Ah, the highs and lows of being the frontrunner.  Depending on the particular Oscar season it can either be a blessing or a curse.  Two years ago, Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" was considered the frontrunner (by some) until "The Hurt Locker" and "Avatar" dominated December and September to make it an afterthought.   In 2009, "Slumdog Millionaire" was in the lead from the Toronto Film Festival forward.  2007 arguably had no frontrunner as "The Departed" took the crown from a crowded field.  In 2006, "Brokeback Mountain" was the expected best picture winner by many from Toronto onward until "Crash" surprised the public by taking the trophy (although this pundit sadly new "Crash" was in lead before the nominations came out and predicted its win).  Still, there are too many "Up in the Air's" along the awards season trail over the past decade to allow publicists to enjoy a frontrunner label.  So, with the Gurus of Gold back in full force this week, Fox Searchlight is probably wearing half a smile with Alexander Payne's critically acclaimed dramedy taking the top spot once again. 

With November upon us, the Gurus have listed out our top 12 picks for best picture as well as top six for best actor, best actress, best director, best supporting actor and best supporting actress.  This pundit is the lone believer in Carey Mulligan in the supporting race for "Shame" and only myself and Deadline's Pete Hammond understand the Robert Forster love in "Descendants" it seems, but most of the other picks will very familiar to anyone paying attention to the Oscar game over the past few months.  For commentary on my individual picks, a regular feature on Tuesdays moving forward, see below.

Nov. 1, 2011

BEST PICTURE

1. "The Descendants"
A few major critics groups wins could put it far out of reach from its competitors.

2. "War Horse"
First press screenings in about a month.  A lot more will be known then, but right now it gets the Spielberg pedigree slot.

3. "The Artist"
Can this underdog win the whole thing?  Weinstein Company certainly thinks so.

4. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Don't underestimate this thriller. Too many Gurus are not thinking long term on this one.

5. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Daldry's track record is superb, but when will it screen?

6. "The Tree of Life"
Malick and this movie still have their fans in the Academy.

7. "Midnight in Paris"
If Sony Classics does it right, Woody's biggest hit will get some recognition.

8. "The Ides of March"
Still chugging along.  Still respected.  Is 7 or 8 the magic cut off point for nominees this year?

9. "The Help"
Seriously, will enough Academy voters make it their first place vote? Second or third sure, but with the new rules? Gonna be close.

10. "J. Edgar"
We'll know more later this week when the biopic screens at the AFI Film Fest.

11. "The Iron Lady"
Battling "Extremely Loud" and "War Horse" in the race to be the "last contender" to the rodeo.

12. "Drive"
If making the ten is all about passionate voters, don't discount this thriller.  It could surprise.


BEST ACTRESS

1. Michelle Williams, "My Week with Marilyn"
Captivating, moving and gutsy.  Actors will love this performance by the two-time nominee.

2. Viola Davis, "The Help"
Right campaign could vault her to the lead.

3. Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Why does it feel like Meryl is going to find herself going home Oscar night a loser again?  She may have to be transcendent to win.

4. Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
Competition falls off and Close becomes a lock for her fifth.

5. Felicity Jones, "Like Crazy"
Just a gut that Jones performance will resonate more with members than...

6. Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
…but these two ladies could easily flip a few times in and out of the final five before it's all said and done.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

1. Carey Mulligan, "Shame"
Academy will want to reward the achievement of "Shame" and its hard to see Fassbender winning best actor.  Don't underestimate Searchlight here.

2. Octavia Spencer, "The Help"
Probably the frontrunner right now, but unclear if she'll win on Oscar night.

3. Jessica Chastain, "The Tree of Life"
A reward for a stunning debut year.

4. Judi Dench, "J. Edgar"
Probably either this or "Marilyn," but Dench will likely be nominated once more.

5. Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"
Love for Payne's dramedy should find Woodley with a surprise nomination.

6. Judi Dench, "My Week with Marilyn"
See no. 4, although SAG voters flipped for her in "Marilyn" at the screening I was at.


BEST ACTOR


1. George Clooney, "The Descendants"
His best performance in an increasingly classy and remarkable career.  Hard to see him losing this one.

2. Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Upset contender #1 who finally gets his first nomination.

3. Leonardo DiCaprio, "J. Edgar"
Upset contender #2, but we'll know more for sure this week after AFI.

4. Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"
Upset contender #3, but can Dujardin really pull off a Roberto Benigni?

5. Michael Fassbender, "Shame"
Stunning work, but the nomination is likely the win here.

6. Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter"
Who drops out so Shannon can make the cut?  Tough call and possibly break for the former supporting nominee.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

1. Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
We shouldn't tease him.  Plummer's been through this already with "The Insider" (where he didn't even get nominated) and "The Last Station" (where he lost to Christoph Waltz).

2. Kenneth Branagh, "My Week with Marilyn"
Don't call it a comeback. He's been here for years.

3. Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Ides of March"
Hoffman steals the movie and actors will recognize it.

4. Albert Brooks, "Drive"
Brooks finally and deservedly returns to the dance.

5. Robert Forster, "The Descendants"
After Clooney, the industry veteran is the first performance everyone talks about. Telling.

6. John Hawkes, "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Hawkes could sneak in, but "Martha" will need to be a significant art house hit to give him the ammunition.


BEST DIRECTOR

1. Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"
I believe the phrase may be, "It's time."

2. Stephen Daldry, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Best Vegas odds of the group.  He's never not been nominated.  Ever.

3. Steven Spielberg, "War Horse"
The populist icon.  The industry legend. The pillar of Hollywood.  Yeah, this is happening.

4. Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"
The movie may not make the five, but the director's branch will likely get him in.

5. Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Tough call between this and no. 6.  At the moment? Allen by a smudge.

6. Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"
See no. 5.

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

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