Matthew McConaughey Tye Sheridan Mud
Why It Could Be A Contender: When we discussed the race in the aftermath of Cannes, we mentioned that this was, more than anything, the film that came out of the festival as a previously unknown quantity looking like it had awards potential. Universally deemed the most accessible film yet from director Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter"), it got a very warm reception at the tail end of the festival (even with a few naysayers, like ourselves), and a few real raves came out in support of the film. Plus it has Matthew McConaughey, who's had a very strong year, and it feels like he's a likely nominee so long as one film comes out deemed as 'the one'; the performance that best sums up his comeback. Whether it had the stuff for Best Picture wasn't yet clear, but McConaughey and co-star Reese WItherspoon (and possibly a screenplay nod for Nichols) all seemed like reasonable bets.
Why It Might Not Be: Two and a half months on, it STILL doesn't have a distributor. We're not the only ones to express some bafflement with that, but it's not a great sign for the film's chances, especially as it hasn't been included in a fall festival line-up yet. Maybe a deal's in the works and just yet to be announced, but it certainly needs to land something by mid-September if it'll be a serious contender. It also has a problem with the McConaughey performance, in that some support is already starting to line up behind "Magic Mike" as the nominatable turn. He could campaign in two separate categories, if it came to it, but that's already starting to feel like the one, and that traction will be hard to regain. And without that as a spearhead, any chance at a wider play may be lost.

Christian Bale
"Out of the Furnace"
Why It Could Be A Contender: It's easy to forget now, but "Crazy Heart" was a late-breaking shocker in the Oscar race. In the summer of 2009, Paramount was set to send it straight to video, but Fox Searchlight picked it up, although originally setting it for a spring release, expecting to push it at Sundance and SXSW. But as late as November, the studio moved the film into December, premiering it at the relatively low-profile Santa Fe Film Festival, and two months later, it had two Oscars, including Best Actor for Jeff Bridges. So could director Scott Cooper's new film, crime flick "Out of the Furnace," follow a similar path? After all, the film has an outstanding cast -- Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard -- the presence of bigwigs Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Kavanaugh and Ridley Scott as producers, and a similar lyrical Western/crime feel to something like "No Country for Old Men," if the excellent script is anything to go by. Backers Relativity Media don't have another player in the race at present either, so it'd get their undivided attention.
Why It Might Not Be: Relativity has never had any players in the race as a distributor at least, so it's untested territory for them. More importantly, the film only wrapped in late May, so it would mark a speedy turnaround if he was able to get it ready for a 2012 release (although again, Bigelow's film wrapped at a similar time, and Tarantino's well after). We suppose it could yet pop up at a fall festival -- a late TIFF announcement, Telluride or even somewhere like Rome, who should be higher profile this year. But without that boost, it may struggle to get a foothold, especially as other crime films like "Lawless" and "Killing Them Softly" were non-starters, Oscar-wise. Not unfeasible, but we suspect this'll be a 2013 release in the end.

Matt Damon
"The Promised Land"
Why It Could Be A Contender: Another film that started shooting late in the year, this was originally set to be Matt Damon's directorial debut from a script co-written with "The Office" star John Krasinski that focuses on the controversial practice of 'fracking,' with Damon playing a corporate type trying to convince a small town to let them drill under their homes. Ultimately, Gus Van Sant took over the director's chair, and despite the late start, multiple reports have suggested that the filmmaker and backers Focus Features are targeting a limited release before the end of the year. It sounds, if they do get it done in time, it would be right in the wheelhouse, particularly with Oscar-friendly actors like Damon and Frances McDormand in the cast (a major role for veteran Hal Holbrook sounds like a Supporting Actor nomination waiting to happen, too).
Why It Might Not: Well, as much as anything, they do have a tight deadline to stick to, and it's unlikely it'll get a festival slot anywhere, or really screen much before December (then again, in a year where several contenders are in a similar position, maybe that's not going to be a huge disaster). And while we're assuming this won't be the Van Sant of "Paranoid Park," it could also turn out to be closer to "Finding Forrester" than "Milk." Plus, for every "Erin Brokovich," there's a "Conviction." And in a year of big, bold scopes, could it get overshadowed by films told on a grander scale?

Hemsworth Rush 1
Why It Could Be A Contender: He might not be a critical favorite, but Ron Howard's had plenty of love from the Academy, with Best Picture nominations for "Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind" (which won, along with a directing award), and "Frost/Nixon." He's reunited with the writer of the latter for "Rush," a biopic of Formula 1 racing driver James Hunt and Niki Lauda (played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl), and while that doesn't immediately sound like Oscar material, neither did "Frost/Nixon." It's inspirational, powerful material (Lauda was burned horifically in a crash, only to come back and race a mere six weeks later), and Howard certainly knows how to connect that sort of thing to Academy notions. With a string of hits behind him and freshly anointed by Spielberg, Hemsworth is becoming something of a golden boy in Hollywood, and the field is somewhat lacking in inspirational sports pictures at present, which can often do well ("The Blind Side," most recently).
Why It Might Not Be: Another film that's not been in the editing room long (it wrapped in May), Howard might have a trickier job of getting the film done by December, given that the races are likely to feature a higher proportion of effects footage. Furthermore, American crowds care little for Formula 1, and the older Academy crowd aren't likely to be swung by a cast they probably haven't heard of (bar the rumored cameo from Russell Crowe as Richard Burton). And as a bigger studio film, it faces a struggle in that December is already crammed as it is; moving it might give it Oscar qualification, but it also risks the film being buried by more high-profile competitors.