"Cloud Atlas": The Wachowski-Tykwer magical mystery tour "Cloud Atlas" may not have had the best makeup of the year, but it certainly had the most makeup of the year. Seeing major stars like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry change ethnicity, gender and time period via makeup and hairstyling is flashy enough to gain a nomination. (The film's makeup artists talk about the challenges of transforming multiple characters here.)
"Les Miserables": A lavish period piece usually strikes a chord with Academy voters across multiple categories, and this film has serious Oscar momentum following its press screenings over the Thanksgiving weekend. Period piece, check. Destitute characters, check. Anne Hathaway's shaved head, check.
"Lincoln": Daniel Day-Lewis looks exactly like Abraham Lincoln in this film, so that's a major plus. The prestige elements of Spielberg, Day-Lewis and an historic epic all bode well for this film getting a makeup nom. The uncanny crevice-like face wrinkles age Day-Lewis by about 15 years, and the Academy tends to like old-age transformation. (Think Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button, Jim Carrey as Lemony Snicket, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf.) Day-Lewis's Lincoln also has a funny aside in the opening scene of the film, commenting on his unruly hair, which draws attention to behind-the-scenes coiffing.
"Hitchcock": Anthony Hopkins' jowly facial prosthetics as the Master of Suspense aren't a dead-on match, but in conjunction with Hopkins' impressive stab at Hitch's slow articulation and penguin walking, the channeling overall could be enough to land "Hitchcock" a nomination. Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and particularly James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins might seal the deal. (Check out the recent L.A. Times profile on the film's makeup artist Julie Hewett here.)
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey": We've seen the many trailers and clips and know there's no less than 13 dwarves accompanying Bilbo on his unexpected journey, which means bushy facial hair and bulbous noses for everybody. But nothing seems drastically more impressive makeup-wise than the last three "Lord of the Rings" ("The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Return of the King" both won the makeup Oscars in their respective years) -- it could be hard nabbing attention for this one.
"Life of Pi": OK, so Richard Parker is a CG tiger. (So far the Academy is sticking with live-action as opposed to animated hair and makeup.) But Suraj Sharma undergoes radical and believable transformation throughout this survival adventure, including a stretch where he's starving to death.
"Anna Karenina": This isn't the most attention-grabbing of the bunch, but the same reasoning behind "Les Miserables" applies here. Knightley's kinked hair and Jude Law's convincing receding hairline and aged appearance are impressive (though the bleach-job on Aaron Johnson as Vronsky looks terrible).
"Holy Motors": The inclusion of this foreign title could seem wishful, but consider that heroic Denis Levant changes his own hair and makeup on camera multiple times throughout the film -- and, even with that extra-distinctive mug, convincingly changes his appearance from the flower-eating Merde to a light-beam-glowing sex ninja (for lack of a better descriptor) and more. Academy voters might be impressed by the meta-makeup angle of the film. If they can be persuaded to check it out.
"Looper": Joseph Gordon-Levitt channels a young Bruce Willis with aplomb in Rian Johnson's layered sci-fi film, but did the makeup add or detract? His thin lips, whittled nosebridge and bushy eyebrows were not consistent from scene to scene. Still, the film represents an audacious degree of difficulty with makeup front and center: see Meryl Streep in "Iron Lady."