryn Bigelow)

Lincoln, too, is more bustling business than beating heart, whereas Argo concentrates on the personal, not political, anxieties of the captors and the warmth of the hero who saves them. If we have learned anything from the Best Picture wins of Shakespeare in Love over Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, or Million Dollar Baby over Scorsese’s The Aviator, or The King’s Speech over The Social Network, or The Artist over Moneyball, it’s that the Academy votes not for the movie it admires, but for the one it loves. Heart trumps Smart. To Oscar, that equals Best-Picture Art.

Wait, you say: Silver Linings Playbook has a big bleeding heart for its likably neurotic characters; and the Life of Pi raft ride is as emotional as it is turbulent. True enough: those factors could bring David O. Russell’s dance-contest valentine an Acting Oscar or two, and Ang Lee’s film a Director award in addition to a few technical prizes. But Argo has another advantage: the presence of the movie producer (Alan Arkin) and makeup artist (John Goodman), who help fool the Iranians into thinking the hostages are filmmakers on location, makes this an inside-Hollywood story — one that shows how residents of the Dream Factory can do palpable, real-life good around the world. Argo is the movie that tells movie people they’re important, involved, generous and fun to be with. Or, as Mary Corliss said to me when she caught up with the movie early this year, “It’s a Hollywood love letter to itself. Of course it will win.”

(READ: Joel Stein’s profile of Ben Affleck)

Last year, The Artist painted a dewy portrait of Old Hollywood and took Best Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay. Even the previous year’s winner, The King’s Speech, could be seen as a showbiz fable: an acting lesson given to the King of England. Argo has elements of both of those films, since the Mendez character is essentially a director giving motivation notes to his amateur actors, the hostages. For all these reasons — a popular star’s bounce back from failure, his movie’s warming, feel-good tone and the aura of inside-Hollywood benevolence — Argo will win Best Picture. And Affleck will have shaken off what he may have imagined to be Curse of Corliss.

One last thing. If I’d caught up with Affleck at that National Film Board party, I could also have said that I’d written a defense of him in his dark Bennifer-Gigli period in 2004. The story ended by noting: “Affleck is just 31 and, with a few smart movie choices, can have a long career. He’s got plenty of time. Humphrey Bogart didn’t get his first defining film role, in The Maltese Falcon, until he was 41.” Affleck doesn’t turn 41 until August, and by then he will have left Bennifer far behind. On Sunday night, he’ll be Benoscar.