While there aren't too many changes in this week's best picture countdown things are heating up in the best animated feature race.

The Academy announced 18 films that had qualified for the animated feature which means there should be five nominees this year. Even with newly expanded rules, this is only the third time that's occurred.  In 2003 when "Spirited Away" won and in 2010 (perhaps the greatest field of nominees so far) when "Up" took the Oscar. In this pundits view, this year's race comes down to a three-way race between the critically acclaimed "Rango," Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" and Aardman produced "Arthur Christmas." Verbinski's "Rango" was a surprise hit and arguably the most thematically sophisticated (let alone triply) animated film in years. "Tintin" is already a hit overseas, but its also motion-capture.  Will the Academy really recognize a motion-capture film for best animated feature?  "Arthur" will be adored by critics and audiences, but is facing very tough domestic box office prospects with "Muppets" and "Hugo" opening on the same day.

The Gurus of Gold, which this prognosticator is a longtime member, chimed in on their top five picks in this category and surprised by finding room for "Cars 2" in the top five. Granted, "Rango" is on top and "Tintin" is in second (I have "Arthur" in that slot), but "Car 2" was blasted by critics receiving the worst reviews of Pixar's illustrious career.  It also made $50 million less than its predecessor and that was with the benefit of 3D ticket prices which the first "Cars" didn't have.  Not sure why my fellow Gurus think the animated branch will get "Cars 2" in there, but I have to guess they are assuming the Pixar members of the branch will vote for their employer.  O.K., but I'm not convinced that will be the case (and no, that's not Pixar hate people). Needless to say, there is actually some real drama in the animated feature race this year and, well, that's sort of fun, no?

For all of the Gurus of Gold picks this week, click here.  As for this pundits picks and thoughts on the best animated feature, best picture and best actor race...

 BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

1. "Rango"
It's a tight race, but if Paramount pushes strongly enough "Rango" could win it all.

2. "Arthur Christmas"
The expected frontrunner, but this fantastic animated tale looks like it's going to have serious problems at the box office over Thanksgiving.  Sony is going to have to put serious effort into this one to ensure not only a nomination, but a legitimate win.

3. "Puss in Boots"
One week you're soft and the next week you've got a miraculous hold.  Word of mouth had something do with it. Has a shot at winning it all too (maybe).

4. "The Adventures of Tintin"
Spielberg and Jackson get in the animators race, but will enough Academy members vote for motion-capture in this category? Tough call.

5. "Rio"
Don't count this one out. 20th Century Fox could easily sneak this in.

6. "Winnie the Pooh"
Critically acclaimed animated feature is hurt by being aimed at such a juvenile audience.  If it gets in its out of respect for the hand drawn animation.



BEST PICTURE

1. "The Descendants"
Drumbeat will get louder as NY and LA debut finally arrives on Nov. 16.

2. "The Artist"
Prime AFI Fest screening should be a nice introduction for a lot of Academy voters.

3. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Lurking. Waiting. Captivating. Underestimated.

4. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Never bet against Daldry.  (At least, not yet anyways.)

5. "War Horse"
Word is it's a wee bit long.  We're worried.

6. "Midnight in Paris"
Starting be the universally remarked "it's in but without the win."

7. "The Tree of Life"
Tons of supporters.  Only need 5% first place votes.

8. "The Ides of March"

Starting to slow down at the box office.  $45 million would be nice, but probably won't get that high.  Sony is going to have to push this one.

9. "The Help"
DreamWorks hasn't started a serious campaign for this blockbuster yet.  If they really want it land a nod we'd suggest an effort before December.

10. "The Iron Lady"
New York and Los Angeles debut pushed to Dec. 30.  That's cutting it very, very close.

11. "Drive"
Those who love it love.  Can it find enough first place votes?  It could be the nomination morning surprise.

12. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1"
Warner Bros. kicks off November with a big "Harry" push tied to the films DVD and Blu-ray release.  If you've been driving around LA you've seen the For Your Consideration billboards.  That's nice, but "Harry" will need more magic over the next two months to make an impact with voters in the picture race.

BEST ACTOR

1. George Clooney, "Descendants"

Wait until the national reviews hit.

2. Leonardo DiCaprio, "J. Edgar"
So far, the only man coming out relatively unscathed from those who have seen "J. Edgar."

3. Jean Dujardin. "The Artist"
The upset contender?

4. Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
This year's "it's about time" nominee.

5. Michael Fassbender, "Shame"
Those who don't think Fassbender can get in are underestimating the actor's branch.

6. Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter"
In some alternate reality Shannon would have made the cut, but it's going to be hard this season.

What do you think of this year's animation race?  Share your thoughts below.

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