Having sat through 22 minutes of "Avatar" in 3-D this past July at Comic-Con, it was hard to believe the buzz that James Cameron's return to narrative filmmaking was a true Academy Award contender.  The dialogue was stilted, the imagery reminded many in attendance of countless other Sci-Fi films, novels or video games over the years and the ludicrous rumors that watching the footage in 3-D would lead the viewer to have a "transcendent experience" rang extremely false.  Instead, while Cameron had made some big steps in motion-capture animation by seemingly solving the peer Robert Zemeckis' "dead eye" problem, but his storyline also came across as trite and overly familiar. Has time changed this writer's opinion?

Four months later, "Avatar" has weather a storm of criticism which has been eerily similar to the industry dismissal that met Cameron's triumph"Titanic" before its debut.  Now, the film is positioning itself as one of the biggest openings of the year and a true online phenomenon.  Whether the film can make back it's $400 million plus price tag is a legitimate subject for debate, but it's "Avatar's" hovering over awards season that is much more intriguing. 

As the moment there are really only three films that appear to have enough Academy elements to gain universal consensus to win Best Picture: "Invictus," "Precious" and "Up in the Air."  Granted, things can absolutely change and no doubt will over the next two months, but in this prognosticator's opinion that's where it stands today.  All the other top ten contenders constantly waxed over weekly in Movie City News' Gurus of Gold or The Envelope's Buzzmeter (both of which this prognosticator participates in)  could get nominated, but they are not slam dunk locks.  Each has a specific fault or question mark that could easily find them ignored as Academy members embark on their yearly ritual of screenings and screener watching nights.  And that's where "Avatar" comes in. 

As 20th Century Fox mounts its marketing campaign and the buzz around the film increases, this pundit has had a sinking feeling Cameron's potential folly could sneak into the 10.  Perhaps it's the lack of a characteristic Oscar epic in such a large nominee field, little visible excitement around more than a few of the potential nominees or maybe that the Academy may just reward Cameron for a groundbreaking and "years in the making" endeavor -- assuming it's a hit, of course.  And yet, every time Awards Campaign thinks "Avatar" might sneak in, Fox releases a new clip.  Say, like the one that debuted today on IGN.


And after watching this preview, reality hits and the words "What was I thinking?" pop in my head.  As the Comic-Con preview proved, so much of "Avatar" is filled with the animated aliens who still come off like, um, animated avatars in a big ol' video game.  And there appear to be so many holes in the 10-year-old script it's hard to believe that a 60 Minutes piece or publicists spinning the new technology and "amazing" world Cameron has created can really elevate the film to Oscar status.  And still, with that gut continuing to whisper "Avatar" every few days or so, the genre flick cautiously rises to no. 12 on the Contender Countdown.  For now, at least.

Speaking off the countdown, here is this pundit's latest ranking of the top 12 contenders for Oscar gold.  These picks should be reflective of Award Campaign's votes on Gurus of Gold and Buzzmeter shortly.


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1. "Invictus"
A crowd-pleasing, emotional and inspirational story that has all the elements to win the big prize, but will critics eventually knock it from the top spot?

2. "Precious"
Continues its phenomenal limited release, but winning a major critics group best picture honor could help vault it to the top spot.

3. "Up in the Air"
Every member of the media in the Western hemisphere has seen it, now its time for guild and Academy screenings.

4. "The Hurt Locker"
OK Summit, you've made a boatload on "New Moon."  Time to start spending on this Oscar campaign.  Waiting until late December is just too dangerous.

5. "Up"
Some believe the acclaimed Pixar flick can win it all.  We'd remind them of Oscar history and that the "win" is the nomination for this one.

6. "An Education"
Gone a bit quiet on the box office and campaigning front. When does SPC turn up the heat again?

7. "Inglourious Basterds"
One of the few films that feels like it's in without having to really launch a massive campaign, but it's good Tarantino is starting to hit the scene again.

8. "The Lovely Bones"
Those who love, love it. A broader consensus should emerge after the Prince's Trust screening in London this week.

9. "Nine"
The ladies will get it in. It's that simple.

10. "A Serious Man"
Another film that could benefit from critic's love.  Why does this one feel like a lock for NYFCC?

11. "Crazy Heart"
Is it more about Bridges, Gyllenhaal and the songs or could it sneak into the big race too?  Still unclear at this point.

12. "Avatar"
See above.

Do you think "Avatar" has a real shot to get nominated? Share your thoughts below.

For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory