What are the worst Best Picture winners of all time? Though the answers may overlap, it's a question that's not entirely the same as, "What are the worst films ever to win Best Picture?" Several titles on the Academy's ultimate honor roll are artistically lacking, though that doesn't necessarily make them terrible winners. Accepting as most of us do that the Academy is rarely, if ever, going to agree with us on the year's single greatest film, we begin to value alternative virtues in Oscar champs: durability, universality, pop-cultural standing, provocation, reach.

I will always think the Academy made a mistake crowning "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain," while appreciating that they could have made far less interesting ones: by choosing the clumsier, thornier political conversation piece, they kept alive the idea of prestige cinema as a source of discussion and debate, whether within or between individual films. If mediocrity must triumph, in other words, let it be mediocrity that speaks to people, or makes them speak back. If a genuinely strong film wins that manages the same thing -- and once in a blue moon, it happens -- so much the better.

The worst Best Picture winners, then, are perhaps not the ones that get you really inflamed; rather, they're the ones you don't remember at all, and wouldn't have much to say about if you did. Got any strong feelings about "Gigi?" There you go.

This year's unusually competitive Best Picture race sees a refreshing amount of contenders vying to ensure 2012's eventual winner doesn't fall into the trap of instant irrelevance. You can already feel the friction building around such hopefuls as "Zero Dark Thirty," "Django Unchained," "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and even "Lincoln," as debate around their various historical and sociocultural reflections and representations continues to bubble far outside the routinely argumentative circle of Oscar pundits. 

Though its shedload of critics' awards is a great help, "Zero  Dark Thirty"'s campaign now seems at least partly fuelled by the ongoing back-and-forth among film critics and politicos alike about its depiction and (depending on whom you speak to) arguable validation of U.S. military torture techniques. The arguments against it are unflattering in the extreme, but the more vocal moral panic Kathryn Bigelow's film arouses in certain sectors of the media, the likelier voters are to check out  their screeners so as to stake their own position in the discussion. Some Academy members will surely join the prosecution, but they'll at least have watched the movie; right now, a little outside sensationalism, coupled with critical cred, is the best friend this lengthy, chilly, exhaustive procedural could have.

Will the discussion last? Of course not, but even when the smoke clears, the pointedly journalistic "Zero Dark Thirty" will stand as a daring artefact, preserving not only a fractious period in recent American (and indeed global) history, but arousing a snap poll of political reactions that may well shift towards or away from the film's version of events as our understanding of them deepens, or perhaps diminishes, with time. It's a formidable film in itself, but a substantial 21st-century document regardless, and about as exciting a Best Picture choice as the Academy could make this year. 

Or perhaps that'd be "Django Unchained," a period piece looking to generate at least as many righteously politicized column inches this season as the contemporary issue-mongering of "Zero Dark Thirty," and not just in Spike Lee's Twitter feed. Lee's rant against purported racism in Quentin Tarantino's slavery-themed quasi-blaxploitation Western -- not really a subgenre that has its own section in the video store -- is uninformed, as he admits he has no intention of seeing the film, but it's the media-baiting tip of the iceberg: there are more profound discussions to be had of the film's casually tongue-in-cheek appropriation of African-American stereotypes as coined in both black and white cultures, all perspectives colliding in Samuel L. Jackson's deliberately grotesque Uncle Tom parody.

Tavis Smiley recently joined Lee's bench by labelling the film "a spoof on slavery: Hollywood's gift to Negroes"; should such resentful reactions continue to emerge from vocal sources, Tarantino's film could become a critical sounding board in the ongoing discussion of racial representation in Hollywood, while an entirely separate argument about the ethics of its onscreen violence -- a Tarantino standby reignited by the proximity of the film's release to the Newtown tragedy -- simmers on the sidelines. "Django Unchained" is, I would venture, unruly, uncharacteristically male-skewed and rather short on subtext, but it's also gratifyingly spiky and alive -- proof of its director's enduring ability to test his audience in ways he may not even intend. Just a nomination would be a lasting asset to the race.

Against "Django"'s deranged hellfire, fellow slavery study "Lincoln" looks a comparatively staid option, but Steven Spielberg's film -- among his more academic, austere works -- has aroused its own share of civilized debate in historian circles, as learned voices discuss whether the film's dramatization of the political motives behind Abolition is strictly accurate or colored by more contemporary ideals, and whether it much matters either way.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," with its unspecified mythical reimagining of post-Katrina social decay, must still fend off accusations of underclass romanticization as it forces advocates and detractors alike to consider our understanding of the disenfranchised. Even "Argo," seemingly the most agreeable film in the race, seems a noteworthy, if potentially fast-dating, bookmark in Hollywood's ongoing renegotiation of its relationship to the Middle East, absorbing post-9/11 neuroses into the polyester fabric of its 30 year-old history. There's nothing provocative about "Les Miserables," admittedly, which could well see it surge through the middle in a close race. But with even that juggernaut looking to touch as more hearts than the others do nerves, the Academy would, paradoxical as this sounds, have to dig very deep to find a contender that doesn't mean too much to anyone at all. "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," anyone?

Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Kris Tapley, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS.