"Frozen River," "The Messenger," "The Savages," "In Bruges," "Dirty Pretty Things," "You Can Count on Me," "Winter's Bone," "In the Loop," "City of God," "The Sweet Hereafter."  All examples of smaller and/or independent films over the past 15 years or so that found a way to sneak past the big boys into the Oscar party.  There are a number of potential candidates to join that list this year, but the big surprise among them may be "Margin Call."

Debuting at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the picture received positive but unenthusiastic reviews and was overshadowed by grand jury prize winning "Like Crazy," Elizabeth Olsen's buzzed about turn in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and Michael Shannon's work in "Take Shelter." What a difference nine months makes.  Hitting theaters last month after a summer of financial ups and downs, "Margin Call" became a timely look at Wall Street and earned raves from David Denby of The New Yorker, the New York Times' A.O. Scott and the LA Times' Kenneth Turan.  It earned a 76 on Metactric and a strong 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.  The directorial and screenwriting debut of J.C. Chandor, "Margin Call" also features an impressive ensemble cast of former Oscar winners and nominees including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and Mary McDonnell as well as Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Demi Moore and Penn Badgely. The picture was also produced by Quinto (along with more executive producers than you can imagine) who has been out front in pushing the drama on all fronts.

After the ensemble success of "Crash," a number of producers tried to duplicate the Oscar bait strategy of including as many former nominees, winners and up and coming stars in a film as possible (i.e., 2006's "Bobby").  Of course you actually need to make a good movie and Chandor's little thriller that could is surprising across the board. It's the rare case of a picture released on VOD at the same time of a theatrical release and enjoying success in both medium.  According to Lionsgate, "Margin Call" has been rented over 250,000 times on VOD as of Nov. 10.  Theatrically, "Margin" has earned over $3.3 million in no more than 199 theaters in just 24 days.  It just had its biggest drop so far of 24% last weekend (relatively small even for a limited release), but still pulled in over $500,000.  With continuing buzz, "Margin" could possibly hit the $5-6 million mark in limited release, hardly what most distributors expected after screening it in Park City this past January. 

Where is that buzz coming from? Well, beyond the critical love, "Margin Call" has already received a nomination for Best Ensemble Cast at the 2011 Gotham Awards.  Additionally, Academy members are taking the screenplay very seriously.  Don't be surprised if it makes the best original screenplay cut.  In fact, Chandor's name barely missed the cut in this week's Gurus of Gold voting. Granted, "Margin Call" still has a long way to go, but if it can get some favorable love from SAG, the Indie Spirits and a bunch of top ten lists?  Well, don't be surprised by the results.

For a rundown of what the most respected collection of awards season pundits think in other categories this week, including my own, check out the Gurus of Gold's picks here.  For my specific thoughts on the best picture, best director, best original and adapter screenplay races…


BEST PICTURE

1. "The Descendants"

This ain't no "Up in the Air" and that's a good thing when it comes to Oscar.

2. "The Artist"
The more it screens, the more the passionate base behind it grows. Needs to do well in limited release though.

3. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

Stealth candidate #1.  Except for those who have seen it in the UK, of course.

4. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Stealth candidate #2. Appears it will be the last major contender to screen...for anyone.

5. "War Horse"

Word slowly leaking out.  We'll see.

6. "Midnight in Paris"
A reminder campaign would be good about now, but hard to see it not getting in.

7. "The Tree of Life"
Expects to benefit from year-end top 10 lists.

8. "The Help"
Great performances, but is the rest of the movie really Oscar-worthy?  A question voters need to ponder with their first place vote.

9. "The Iron Lady"
Mixed reviews for the movie from two British critics (just two), but they adore Streep.  Will the movie be received more positively stateside?

10. "The Ides of March"

The box office has slowed down significantly and it won't match "Michael Clayton's" $50 million cume.  Not a good sign.

11. "Drive"
Now would be a good time to kickstart the campaign and remind the younger members.

12. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1"

Stealth candidate #3. Lurking in the shadows like Voldemort.  The more contenders that fall, the more "Potter" is waiting to become a legit candidate.

 BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

1. Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Is he the Meryl Streep of great filmmakers?  The last time Allen won an Oscar? 1987 for his original screenplay for "Hannah and Her Sisters."  He's been nominated nine times since without a win. That should end this year.

2. Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"

Beloved film gets recognition from numerous branches of the Academy including the writers.

3. Asghar Farhadi, "A Separation"
The writers branch recognizes the intricate screenplay by for this foreign language film contender.

4. Tom McCarthy, "Win Win"

Thomas McCarthy, the former nominee for "Up," wasn't even recognized for his best indie works, "The Station Agent" or "The Visitor." In this weak year, his luck changes for his popular Searchlight comedy.

5. J. C. Chandor, "Margin Call"
Longshot player may have surprise branch support.

6. Annie Mumalo & Kristin Wiig, "Bridesmaids"
Could easily sneak in there or easily not.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

1. Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, "The Descendants"

If nothing else, Payne finally gets his second Academy Award here.

2. Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Huge endeavor will be rewarded with a nod by the Writers' branch.

3. Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, "Moneyball"

Even tougher gig than "Tinker" gets kudos from the scribes.

4. Eric Roth, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Four-time nominee and winner for "Forest Gump"?  Tough to see him not getting in.

5. Eric Roth, "War Horse"
Both writers are previous nominees.  From an epic book to an epic movie.  If it works they're in.

6. Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, "The Adventures of Tintin"
Always a competitive category, this smart adaptation of the classic Hergé character would be a lock if it was facing the original screenplay field.

BEST DIRECTOR

1. Alexander Payne, "Descendants"
It's time?

2. Stephen Daldry, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
He's three for three.  Are you gonna bet against him?  He's never not been nominated.

3. Steven Spielberg, "War Horse"

If he didn't get in the five it would be a shocker of epic proportions.

4. Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
The last time the three-time Oscar winner was nominated for best director? 1995 for "Bullets Over Broadway."  That should change this year.

5. Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"

The master makes a comeback.  He should make the five.

6. Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"

Could easily make the five if Daldry falters or Malick or Allen don't have the support many suspect they do.

What do you think of the race so far? Share your thoughts below.

For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.