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How would ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ have fared at the last Oscars?

Zeitlin WallisSo, I finally saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” on Monday, which means I finally saw my first legitimate 2012 contender for a best picture nomination. While chronicling its awards-winning run at Sundance and Cannes, I purposely worked to keep myself free of all but the barest of details of “Beasts” — though not the hype.  As it turned out, the hype wasn’t a problem. “Beasts” was stunning and deeply moving.

Because it’s so early in the Oscar season (particularly for a simple country awards editor that has been swept up in Emmy season), it’s more than a little premature to guess where “Beasts” will place in the upcoming Oscars. As an alternative, I thought it might be interesting to hypothesize how the Benh Zeitlin film would have fared at the most recent Oscars.

I want to say “Beasts” would have been a lock for a picture nom, taking the slot that typically goes to a dark but top-notch independent movie with a groundswell of critical support (c.f. “Winter’s Bone,” “Precious”), but I would have said the same thing nearly a year ago for “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” only to be proven wrong.  Nevertheless, I’d still place “Beasts” on a slightly higher creative plane than “Martha” and assert that it would have found its way into the final nine (or 10).

For that matter, I think “Beasts” would have proven an even worthier contender for best picture than the film that won the award in March 2010, “The Hurt Locker.”

Would 8-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (above right, with Zeitlin) have displaced Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Rooney Mara, Michelle Williams or eventual winner Meryl Streep to become the youngest lead actress Oscar nominee? That’s a tougher call, because each of the five seems to have had a specific reason for their nomination. For example, Close was in a fairly low-profile film (giving what I thought was a rather overrated performance), but her nomination had the air of being practically pre-determined.

The mesmerizing Wallis would have certainly complicated matters, but I’m not sure she’d overcome the de facto Academy bias against youngsters. Keisha Castle-Hughes of “Whale Rider” is the only lead actress nominee ever under the age of 20.

For director honors, Zeitlin would have had to knock out one of Michel Hazanavicius, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Alexander Payne and Martin Scorsese. Hazanavicius was the only (previously) small name on that list, but he won, so again, it’s hard to see where exactly Zeitlin would have fit in. It’s doubtful he would have dented the passionate support on one side for the polarizing Malick, nor dissuaded enough of the fans of Allen, Payne and Scorsese, each of whom were perceived each to have delivered one of their best works in years.

The safest bet for “Beasts” among the major individual honors would have been the adapted screenplay by Zeitlin and playwright Lucy Alibar, where I will argue that Academy voters would have set aside “The Ides of March” without much difficulty.

As of now, no American movie has a higher Metacritic score than “Beasts.” But if this comparison with the 2011 Oscar nominees is any indication, the critical accolades won’t change the film’s underdog status. “Beasts” will need some furious momentum and some missteps by the heavyweights to make a major dent in the above-the-line awards race.

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