Yes, Oscar faithful, we're back. It's time to play another round of contenders vs. pretenders in the always entertaining awards season game.  Are you excited yet? (On second thought, don't answer that.)

Now that the triple threat of early Fall film festivals has concluded,  awards consultants are jockeying to position their films and potential nominees in the best possible light. And, if it's mid-September, that means someone has landed the dreaded "frontrunner" tag.  Welcome to Ben Affleck's world.

Affleck's "Argo" charmed and impressed industry faithful from Telluride to Toronto over the past few weeks setting up the filmmaker's third directorial endeavor as a critical and crowd-friendly favorite. More importantly, Warner Bros., is no doubt relieved "Argo" was runner-up to the more comedic "Silver Linings Playbook" for TIFF's People's Choice Award given out on Sunday. They know they have the goods with the period thriller, but balancing the dramatic and comedic elements of "Argo" in a :30 TV spot will be difficult (i.e., the extended 2 minute spot running on "The Daily Show" last night). Clearly, no matter how it opens, the studio can have faith that "Argo" will have strong word of mouth. And as for Oscar? Well, just you wait.

The emergence of "Playbook" -- which even surprised some at the Weinstein Company -- is an intriguing wrinkle to the race. David O. Russell's dramedy will also win over moviegoers, but can it take the top prize? Oscar hasn't selected a best picture with as much comedy in it since "Shakespeare in Love" in 1999. And, before that, you'd have to consider "Driving Miss Daisy" or "Rain Man" as proper compatibles (sorry "Forrest Gump" is in a hybrid category all its own).  Since "Shakespeare," the Academy's choices have been "oh, so serious" and you can see that hesitation popping in voters minds when they have to mark their final ballot.

Right now, however, the media buzz is all about Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." We'll be discussing the critic's favorite throughout the season, but fans of the Hoffman/Phoenix showdown should take into consideration there are few comparables among previous best picture winners.  Obviously, Never say never, but for "The Master" the win may be racking up as many nominations as possible and dominating the year-end critics groups awards. And, moreover, without Scott Rudin pushing buttons behind-the-scenes, how much does Anderson really care about Oscar anyway?

That being said, over the next month or so we'll get our first look at Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and, eventually, Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" and Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land." Can any of them knock "Argo" from the top spot?  History says, yes, but until then the floor belongs to "Argo." 

Hope you can enjoy the experience Mr. Affleck.

Contender Countdown
Sept. 18, 2013

1. Argo
The clear frontrunner and it hasn't even played in Hollywood yet. That's what happens when you make a great movie Mr. Affleck.  Deep breaths.

2. Silver Linings Playbook
Might not have a shot at winning, but it's going to be a big crowd pleasing hit and it will absolutely land a best picture nomination. 

3. Lincoln
Spielberg. Daniel Day-Lewis. The Civil War. And, if 'War Horse' can make the field...

4. Les Miserables
Tom Hooper don't fail us now! There hasn't been a movie musical best picture nominee since 'Chicago' way back in 2003 (don't get me started on the 'Dreamgirls' snub).  Can this operatic tuner break the string?

5. The Master
It will win either LAFCA or NYFCC, shoot it may win both. It will be on more top 10 lists than any other film this year.  It's in.

6. The Impossible
Tearjerker. Amazing production. Strong performances. Summit needs to let a few contenders fall and then really kick this off hard at AFI Fest.

7. Life of Pi

Huge Ang Lee fan here, but I'm wary after Tom Rothman's resignation Friday.  'Pi' was his baby and this seems too coincidentally timed to be announced before the NYFF opening night premiere. Is the film so esoteric it won't play to audiences? Fingers crossed it works.

8. Promised Land
Mostly speculation, but its clear Focus thinks they have something special on their hands.  They wouldn't be doing a last minute Dec. release if the thought this was 'We Bought A Zoo.'

9. Moonrise Kingdom
Anderson's biggest hit. Rave reviews. Academy friendly cast. Focus just has to push it as hard as 'Promised Land.'
 
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Just how passionate is its fan base? Can both 'Moonrise' and 'Beasts' make the cut?


On the outside looking in:

Cloud Atlas

Very clear divide among critics. Curious what the reaction will be at the first official Academy screening.  Would love to sit in on that one.

Amour

Just don't buy it. As many people are underwhelmed as those who love it. Emmanuelle Riva has a much better shot at landing a nomination than the picture does right now.

Anna Karenina

Needs some real critical support upon release. If Focus campaigns hard with the BAFTA contingent they might have a shot.

Zero Dark Thirty
We just don't know enough yet. Could easily crash the party, but is there enough time for a campaign?

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Too long ago?  Too slight? Too predictable?  Too competitive a year?

What film do you think has the best shot of knocking "Argo" from the top spot?  Share your thoughts below.