(The Oscar Guide has been your chaperone through the Academy's 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with today's Best Picture finale being the cherry on top.)

And here we are. The 2011 Oscar Guide has finally reached its destination: the nine-film Best Picture category, which saw its biggest surprise in the very fact that it stretched to that many nominees. It became somewhat obvious down the stretch that five films were assured a spot, with another highly likely. The extraneous possibilities seemed to number no more than three or four, but two of them got in.

The question, though, is did the alteration in the Best Picture voting process really do all that much? Did it really breed the suspense it so clearly aimed for? Would it have mattered all that much if a full slate of 10 had remained in place? Well, to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" or "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," perhaps. At the end of the day, though, the constant tinkering with the process has done little more than keep people considering it and talking about it. Maybe that was the goal and the joke's on us.

The nominees are…

"The Artist" (Thomas Langmann, producer)

"The Descendants" (Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, producers)

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (Scott Rudin, producer)

"The Help" (Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, producers)

"Hugo" (Graham King and Martin Scorsese, producers)

"Midnight in Paris" (Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, producers)

"Moneyball" (Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, producers)

"The Tree of Life" (Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner and Grant Hill, producers)

"War Horse" (Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, producers)

As mentioned, it was probably one of David Fincher and Tomas Alfredson's chilly adaptations of very different novels that missed out on the tenth spot (most likely the former). But I imagine films like "Bridesmaids" and "The Ides of March" had their champions, as did fringe hopefuls like "Drive." Alas, this category is again, as always, all about boiling it down to what's generally agreeable.

And right at the top of that list is the frontrunning French silent ode to cinema's early days, "The Artist." Producer Thomas Langmann must be tired (doubt it) of accepting Best Picture honors by now. The film has clearly been the dominant force on the precursor circuit, where even the harshest of critics were somehow swept up by considerable charm despite thin narrative virtue. With PGA, DGA, BFCA, BAFTA and Golden Globe wins in its pocket, how could it possibly lose? You predict against it at your own peril as Harvey Weinstein and his team have played this season like a harp. One more speech, Mr. Langmann.

Things were looking good for "The Descendants" for a while there. People were acting like Alexander Payne's film had a real shot at winning the Best Picture prize and then it went and took the drama win at the Golden Globe awards. Well, that might have been the peak of the season for the film, as even George Clooney is looking dicey for a win in the Best Actor field, while the Best Adapted Screenplay category could even slip away (despite a last gasp of awardage last weekend). The film clearly has its fans and will get plenty of votes, but at the end of the day, especially once we got a look at the nominees, this became a two-horse race. And this wasn't one of the horses. (Payne is nominated alongside fellow producers Jim Burke and Jim Taylor.)

The big surprise for most when the Best Picture nominees were announced was the inclusion of "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." Though it must have been bittersweet for producer Scott Rudin, as his other hopeful, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," missed the cut. Nevertheless, as we told you here, voters really responded to this film and couldn't stop talking about it in the lead-up to the nominations announcement. Here it sits, and probably not at the bottom of the stack of possibilities. Nevertheless, it won't win and it's happy to be nominated. Onward.

I still maintain that one of five Best Picture nominees in a typical season would have been "The Help," produced by Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan. It might be lacking director, screenplay and below-the-line nominations, but it more than makes up for that in actor approval. SAG handed it three awards like it was nothing and it's expected to win two performance Oscars at the end of the day. That's a lot of (somehow underestimated) firepower, and with a campaign built off the back of that and major box office success, it has had a rather pleasing ride throughout the circuit. That all ends tomorrow with a loss in this category, but no one can say it didn't compete.

Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," co-produced by frequent collaborator Graham King, is the one nipping at "The Artist"'s heels, if anything is. With 11 nominations, the film led the pack on the morning of January 24 and has burned through a lot of cash on the way to a hopeful upset. Some still think Scorsese has a shot at taking the directing prize, but this season couldn't be more defined if it were in black and white. I expect the film will do well throughout the crafts categories, and maybe there's a sliver of hope that it'll pull the rug out from under the alpha dog of the season. But I highly doubt it.

I was guilty of underestimating "Midnight in Paris" most of the season, but ever since its Cannes bow in May, it really has been in the thick of this race. It most likely would have been one of five nominees in a typical year and just managed to rub voters right throughout the season. Maybe Woody Allen wins the original screenplay prize, but producers Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum might as well get comfortable on Oscar night. They're likely to stay in their seats. Still, it's a big coup for Sony Pictures Classics, which turned this into Allen's biggest box office success and doesn't always have the best of luck in the Best Picture category.

Brad Pitt may have had his name nixed from the list of nominees on another Best Picture contender this season, but he gets to wear his bid for "Moneyball" (nominated alongside Michael De Luca and Rachael Horovitz) loud and proud. If not for that other film being in the mix, I'd say this one was the most deserving of the nominees, but it's still a fine contender and hopefully won't go home empty-handed on Oscar night. The story of the film's embattled production history is almost as compelling as the story it tells on screen, but as an underdog tale, the road looks to end tomorrow.

That other Pitt film, by the way, is Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," which managed to tap a potent fan base and show up both here and in Best Director. The Academy allowed an exception so that four producers, rather than the usual three, could be listed on the nominees tally. But Pitt had to take a back seat to his Plan B partner Dede Gardner and frequent Malick collaborators Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad and Grant Hill. The film is easily the most deserving of the nominees, but it's probably the least likely to win. Nevertheless, it's nice that it even gets the distinction "Best Picture nominee" in the first place.

Finally, after getting mauled on the precursor and, particularly, guild circuits, Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" (co-produced by his right hand girl, Kathleen Kennedy) managed to be resurrected by the Academy after all. Not only that, but it clocked in six nominations, tying with "Moneyball" and for third on the tally. Clearly it hit the right heartstrings for enough Academy members to get it there, while I'm sure there's plenty of respect for Spielberg that played a hand as well. Nevertheless, even though things seemed different before the start of things, this will most certainly not be "The Year of The Beard" at the Oscars this season. Mea culpa.

Will win: "The Artist"

Could win: "Hugo"

Should win: "The Tree of Life"

Should have been here: "Margaret"

The Artist

Keep track of our current rankings in the Best Picture category via its Contenders page here.

What do you think deserves the Oscar for Best Picture? Who got robbed? Have your say in the comments section below!

(That wraps up this year's annual Oscar Guide feature. Feel free to go back and read through each of the various installments here.)

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

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