Ah, the fun stuff.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the seven remaining candidates in the running for the Visual Effects Oscar today and, as usual, there were a few surprises in the mix.  The films that still have a shot of one of three nominations are:

“Australia,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Dark Knight,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Iron Man,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”

It hasn’t been a banner year for special effects in general, but a few of these finalists are a result of the special effect house politicing and voting blocs that resulted in last year’s embarrassing win for “The Golden Compass” (please people, let’s avoid that this year, O.K.?)  Like the Best Song category for the music branch, each candidate will be allowed to show 15-minute excerpts in a “bake off” for the Academy’s Visual Effect Branch that will occur on Thursday, Jan. 15.  The members will then vote to nominate the final three nominees.  

Here’s a rundown on each film’s chances:

“Australia”
Lowdown: Lots of landscape and period recreation work, but when compared to “Button,” hard to imagine it getting in.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Lowdown: A lock.  The production is selling itself on the work done to transfer Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett’s performances onto other actors of varying ages.  It’s a legit contender to win.

“The Dark Knight”
Lowdown:  Fanboys don’t want to hear it, but hard to see this one making the cut.  Almost all the effects in the film are practical.  It’s unclear how it even got this far.

“Hellboy II: The Golden Army”

Lowdown: Impecably and artistically rendered, Guillermo Del Toro’s baby has a shot for sure.

“Iron Man”
Lowdown: Pretty safe to make the final three.  ILM’s wizardry of bringing Iron Man to life flying through the air is hard to ignore and has been wowing audiences since it first appeared as test footage at Comic-Con in the summer of 2007.

“Journey to the Center of the Earth”
Lowdown: Dear God, No! Pt. 1.

“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”
Lowdown: Dear God, No! Pt. 2.

Who’s missing?  Well, the notable omissions include all that CG spice from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Hancock,” “Eagle Eye,” “Jumper,” “The Incredible Hulk” (ouch), “Jumper,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys.”

(You caught me.  Just kidding on that last one, but had to see if you were still paying attention.)

The complete list of nominees for the 81st Academy Awards nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 22, 2009, at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. PT at the Academy’s classy Samuel Goldwyn Theater.  And the whole HitFix team will be there to give you the lowdown of what it all means for the big dance.