With award season officially kicking off (did I miss the opening ceremony?), it's time to rank the contenders and pretenders in the Best Picture race.  The festivities begin with Movie City News launching it's first Gurus of Gold poll today and once again this prognosticator was happy to contribute his own musings on the race.  Before considering what some of the other pundits thought, let's take a look at my own selections in a more specific ranking.

It's important to note, the upcoming trifecta of Telluride, Venice and Toronto will move some of these potential nominees in and out of contention, but considering it's five months out from nomination day, it's either reassuring or disheartening (take your pick) that the films on this list won't change that much.

Locks

"Invictus"
Eastwood plus Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela plus Matt Damon with a South African accent plus moving true story equals easy nod.

"Nine"
Starpower and Tony Award winning musical should overcome any other obstacles the film may face.

"Up in the Air"
Buzz is very, very strong.

Looking Strong

"The Hurt Locker"
Perhaps the best Iraq-themed drama of this era and a critical favorite.

"An Education"

A Sundance favorite that will charm the Academy and the deserved hype around newcomer Carey Mulligan won't hurt either.

"Precious: Based on Push a novel by Sapphire"
In a weaker year it could be in trouble, but this powerful and moving drama continues to win over skeptics and will get in.

"The Informant"
Witty, smart and featuring a great performance by Matt Damon.  Will be remembered fondly, but needs to do well at the box office for long term Oscar success (hint: Warners should consider opening limited).

"Up"
I honestly agree with Sasha Stone at Awards Daily that too many Academy members find it hard to vote for an animated films in the traditional best picture category as long as there is a separate best animated feature option.  However, this year is so weak if this Pixar smash doesn't get in, no animated film ever will. 


Wildcards

"Inglourious Basterds"
It's certainly a hit, but will it resonate with the Academy?  Sure, but it could easily be bumped too.

"The Men Who Stare at Goats"
I've heard it's truly bizarre and intriguing work, but more importantly star/producer George Clooney and director Grant Heslov have great taste.  It's a gut feeling, but we'll certainly know more after Toronto.

"Julie & Julia"
Older viewers (cough, typical Academy members) love Meryl's performance, but Amy Adams' grating turn comes up consistently in conversations around town.  Not a good sign.

"Where the Wild Things Are"
Word is those who love it will truly adore it, but just as many may not be as impressed.  Curious Warner decided not to do Venice.  Is a surprise Telluride screening a possibility?  Or is it just to Spike Jonze-y for that cinefile audience?

"District 9"
Critically acclaimed, but it's very Sci-Fi and the non-genre fans who are seeing it two or three weeks past opening to see what all the chatter is about (ie, typical Academy) seem pretty critical about little inconsistencies like "Why don't the Aliens just use their guns to revolt?" Sony will really have to campaign hard (ie, spend money) to make this even a possibility.

"A Serious Man"
Obviously, you can never discount the Coens, but early word is this a very small film from them.  It would need a tremendous amount of critical support to get in.

"500 Days of Summer"
Another movie where those who love truly adore, but while receiving strong reviews, not the summer sleeper smash many thought it would be.  A very strong pocket of Academy voters would have to propel this one to the top ten.


"Fantastic Mr. Fox"
Early word is that it's surprisingly good and if critical response is as good as "Up" it has a shot at sneaking it.

Hard to believe

"Avatar"
I worked on 'Titanic,' 'Titanic' was a friend of mine and sir, you're no 'Titanic.' [Due dilegence - I worked on the international marketing campaign for 'Titanic' at 20th Century Fox in my early days in the industry.]

"Star Trek"
The new rules were created to get popular films like this one in, but let's not forget --  it's still called "Star Trek."  That's a pretty negative connotation for many older members of the Academy.  If Paramount was willing to spend money it has a slight chance with the younger set, but considering they moved Scorsese's "Shutter Island" out of 2009 partially to avoid significant costs, it's hard to foresee. 

"The Lovely Bones"
Word is it's a very good thriller, but not Academy material.  We'll see.

"Capitalism: A Love Story"
While it may be a strong documentary, doesn't seem distinctive enough from Moore's other works to make the cut.

"The Road"

Let's not go there.

"Bright Star"
Wonderful comeback for Jane Campion, but not as emotionally resonant as her best work, "The Piano."  Period it may be, it seems like it will be forgotten by the time voting comes around.

"The Tree of Life"
Until it's officially announced as releasing in 2009 it stays out of the main pack.

Whew. 

While you digest that, let's look at how some of the other journos voted in the initial Gurus poll.  We were asked to select 15 contenders, so the results are pretty spread out as everyone hunted for contenders.  Still, I'm honestly surprised that so many are buying into the "Avatar" hype.  David Poland, Kris Tapley, Pete Hammond, Dave Karger, Sasha Stone and Anne Thompson all know their stuff, but I'm not seeing it -- even with the request for 15 contenders.  What's most heartening though, is the broad range of support from that particular crew (as well as myself) for "The Hurt Locker," "Precious" and "An Education."  All three would have been reaches for the top five last year, but it's clear most believe they'll make the final cut in the new system.  Peculiarly, USA Today's Scott Bowles made some interesting selections by voting for "Creation," "Leaves of Grass," "Chloe" and "Ondine."  I guess he assumes all those films debuting without distribution at the trifecta of festivals this month will get snatched up for quick release before the end of the year (or he didn't read the instructions clearly or was annoyed he had to pick 15).

As Gurus traditionally goes, we were also asked to vote in two one-off categories which turned out to be dark horse contenders in both the actor and actress categories.  Unlike the best picture race, there was very little consensus here with only "District 9's" Sharto Copley and "The Hurt Locker's" Jeremy Renner getting more than one vote on the actor side.  On the actress front, Bright Star's" Abbie Cornish receive three votes (myself included) and both "Precious'" Gabourey Sidibe and "Pippa Lee's" Robin Wright Penn got two.  And considering that the best actress race makes the Best Picture look deep this year I'm not sure why EW's normally super-solid Karger voted for Carey Mulligan as a "darkhorse."  99% of moviegoers have no idea who she is (yet), but she's as close to a lock for a nod as Jennifer Hudson was before "Dreamgirls" debuted.

All in all though, isn't it fun to have the Gurus back in action?

Who do you think are the real contenders this year?  Share you thoughts below.

For constant updates on awards season, entertainment news and an few NBA rants or two, follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory