‘Les Miz,’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Upset the Oscar Race – But Is One the Big Winner?

Two of the year's most hotly-awaited films, Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" and Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," have the potential to upset an already unsettled Oscar race

"Les Miserables" screened on Saturday.

"Zero Dark Thirty" screened on Sunday.

How different does the Oscar race look on Monday?

Zero Dark ThirtyFrom this vantage point, it looks significantly different … but not totally transformed. The films that were in the driver's seat before the Thanksgiving holiday are still major awards players. The newcomers are formidable. And a race that looked far from settled in October and November still has lots of question marks as December nears.

Since the Toronto Film Festival in September, conventional wisdom has been that Ben Affleck's "Argo" is the film to beat, with David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" a strong contender because of its heart and humor. Then Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" arrived – and since its initial sneak preview at the New York Film Festival, a film that initially seemed too slow and talky to connect with voters has picked up rave reviews and strong box-office numbers on its way to considerable Oscar momentum.

Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," meanwhile, has completely dazzled a good number of the viewers who have seen it, and certainly stands in good stead particularly in the nominations phase of voting, where passion counts for everything.

Also read: With an Eye on Oscars, 'Lincoln' and 'Pi' Unexpectedly Ace Box-Office Tests

Les MiserablesBut with those four films the clear frontrunners among the movies that had been seen, the weekend's newcomers are major players as well.

"Les Miserables" is epic filmmaking, an invigorating take on an old-fashioned form that never apologizes for or tries to "solve the problem" of its characters expressing themselves by singing, not talking; if the musical form hasn't really been celebrated at the Oscars since "Chicago" a decade ago, moviemaking this grand is all but guaranteed to impress voters. 

Tom Hooper's extravaganza is the rare musical with vocals that were recorded live and with barely any spoken dialogue. The way in which Hooper embraces the form and pumps up the scale of a much-loved, long-running theatrical show will likely prove irresistible to voters with a taste for Broadway theater and supersized filmmaking.

Also read: 'Les Miserables Unveiled to Ovations, Controversy and High Oscar Hopes

I'm not convinced that it's the instant Best Picture frontrunner that some have proclaimed: Much of the film left me cold, as musicals often do. But even well-regarded musicals often leave Academy voters cold, too: witness the 2006 Broadway adaptation "Dreamgirls," which was considered a Best Picture shoo-in before Oscar voters unexpectedly left it out of the picture, director and lead-acting categories.

"Les Miz" will certainly have enough passionate adherents to give it a truckload of nominations, and probably enough to make it the year's most-nominated film – and Anne Hathaway might want to start clearing a spot for the Best Supporting Actress trophy that her searing rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" will probably win her. 

But for now, particularly given the consensus a movie has to assemble in the final round of voting, I can't call it the favorite to win.

"Zero Dark Thirty," on the other hand, is a harder sell, a longer shot and to my mind a better movie. Tough and visceral and uncompromising, the film about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden is gripping procedural with a sharp edge; it's a film that could seize the moment and feel realer than "Argo" and timelier than "Lincoln," particularly if it gets the kind of critical support that Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" received in 2009.

It could conceivably turn off voters with its unsparing depiction of the lengths to which the U.S. intelligence service went to locate and kill the terrorist leader. At almost two hours and 40 minutes, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a tightly-wound drama that makes the search for a cell phone location as gripping as the raid on bin Laden's compound – but it is also a brutal film that opens with extended scenes of torture, and one whose central character (played by Jessica Chastain in a performance that will make her one of the top rivals for Best Actress honors) deliberately remains a cipher.

Jessica ChastainI think it's clearly one of the year's best movies and a film whose grim details and attention to detail could set it apart from the competition. But it will take a boost to get some viewers to look past its cold, clinical, distinctly un-Hollywood approach to its subject. (This film and "Argo" seem to come from two different universes.)

It could get that boost from the critics or from good box-office numbers (hardly a given for a movie this tough) or just from a growing sense that Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal have nailed something true, central and unsettling about the times in which we live.

As formidable as they are, though, neither of the films delivers a knockout blow to "Argo" or "Lincoln" or "Silver Linings Playbook" or "Life of Pi." Of those, I think "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings" currently have the upper hand. The former looks more like a true frontrunner with every new rave and strong weekend, while the latter has a real ace-in-the-hole (funny, hard-won emotion) that lands it in many voters' sweet spots.  

Of course, we've yet to see Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" or Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," the latter of which might have a serious chance to throw the race into even more disarray.

Stay tuned. This one isn't over by a long shot.