As the film critics associations roll out their lists of favorites this year, the 2012 Oscar race is officially heating up.
Not that the critics groups are a "reliable bellwether" for which way the Academy will go, says New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.
Often the films at the top of critics' lists will peak too early, like "The Social Network" did last year. Or, as is the case this year, "there are still some shoes to drop," said Scott, pointing to Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," Angelina Jolie's "In the Land of Blood and Honey" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," starring Oscar-winning duo Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks.
"There's still a lot left to happen and it's hard to predict at this point which movies will still be standing," he told ABCNews.com.
One thing the critics seemed to have accurately seized on is that this year's movies have passions running high.
A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association tweeted after the group's vote Sunday, "While the morning vote went fast, LAFCA awards now bogged down by fighting. No fisticuffs yet, but I did just yell 'Chaos!'"
"It's been a strong and unusual year," Scott said. "A lot of movies broke the mold in different ways. I thought 'Moneyball' was quite good and that's not your usual sports movie. I loved 'Tree of Life.' Either you get caught up in (Terrence Malick's) personal vision or you find it self-indulgent."
Then there's "The Descendants," which Scott calls "one of my favorites of them all." He said star George Clooney is sure to earn a nomination, as is Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney's eldest daughter and whom Scott calls a "star in the making."
Click through to see the other standouts this year who are generating early Oscar buzz.
Even in black and white, with no dialogue and a limited release, "The Artist" is winning a lot of fans, including the New York, Boston and D.C. film critics who all named it their best picture.
Scott calls it the Weinstein Company's dark horse this year. Last year, the Weinsteins swept the Academy Awards with "The King's Speech" and they are likely hoping for a repeat.
"Never count Meryl Streep out," Scott said. "She's a tour de force."
The 62-year-old actress, who appears on the cover of Vogue for the first time, is still in her prime, as she takes on another iconic role, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
Her competition this year: Glenn Close, who plays a woman who lives as a man in "Albert Nobbs"; Rooney Mara in David Fincher's adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"; and Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn."
"The Help" star Viola Davis "should not be counted out" of the best actress race, Scott said, adding that her co-stars Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone could also score nominations.
A summer blockbuster, the film is a likely best picture candidate.
"A lot of people saw that movie and it was talked about and argued about," Scott said. "I think that it will resurface."
Still to come before the year's end not one but two Steven Spielberg movies.
"The Adventures of Tintin" is the famed director's first foray into animation and Scott says it looks and feels far different than anything we've seen in recent years. It could score one of the animation spots.
But the one with the most awards potential is "War Horse," based on the book and stage play. "It's a big old fashioned sweeping Hollywood film," Scott said. "It will probably have some impact on the awards' race."
Brad Pitt, who recently announced he will retire from acting in three years, turned in two stellar performances in 2011.
In "Moneyball," he played the unorthodox general manager of the Oakland A's. Pitt's performance as a domineering father in Terrence Malick's epic family drama "Tree of Life" helped the film earn Cannes' top prize and kudos from critics.
Pitt, sure to be nominated for one of them, could be competing against his friend Clooney, Leonardo diCaprio for "J. Edgar," and relative newcomer Michael Fassbender.
The German-Irish actor has had a very busy year, playing Mr. Rochester in the latest screen adaptation of "Jane Eyre," starring in the blockbuster "X-Men: First Class" and playing Carl Jung in "A Dangerous Method."
But the man named best actor by the LA film critics would likely earn a nomination for his role as a businessman struggling with sex addiction in "Shame."
"It's a very intense performance," Scott said. "Not my favorite movie. Fassbender is better than the film he's in."
Scott calls him the "male Jessica Chastain," another actor working so much you'd have to look hard to find a movie she was not in. Chastain was also honored by the LA film critics for her roles in "The Debt," "Tree Of Life," "Take Shelter" and "The Help."
This year's director's race should bring out the biggies: Spielberg, Clint Eastwood ("J. Edgar"), Malick, Woody Allen ("Midnight in Paris") and Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese's 3-D family friendly film "Hugo" was named best picture by the National Board of Review and Scorsese is definitely a contender for best director. But Scott said he's rooting for Malick for his "extraordinary example of personal filmmaking."
Another movie wildcard is this summer's runaway comedy hit, "Bridesmaids."
Star Melissa McCarthy has already racked up a couple of surprise best supporting actress prizes from the Boston and New York film critics. The movie could snag a best picture nod, Scott said, "if the Academy can ever get over its bias against comedy."
With its weakest entry in years, Pixar doesn't look to have a lock on the animation category in 2012, Scott said.
Spielberg's "Tintin" should get a nod. But "Rango," Gore Verbinski's animated comedy western, is the favorite going in, topping many of the critics' lists.
"It had its own wonderfully original look," Scott said about "Rango."
- Arts & Entertainment
- Terrence Malick