(The Oscar Guide will be your chaperone through the Academy's 24 categories awarding excellence in film. A new installment will hit every weekday in the run-up to the Oscars on February 26, with the Best Picture finale on Saturday, February 25.)

After gradually reducing finalists from 15 to 10 to five, the visual effects branch made room for four blockbusters this year – three of them from franchises – as well as the nominations leader. This is hardly the sort of lineup that could be considered shocking. Still, another Best Picture contender was left off, while the fourth entries in three other franchises came up short, as did one additional summer blockbuster.

The race for the win is probably between the Best Picture nominee and two of the franchise blockbusters that are going down in the history books for very different reasons. But while this one seems like an easy category to pick, it could be more of a race than you'd expect.

The nominees are…

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (Tim Burke, David Vickery, Greg Butler and John Richardson)

“Hugo” (Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning)

Real Steel” (Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor and Swen Gillberg)

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Chrisopher White and Daniel Barrett)

“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Matthew Butler and John Frazier)

The biggest disappointment in my eyes was “The Tree of Life” coming up short, despite nominations. Even though the effects were not as showy as most of the nominees, they served the film the best. I also thought the work in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and "Captain America: The First Avenger" perfectly complemented those films.

A nomination for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" marks the third time the franchise has scored in this category after “The Prisoner of Azkaban” and “The Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” Tim Burke and John Richardson were nominated for those previous two efforts (and are also Oscar winners for “Gladiator” and “Aliens” respectively). Dave Vickery and Greg Butler are first-time nominees. Their work is undeniably impressive and ranks among the better efforts of the series. But I am doubtful AMPAS will find it all that striking compared with its predecessors. That said, this is the last chance to award the series and given that BAFTA bit, it would be unwise to rule out the possibility that AMPAS might do the same.

“Hugo” has a very big mark in its favor: it is a Best Picture nominee. The last time a Best Picture nominee lost this category to a non-Best Picture nominee was 1970, when “Tora! Tora! Tora!” beat “Patton.” Given how beloved “Hugo” is, and how its main contenders have major strikes against them, it would seem hard to beat on the surface. So why do I still have reservations? Principally because the work, though accomplished, is hardly as showy as all the other contenders. Voters pick what stands out to them, so that matters a lot in this category, and it is therefore unsurprising the precursors haven’t given it a major win. But I’m still predicting “Hugo” to triumph here. Rob Legato won this category for “Titanic” in 1997 and he was also nominated for “Apollo 13” in 1995. He is cited here alongside Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning, three first-time nominees.

While I was disappointed it came at the expense of “The Tree of Life,” I nevertheless found the nomination for “Real Steel” to be a pleasant surprise. It has no chance for the win with other popular films and franchises in the running. Even so, I found the robots to be tremendously realistic and they truly became “characters” in this inspiring movie. Yes, there were moments of intense action, but like “Mission: Impossible” and “Captain America,” I always felt the story was given front billing with the effects in support of that. Erik Nash garners his second nomination (after “I, Robot”), while Swen Gillberg, John Rosengrant and Ben Taylor have all earned their first trip to the Kodak.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is going down in the history books. Boy did those apes look good as the WETA team once more took visual effects to new heights. Joe Letteri has previously won this award for “Avatar,” “King Kong,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” This is in addition to a Scientific and Technical Award, as well as a nomination for “I, Robot.” Daniel Barrett, Dan Lemmon and R. Christopher White are all first-time nominees. This team’s work certainly should win, and was awarded by the BFCA and others. However, they have to go up against the sentimentality of “Harry Potter” and the mighty Best Picture contender that is “Hugo.” Will they really give this film the award for its only nomination? (It has been almost 20 years since “Death Becomes Her” managed to do that, the last time it happened.) On sheer merit, it may triumph. But I fear that won’t be enough.

“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” managed a nomination here even though “Revenge of the Fallen” came up short. I cannot say the nomination is undeserved – there is no denying the quality of the visual effects in this series (if I feel at times it is too much), and this film was an improvement (however small) on its predecessor. That having been said, I suspect many Academy members will share my distaste for the films. Moreover, notwithstanding its Visual Effects Society success, it doesn’t have the sort of obvious improvement in quality that led “Spider-Man 2” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” to win even though the previous films in their respective franchises did not. John Frazier and Scott Farrar have 16 nominations between them, though they've only won for “Spider-Man 2” and “Cocoon” respectively. Scott Benza earns his second nomination after the original “Transformers,” while Matthew Butler is a first-time nominee.

Will Win: “Hugo”

Could Win: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

Should Win: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

Should Have Been Here: “The Tree of Life”

Hugo

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

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

(Read previous installments of the Oscar Guide here.)

Sign up for Instant Alerts from In Contention!