Yes, "The Artist" is running away with the Oscar ball. It has love from critics, dominated the SAG and Golden Globes nominations, and is strong with actors and craftspeople alike. As a nostalgic love letter to the movies--and a comic/tragic/romance--it has everything a Academy member could love, and will grab more Oscar nominations than any other film.
What could beat it? Winning Best Picture is about getting the love from all sectors of the Academy, including the biggest branch, the actors. Clearly, Martin Scorsese's well-reviewed "Hugo" and Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" (which has yet to be reviewed by critics and audiences) aren't winning over the actors. Neither is Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." That is not a necessity to land a best picture nomination, but it helps if you want to win. Scorsese, Spielberg and Malick could score as favored insiders in the director race, and all three films will score multiple nominations through the technical catgories. But even so, French outsider Michel Hazanavicius could still lead the directors race as well. And silent stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo will land nominations, for once not hampered by speaking accented English.
Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" does have actors behind it--George Clooney could win Best Actor, and Shailene Woodley has a shot at best Supporting Actress. Payne is a strong contender for Director and Adapted Screenplay. (Robert Forster hasn't shown up anywhere, but he is a favorite among actors.) But as a small-scale ensemble comedy, "The Descendants" not only peaked earlier at the fall festivals, but won't register through the technical categories. And not everybody loves it.
Popular favorites "Moneyball" and "The Help" do have actor support; "Moneyball" could win Adapted Screenplay, and Brad Pitt could muster a challenge to Clooney. "The Help"'s Viola Davis could beat Meryl Streep for best actress, and Octavia Spencer is the favorite in supporting. But Bennett Miller and Tate Taylor are not locks for director and their films will not score in technical categories.
Woody Allen's popular hit "Midnight in Paris," which has done well so far, is unlikely to score much beyond best picture, director and writer nominations. And while actor-directors often do well with the Academy, I don't see Clooney's "The Ides of March" or Clint Eastwood's poorly reviewed "J. Edgar" yielding many nominations. Leonardo DiCaprio has the best shot. It's hard to see anything picking up new momentum between now and ballot time. David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" could build a groundswell for Rooney Mara, and might score nods for editing or score, but it's still hurt by its status as a hard-R genre remake.
Which leaves "The Artist" cleaning up the field.