Yahoo! Best-Picture Roundtable: Is “The Artist” a slam dunk — or can “The Descendants,” “Hugo,” or “The Help” defy the odds?

Thelma Adams
Coverage of The 84th Annual Academy Awards®

Lately, saying "The Artist" will win best picture is like predicting that Obama will be the Democratic presidential nominee. A safe bet. But is there upset potential? We gathered our expert crew to chime in. For our final Yahoo! Roundtable of the 2012 Oscar season, I welcome my colleagues Jonathan Crow, Matthew Whitfield, as well as actress-director Jordan Bayne, THR film reporter Tim Appelo, critic Caryn James, and Oscar guru Nathaniel Rogers.

Thelma Adams: OK, here we are: Down to the wire with our final 2012 Oscar roundtable. Best picture. I swung toward "The Help," but it just doesn't have the across-the-board support. I love "The Descendants," but did it peak too early? Is a win for "The Artist" inevitable? Or is it just the safe bet?

Matt Whitfield: It kills me to admit this -- because "The Tree of Life" was beyond genius and is deserving of much more praise -- but there are only three films in the race at this point. "The Artist," "The Help," and "The Descendants" all have a legit shot, but the overrated Hazanavicius-directed flick has the most important element in its arsenal ... momentum.

Caryn James: I think "The Artist," "The Help" and "Hugo" all have a real shot -- but if anything is going to overtake "The Artist," voters who wanted some of the also-ran nominees will have to abandon them or the votes will be too scattered. Sometimes the safe bet just wins.

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Jordan Bayne: Not much else to say really. I have been very vocal already about how much I did not like "The Descendants." To me, "The Tree of Life" is the best picture of the nominees. I loved "A Separation" from Iran, which, of course, is not in this category but it is such a strong film. There were so many films the Academy overlooked. ...

Jonathan Crow: Is it just me or is this an especially bland year for the Oscars? There's nothing nominated for best picture that I hated (of, course I avoided seeing "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"), but there wasn't anything I really loved. Or really liked, even. "The Help" is basically a pretty dishonest movie, but it's fun to watch and it made a lot of money. "The Artist" is, sigh, fine. Not great. Not bad. Just fine. "The Descendants" is also fine. "The Tree of Life" is gorgeous and portentous, but it left me cold and the last half hour looked like it was from an erectile dysfunction ad. The Academy had 10 possible slots, and they chose some of the most tepid Oscar-bait-y flicks around. Of course, this came from a year that saw an eighth "Harry Potter" movie, a fifth "Fast Five" flick, a fourth "Pirates" movie, a third "Transformers" film, a "Hangover" sequel, and, for some reason "Thor." Hollywood isn't in the mood to be imaginative, and the best-picture Oscars illustrate that. Gimme "Drive," "Melancholia," "Young Adult," "Take Shelter," "A Separation" (yes, it's in Foreign, but if "Life Is Beautiful" can be nominated, so can this one), "Bellflower," "Shame," and "We Need to Talk About Kevin." These movies took chances, the best-picture nominees (with the admitted exception of "The Tree of Life") didn't. But, for the Oscar poll, I'll flip a coin between "The Help" and "The Artist."

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Thelma: Oh, Jon, how did we get to this point where "The Artist" is the front-runner? Is it the Oscar homogenization factor? Certainly there are those who say "stop dumping on 'The Artist,'" and I understand that impulse. But is saying it's a macaroon and not a full gateau dumping, or is it a valid critique? As you said, "sigh, fine, not great."

"The Descendants" to me is the kind of movie Hollywood should be making all the time: smart, adult, entertaining, moving and, OK, star-driven like a Prius. I take issue with you on "The Help," because I think it is more honest than people give it credit for, honest in a candy shell, like M&M's. It connects with audiences, true. But I think it's honest about the complicated relationships between women in a very specific social context -- therefore it's about women, race, and class. But that might not be how you consider it dishonest, so I'll sidebar that discussion for now, counselor. I love your description of the last half hour of "The Tree of Life" as looking like it was from "an erectile dysfunction ad." Ha! And the core story, despite the shimmering Pitt & Chastain, is a cliché with plot holes. Let's ask this question: Why is Sean Penn's character so grumpy and lost, and did you really connect him with the brother he played as a grownup?

The trouble is Oscar bait versus daring, and there we sit on the same bench, Jon, even if we don't share the exact same titles. "Melancholia!" "We Need to Talk About Kevin!" And I would add "The Devil's Double" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" -- has anybody talked about the subtlety of that film's integration of homosexual culture? I'm sure someone has.

There is almost not a dog, or an Oscar footnote, that we haven't discussed this season. But does that make Oscars irrelevant? No. I'm defiant. We coalesce around these choices, we discuss, we put forth our alternatives, we say this is what we want in our culture, this is cinema, and this is a movie. And, hell, sometimes I'll take a good movie over cinema, but then my mind wanders back a few years to the "Star Trek" reboot.

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Jonathan: I guess what I'm reacting against is the lack of passion that this race is instilling in me. This is a first. There's no "Social Network" to root for or a "Crash" to despise. Does this make the Oscars irrelevant? Probably not, but if it keeps selecting the safe, it risks becoming the Grammys.  On the other hand, it's kind of great that all these Hollywood heavyweights are probably going to lose to a silent French flick.

Nathaniel Rogers: I'll never be able to wrap my head around the now wide perception that "The Artist" is a safe choice. This is a silent film from France ... and a comedy. Virtually every year the media complains that Oscar doesn't love comedy, and virtually every time Oscar does love a comedy the same voices complain that the film is too much of a trifle.


I love "The Artist: and I'm not ashamed to admit it. It's more inventively and joyously made than most of its competition. And shouldn't we want invention and joy, even (gasp) novelties on occasion, so that the movies aren't just one repetitive parade of superhero blockbusters in the summer and middlebrow "prestige" pictures about important issues for the holidays?

As for "A Separation," I think it's *the* best picture of the year, but I don't really blame the Academy for leaving it out of the top category. I think with the wider field they would have nominated it had it been pushed early enough. But Sony Pictures Classics waited and waited and waited. I bet it just barely squeaked into the screenplay category given how few people had seen it when nomination ballots were due.

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Thelma: OK, Nathaniel. I heard you. It was your point on comedy that registered. So I took "The Artist" challenge -- and watched it again last night. I still love it, and have renewed faith in Dujardin, but I think it lags in the second half before the big finish. And it's a short film to be anything less than compelling from start to finish. Is anybody else going to take "The Artist" challenge? I think I'll pull out "The Descendants" next. I've seen "The Help" in chunks on DVD and surprised myself with how much I was moved and touched -- again.

Tim Appelo: Good point about "The Artist" -- you're supposed to get your second wind when you're running a marathon, not a 220. "The Descendants" is incomparably the best Oscar candidate, both in quality and Oscar-worthy emotion, but Payne's method is not obvious enough. Oscar doesn't want the art that conceals art -- it wants "The Artist." "The Help," "The Artist," "Hugo." So many films this season were respectable base hits, but where's the home run? For me, that would be "The Descendants," "A Separation," "Pina," "Melancholia," "Midnight in Paris," maybe even "Drive," "Super 8," and "Bridesmaids" (what the hell).

Thelma: And that's a wrap. I thank all of our panelists for their frank Oscar insights. Tune in to ABC on Sunday night to see the final results. We'll be watching, too.

See the trailer for 'The Artist':