Oscars Lincoln Les Miserables Argo ZDT

With Thanksgiving over and done with, we've arguably reached the mid-point of the awards season. Things will be kicking off with the Independent Spirit nominations arriving tomorrow, and the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review following next week. And with Oscar ballots going out not long after, almost every film has been screened, with "Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty" making their debuts over the weekend to press and industry types, leaving "Django Unchained" the last major contender to be seen by critics. And many of the big movies, including "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Life Of Pi" most recently, have now been seen by audiences too.

All of this means that it seems like a pretty good time to take the temperature of the awards race as it stands right now. One thing so far is certainly clear -- after several years of indies dominating the Oscars ("Million Dollar Baby" in 2005 was the last true-blue studio picture to win Best Picture), this year is seeing the return of studio fare in a big way to the Academy, with most of the big contenders hailing from within the establishment.

To reiterate what we've said in the past, it's also quite a diverse list of contenders, and one that's still fluid -- whereas previous years have seen "The Artist" and "The King's Speech" lock things down fairly early on, there's still a wide range of pictures seriously threatening for Best Picture, and multiple films with a good chance of winning the top prize. So which are locked in at this stage? Which are competing for those extra slots made possible by the rule changes the Academy made last year? And which need a minor miracle to be back in the hunt? You can read our thoughts below, and let us know your own in the comments section.

The Locks

If it's not quite the front-runner, it's up there, thanks to tremendous reviews (for the most part), strong box office and a titanic performance at its center. It's certainly Spielberg's biggest contender, awards-wise, since "Saving Private Ryan," even if (or perhaps because) it appeals much more to older critics and voters than to younger ones, and its looking good for a big swath of nominations. Best Picture, Director, Score and Screenplay nominations are likely in the bag, and Tony Kushner is a good bet to win the latter. Daniel Day-Lewis is a certain Best Actor nominee in a very a tough field, while Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones are building steam to join him with supporting nods. Beyond that, the film has good chances below the line as well, with Production Design, Cinematography, Make-up, Costume, Editing and even Visual Effects all in play; even the sound categories could happen. Either way, 10 and 13 nods are not out of the question, and this should be a big presence in February.

Les Miserables Amanda Seyfried Eddie Redmayne
"Les Miserables"
Our gut has said all year that this felt like a potential awards-gobbling monster, and reactions from the screenings that began on Friday seemed to back that up. Standing ovations and tear-stained handkerchiefs greeted showings on both coasts, along with a general consensus that the film is a triumphant screen version of the stage musical hit destined to be a big Oscar player. And while we wouldn't want to jump in until reviews officially drop next month, it's certainly the biggest threat to "Lincoln" at present, and might well turn out to be the big dog of the season. Hugh Jackman seems to be the entry into the Best Actor race we always figured he would be, while Anne Hathaway is presumptive front-runner in Supporting Actress (possibly joined by co-star Samantha Barks), and one or both of Eddie Redmayne and Russell Crowe look to get into Supporting Actor. The film's all but certain to win Best Original Song for new number "Suddenly," while Sound, Cinematography, Costume and Production design nods are all feasible. Along with Editing (and maybe Visual Effects), Screenplay is tougher to call; it'll depend on whether voters deem William Nicholson's script to have done more than a straight transposition of the stage show to screen, and in a tough category, it might fall short. It certainly seems all-but-certain to get Picture and Director nods too, but the interesting question is whether they go hand-in-hand if the film wins. Traditionally, the helmer of the Best Picture winning-film takes Best Director too. But if "Les Miserables" takes the big prize, will Tom Hooper get his second Oscar in three years with it?

Argo, Affleck, Arkin, Goodman
The front-runner for a time, Ben Affleck's film is still doing very nicely financially -- it should cross $100 million at the box office in the next few days, although it's likely to drop out of the top 10 within the next couple of weeks. And it's still widely liked, with a mix of comedy, thrills and pathos. But one senses it might have peaked too soon, as "Up In The Air" and "The Social Network" did before it. It's a tough thing to keep up the momentum from a Telluride premiere and an October release all the way through to the ceremony in February, and "Argo," as popular as it is, is being overshadowed by fresher-feeling competition -- the similarly geo-political "Zero Dark Thirty" in particular threatening to steal its thunder. It does have the advantage of being, like "The Artist," a movie about movies, which should at least ensure it a Best Picture nomination, but it may feel relatively slight in comparison to more epic competition, when it comes to a win. It's also hurt by being less dominant in the technical categories than some others; Editing feels like the only below-the-line sure thing to join likely noms for Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Alan Arkin's is also deemed to be in the hunt for Supporting Actor, but with "Lincoln" and "Les Miserables" offering up multiple potentials in the category, don't be shocked if Arkin misses out. All that said, if nominations materialize in Sound, Production Design, Cinematography or Costume categories, none of which are totally unlikely, it'll suggest a broader range of support that could see the film in contention for bigger prizes as well.

Life Of Pi
"Life Of Pi"
Being a 3D visual extravaganza from a master filmmaker, and sharing a release date have led to many drawing comparisons between last year's multiple nominee "Hugo" and this year's Ang Lee spectacle "Life Of Pi." The Scorsese picture was deemed the sole true threat to "The Artist" last year, and ultimately managed more nominations, and the same number of prizes, but lost out in all the big categories. Very well liked and reviewed, we'd reckon the next few weeks at the box office may determine how much of a player it is. Best Picture and Director nominations seem inevitable, while Visual Effects, Score and Cinematography are all strong possibilities as well. This movie will probably easily win over in the technical categories -- it's a rather remarkable achievement in that regard -- but whether that converts to the bigger categories too remains to be seen.

Silver Linings Playbook
"Silver Linings Playbook"
There are many pundits out there who have been predicting big things for David O Russell's crowd pleasing "Silver Linings Playbook" since it played at TIFF in September. Being a comedy, the sweet and funny film will have a tougher road to a Best Picture win against more serious minded fare, but a nomination seems likely. And in the acting race, it certainly has some strong contenders with Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro looking like sure-fire nominees, and Bradley Cooper has a very good chance at cracking a tough Best Actor field. Meanwhile, a Screenplay nomination should happen, and it has a good shot at Directing as well. And already off to the races at the box office -- with a per screen average besting "Lincoln" over the weekend -- strong legs as it platforms out will certainly help.

Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain Kyle Chandler
"Zero Dark Thirty"
The is the most recent to pop up on radars, with first reviews arriving over the weekend as it screened in Los Angeles and New York City. And the word on Kathryn Bigelow's Bin Laden-chase picture is damn good. It seems, from our review and others, to be exactly what we were hoping for; an impossibly detailed procedural that makes it the "All The President's Men" or "Zodiac" for the war on terror. That's not traditionally the sort of thing that floats the Academy's boat, these days at least, but between the subject matter and Bigelow and Boal's win for 'The Hurt Locker," it looks likely that the film will make it into the Best Picture race. Some are calling it the front-runner, but it's early on, and high emotions tend to level out. Where will it figure in otherwise? Jessica Chastain is looking good for her first Best Actress nomination, and some have suggested that she's Jennifer Lawrence's toughest competition in the category. Director and Screenplay should also happen (Bigelow and Russell are competing for that fifth slot, but Bigelow's the more familiar name, and the film seems to be more reflective of her authorial voice). Technical categories are harder to call, but editing and sound nods are probably its best bet, and cinematography might well be up for grabs as well.