"Argo" is now unquestionably the front-runner for Best Picture.
When I made my predictions for Best Picture last week, I had "Lincoln" as the favorite with "Argo" gaining steam but still in second place. The weird thing is, neither this past weekend's "Argo" victories at the Producers Guild and SAG Awards were a surprise to me (I did pick "Argo" to win Best Cast right here, in fact), and yet they've also completely flipped my Best Picture predictions on their head. What can I say? Like a great and mighty ship, I am slow to turn around on these things. But seriously, with wins at the Globes, PGA, and SAG, "Argo" has all the makings of a classic frontrunner, and if Ben Affleck were nominated for Best Director right now, it would be a 95% lockdown certainty.
It's that one pesky detail that's throwing us off: No film since 1989 has won Best Picture without a nominated director. But the fact is, this could just be an anomaly of a year. With the voting window for Oscar nominations pushed ahead, every voting body is essentially on their own timeline, and while "Argo" wasn't necessarily a pauper when it came to overall Oscar nominations, the Ben Affleck narrative hadn't quite had the chance to settle in like it has now. Which brings us to ...
If Nominations Were Announced Today, Ben Affleck Would Be a Best Director Nominee
This is, of course, purely conjecture. There's every chance that the directors branch of the Academy just had too many good choices for Best Director and that consensus never had an opportunity to form around Affleck. But after his wins -- and lovely, endearing speeches -- at the Globes, SAG, and (loathe as I am to give them any credit as influencers) the Critics Choice Awards, I would have been very surprised if Affleck hadn't gotten the bump into Best Director. (Whether that's a good thing or not is another conversation entirely. I wouldn't give up the Haneke or Zeitlin nominations for the world.)
The Hunt Is On For "Argo" Victories in Other Categories
So, if we're pegging "Argo" for a Best Picture win, what else is it getting? The fewest wins for a Best Picture winner in recent history is three, when "Crash" took Best Picture in a deeply divided year. With "Argo" really only favored in one category -- albeit the biggest one -- the question becomes: where would its other wins come from? The most obvious one is Best Film Editing, which is so often tied to Best Picture. More than even most years, this is the tech category to watch for an indication as to how Best Picture will shake out. Of the film's five other nominations, two come in the Sound categories. "Argo" doesn't fit the traditional bill of a movie that gets honored for its sound design -- more likely those will go to "Life of Pi" or "Skyfall" -- but an upset in either one of them would be a huge early indicator.
Best Supporting Actor is still technically up for grabs, with Tommy Lee Jones triumphing at the SAG Awards and Christoph Waltz the Globes champ. Alan Arkin isn't the most likely pick to win, but he's not exactly out of the running either. Similarly, Chris Terrio's script is a decided underdog in Adapted Screenplay to Tony Kushner for "Lincoln," but if voters just simply like "Argo" better, there is upset potential. But if I'm going to place my bets on a most likely third win, it would be in Best Original Score. Alexandre Desplat is a five-time nominee and ripe for his first-ever win. Globe-winner Mychael Danna is the favorite to win, but not prohibitively. (Interestingly, in that "Crash"-winning year of 2005, "Memoirs of a Geisha" tied the Best Picture winner with three wins in the tech categories. "Life of Pi" could pull a similar feat with entirely forseeable wins in Visual Effects, Cinematography, Score, and/or the Sound categories.)
Best Director Will Be a Total Mystery Until Oscar Night
Is there any doubt that Ben Affleck is going to win the Directors Guild trophy as well? Not to my mind. Which means that going into Oscar night, no nominated director will have any momentum. Everybody assumes Steven Spielberg to be the favorite, and not without good reason. "Lincoln" still got 12 total nominations. The rise of "Argo" doesn't erase that fact. But if enthusiasm for the film is weak, Spielberg could be ripe for an upset, and we will have no idea who the most likely beneficiary would be until the envelope is opened
Award-Winning Campaigns Are Fragile, Ephemeral Things
I feel like this is my biggest takeaway. Because we never get to see things like vote totals, we tend to read Oscar narratives from the endpoint and then backwards. "The King's Speech" won because an inspirational tale of a royal with a handicap was always going to win. But the fact that "Argo" could steamroll to a Best Picture win and yet lack a Best Director nomination simply because a voting window was nudged up the calendar by mere days shows just how quickly the consensus can turn around. The crazy thing is, there's still time for it to turn around again. Oscar ballots don't even go out until February 8th. Wouldn't the craziest thing be that "Argo" is peaking too early? The movie that "Lincoln" true-believers have been pointing to is "Apollo 13," which took the PGA, DGA, and SAG, but lacked a Best Director nomination at the Oscars and went on to lose Best Picture to "Braveheart." Sometimes the Oscar voters just have their own idea.
But for now, for the moment, if ballots went out today (they don't), all signs point to "Argo."