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Argo continues as a frontrunner; Flight shows an irresistible Denzel Washington

Screen’s US editor Jeremy Kay also surveys where Lincoln, The Life of Pi and The Sessions stand in the awards race so far.

Argo took hold of the ball at Telluride and hasn’t let go. It remains a frontrunner for best picture, director, screenplay and other major categories and the enthusiastic backing of deep-pocketed Warner Bros should ensure it stays in contention throughout the season. It deserves its status. The studio orchestrated a glitzy US premiere at the Academy in Beverly Hills on Oct 4 when the stars well and truly came out, as they say. Earlier this week Ben Affleck, the movie’s director, producer, writer and star, did himself no harm attending the vulgar promotional platform that is the Hollywood Film Awards. It all counts.

For the record a battalion of potential contenders attended that awards show. The road to the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood on Feb 24 2013 (by way of numerous critics awards, Globes, BAFTAs, etc.) is paved with flattery, hubris, rubber chicken and, occasionally, ingenuity. This last element was on show on Oct 15 when guild members and select press got a chance to see Flight at a cleverly staged bi-coastal event one day after the world premiere closed out the New York Film Festival (NYFF). Paramount dovetailed a guild screening in New York with a simultaneous presentation at the Arclight in Hollywood so that the ensuing press conference and Q+A were beamed over to the West Coast where audience members Tweeted questions.

I was at the Arclight and the occasion created a must-see aura about the movie, but in fairness Flight doesn’t need bells and whistles to commend itself to anyone in search of intelligent, gripping drama. Denzel Washington was feeling a little off-colour that day and declined to take part in the Q+A but no matter – we’ll be seeing and hearing plenty more of him in the months to come. The star, coming off the biggest box office hit of his career in Safe House, is irresistible as Whip Whitaker, a troubled commercial airline pilot whose professional brilliance and a single heroic act thrust him into the spotlight with unwelcome consequences. It’s an intelligent, uncannily empathetic performance about addiction that positions Washington front and centre in the lead actor race. For sure it will be tough going against the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis – understated yet authoritative as the 16th president of the United States in Lincoln – and John Hawkes on impish form as polio victim Mark O’Brien in The Sessions, but Washington, an Oscar winner for Training Day, has seldom been better. Perhaps never.

Every season there’s a movie that confounds your expectations and for me Flight is that movie because it’s so much richer than you expect. Paramount’s marketing boffins had a thankless task to bottle its essence. The billboards and marketing materials around Los Angeles show close-ups of Washington in his pilot’s uniform in the rain or condensation trails cutting through the brilliant blue. The look is almost pedestrian, like an episodic. It’s nobody’s fault because you can’t bind Flight in a nutshell. John Gatins’ screenplay is a complex heavyweight and I’ll write more about his struggle to get his story made in a forthcoming issue of Screen. Robert Zemeckis has immersed himself in motion-capture for the last 12 years but has clearly lost none of his live-action panache and is expert in his execution. The UK’s Kelly Reilly also stands out from a terrific ensemble and must be a player in the supporting actress race. Few movies will push Argo as hard all season.

The early word on Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi, which opened the NYFF on Sept 28, is that it will compete for best film, director, screenplay, cinematography and effects. I’m yet to see it and look forward to the experience as many have spoken of its visual majesty. Lee is a chameleon and Yann Martel’s book remains an enduring favourite in the zeitgeist. Fox is slowly beginning to roll out screenings and is playing its top live-action contender fairly close to its chest at this stage.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln will be a major contender as you’d expect. The DreamWorks saga won’t receive its official world premiere until the close of AFI FEST on Nov 8 but the movie has already screened a few times, off-piste as it were. It played as a kind of work-in-progress as the surprise movie at the NYFF on Oct 8 and they subsequently screened a final print on the Disney lot. It’s a finely crafted history lesson that drips with intrigue and demands close attention. If Lincoln over-eggs the intricacy of Civil War era politics in places it’s entitled to some culture-specific indulgence; as John Hawkes, who has a small but important role in the movie, remarked to me this week, now we know how Americans feel when they watch BBC period dramas. Regardless, Lincoln is beautifully staged and anchored by Day-Lewis’ deliciously measured, rather beguiling performance and a barnstorming turn by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Jones will give Silver Linings Playbook’s Robert De Niro and Argo’s Alan Arkin a run for their money in the supporting actor stakes. We’ll be writing plenty more about Lincoln in coming weeks.

Hawkes as I’ve said delivers the goods in The Sessions, which is in the thick of the screenings circuit now and scored a record per-screen average when Fox Searchlight launched it in the US last weekend. Box office glory is exactly the type of buzz a small movie like this needs. I was dreading this before it premiered in Sundance as The Surrogate (rights issues forced a name change) – the prospect of seeing the emaciated actor in an iron lung fumbling his way towards carnal knowledge was as appealing as bedding down for the night in an eviscerated deer carcass – but my ignorance of the life and spirit of the late poet and polio victim Mark O’Brien, upon whose autobiography this is based, meant I was in for a surprise.

It turns out we were all in for a pleasant shock, including Searchlight, who stumped up $6m for worldwide rights in Park City. They’re all great in The Sessions and Helen Hunt navigates a tricky role as the surrogate Cheryl with aplomb, but Hawkes takes the prize. His O’Brien is magnificent and moving, utterly without self-pity and possessed of a wit that makes this one of the most left-field feel-good movies to come along in a while.

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