Hollywood's decision to greatly expand the best picture nominee list for the Academy Awards has the potential to throw a wrench into many an Oscar pool.
This year, nine films crowd the category, a typically eclectic mix. The early edge goes to "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's sprawling epic about the Civil War and the quest to abolish slavery.
But the category is likely not a runaway. Ben Affleck's tense thriller "Argo," about a little-known chapter of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, is in the mix, but it may have opened too long ago to be fresh in Academy voters' minds.
Another challenge to Honest Abe may be posed by "Zero Dark Thirty," director Kathryn Bigelow's fictionalized account of a real undercover CIA operative (a blazingly intense Jessica Chastain) who spent a decade on the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
That film pulls no punches in its straight-up depiction of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques as part of CIA field strategy, which has stirred up some political controversy that may crimp the film's Oscar chances. The Academy doesn't do controversy very well.
It would be nice to think "Django Unchained" has a shot, but it's doubtful. As entertaining as the film is, it has too many of those signature over-the-top Tarantino touches to bring home Oscar gold. Maybe Tarantino can take home the screenplay award for which he's nominated.
Here's what's shaking in the other "big seven" categories:
Feels like the inside track inevitably goes to Spielberg for "Lincoln." David O. Russell got buzz for "Silver Linings Playbook," but he won't top Spielberg.
In any other year, Denzel Washington would cakewalk for "Flight," his wrenching, emotional role as a drug- and alcohol-addicted airline pilot forced to face his own demons. But this category is even more of a "Lincoln" lock, with Daniel Day-Lewis disappearing into the role.
A two-horse race between Jessica Chastain for "Zero Dark Thirty" and Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook." It's a tough one; Chastain was great as an obsessed CIA operative, but the character may prove a bit chilly at awards time. Lawrence was much warmer and more accessible in her role as an emotionally troubled young woman trying to come to terms with adulthood and Bradley Cooper, not necessarily in that order.
Best supporting actor
A very tough category. Christoph Waltz flat-out made "Django Unchained." Tommy Lee Jones gave one of the best supporting performances ever in "Lincoln." Philip Seymour Hoffman flew under the radar to uniformly rave reviews in "The Master." Bringing up the back of a three-horse race are Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook" and Alan Arkin in "Argo."
Best supporting actress
Another toss-up. Helen Hunt got a lot of notice for her role as a sex surrogate in "The Sessions." Anne Hathaway's singing talents were dissected mercilessly for "Les Miserables." Sally Field in "Lincoln" and Amy Adams in "The Master" also are in the hunt.
Best original screenplay
This is where Tarantino may hit pay dirt for his "Django Unchained" script. He'll be challenged by Mark Boal for "Zero Dark Thirty" and John Gatins for "Flight." Ë