As members of the Academy hurry through the last screeners they need to see before committing an opinion on the year's best (for those who bother trying to get as deep into the stack as possible, that is), a number of races hang in the balance as extremely tight categories are sure to leave a number of contenders feeling the sting of "also-ran" on Thursday, January 10.

The lead actor competition tends to lead the way on "tight races" each year, and this year there are definitely more than five hopefuls angling for position. But it seems to me the leading ladies are making for a more spirited showdown than the gents as we close in on the end of phase one this time around. What started out looking like a typically thin season for Best Actress has become tensely competed with, by my count, 10 actresses that could realistically make a go of it.

Let's start with the givens, though they themselves didn't even begin with the current frontrunner, Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty," until recently. She wasn't considered a strong possibility until the film finally started shaping up in November and made its presence felt in a category sorely in need of a frontrunner.

Until then, Jennifer Lawrence was out front for work in "Silver Linings Playbook," which put her on the awards map during the Toronto Film Festival. Emmanuelle Riva had already been lurking as a possibility after big buzz in Cannes, but needed a second wind. She started picking up a little pace, inevitably, as critics began dishing out awards in December. Marion Cotillard also maintained steady visibility for her work in "Rust and Bone," another Cannes player, particularly with a number of tributes throughout the season.

Going way back to January and the Sundance Film Festival, young Quvenzhané Wallis has been a talking point from "Beasts of the Southern Wild" all year, while Helen Mirren -- SAG- and Globe-nominated for her performance in "Hitchcock" -- could ride the British vote to a nomination many aren't expecting for her due to the film's critical reception. (It has, however, been more positively received overseas, particularly in the BAFTA set.)

Amid all of this, after a slow start out of Toronto, Naomi Watts has been getting plenty of attention as "The Impossible" makes its way into theaters and well-publicized endorsements (which all contenders receive, whether publicized or not) keep her above water -- so to speak. And joining the conversation after the New York Film Critics Circle sprung for her work in "The Deep Blue Sea" was Rachel Weisz, suddenly in play with a Globe nod and a campaign.

And just because you never can account for a sudden Tommy Lee Jones-like nomination from the blue, I add to that Globe-nominee Judi Dench from "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (a SAG ensemble nominee, too) and Keira Knightley in "Anna Karenina" (who may be nowhere to be found on the circuit but, well, you never can tell).

Who gets in? Does Mirren ride the Brit vote? Does Cotillard love translate throughout the actors branch (which has very little crossover with SAG's nominating committee)? Has Wallis run out of steam as the room has gotten crowded? And could Watts prove to fall out of the final tally like any number of fellow actors who have received notices from SAG, the HFPA and the BFCA (Paul Giamatti, Cameron Diaz, Russell Crowe, Tilda Swinton, etc.)? The only two I feel confident will land nominations are the two most expect to duke it out for the win: Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence. It's a race!

Then we get to the leading men, which feels more like a six-player thing. Daniel Day-Lewis ("Lincoln"), John Hawkes ("The Sessions") and Bradley Cooper ("Silver Linings Playbook") all seem secure. Hugh Jackman's status feels maybe a little more concrete for his work in "Les Misérables" than Denzel Washington's for "Flight," but ask me again tomorrow and I might feel different. The only real intrigue has been the SAG "snub" of Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master." Did that reflect an overall feeling? Or did it actually galvanize support?

Add to that the lurking potential of surprise bids for Jean-Louis Trintignant, drawing respect for his work in the two-hander "Amour," or Golden Globe nominee Richard Gere, working really hard and wanting it for his "Arbitrage" performance, and you have something a little more interesting.

Best Supporting Actor seems to have a revolving door on the fifth spot, with nods for Alan Arkin ("Argo"), Robert De Niro ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("The Master") and Tommy Lee Jones ("Lincoln") all expected. The spot seems to want to go to a performer from "Django Unchained," but the potential is there for Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz to cancel each other out, with Javier Bardem (SAG-nominated for "Skyfall"), Matthew McConaughey (a critics' favorite for "Magic Mike" who faded on the surface but still has champions beneath it) and Dwight Henry (sticking around for underrated work in "Beasts of the Southern Wild") lying in wait to capitalize.

Best Supporting Actress also got spiced up when Nicole Kidman asserted herself with SAG and Globe nods for her incendiary performance in "The Paperboy." Is she really in the fold as Anne Hathaway ("Les Misérables"), Sally Field ("Lincoln") and Helen Hunt ("The Sessions") all seem poised? And if so, who grabs the last spot? Is it the SAG-"snubbed" Amy Adams in "The Master" or the SAG-nominated Maggie Smith in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?" Is it lovable Jacki Weaver to fill out a quartet of acting nods from "Silver Linings Playbook" or it Judi Dench for a substantial turn in "Skyfall?" Does Samantha Barks ("Les Misérables") have an angle on the race? Does Ann Dowd ("Compliance") get to a nod on her own dime? Lots of possibilities.

Which brings me to the Best Director category. It hasn't been this competitive in a long while. It's certainly tighter than any such race in recent memory. Steven Spielberg seems like the alpha for "Lincoln." One would more easily say Tom Hooper is right in there for "Les Misérables," but some are taking his Golden Globe snub a bit too seriously. Kathryn Bigelow, meanwhile, helmed the year's critical darling in "Zero Dark Thirty" and seems good to go (even if she has to fend off hatchet jobs like the one in last week's issue of The Hollywood Reporter on the way there).

Most would say Ben Affleck is as assured as anyone else, but it's interesting to note that the at times selective directors branch can sometimes put its foot down on actors-turned-directors, even on occasions such as this. Ron Howard was somehow snubbed for "Apollo 13" after winning the DGA, remember. (I'm not saying I expect Affleck to be snubbed, or that he's necessarily even in danger of it. I'm just saying there's a precedent for a well-liked movie to get the cold shoulder here, and it's a tight year.)

The directors being a high-minded, smaller group than, say, the guild, you can always expect some rarefied picks. So Michael Haneke is by no means out of it for "Amour." Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino may have gotten to the party later than most, but it was just in time for "Django Unchained" to be seen, and liked, by an Academy with ballots in hand.

Let's not forget David O. Russell, who directed one of the films ("Silver Linings Playbook") we would expect to see make the Best Picture cut in a year of five, nor the BFCA- and Globe-nominated Ang Lee, whose vision for "Life of Pi" is a driving identity for the film. And in the realm of fingerprint vision, let's also not forget Paul Thomas Anderson, whose "The Master" feels so curiously nebulous in the fray of the season. I would even include the directors of indie faves "Moonrise Kingdom" (Wes Anderson) and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (Benh Zeitlin), because, again, it's tight all over and you never can tell.

And I haven't even gotten to the screenplay races, which have their own share of intrigue. I'll save it for another time.

All of this tight competition simply stems from one of the more neck-and-neck Best Picture races we've ever seen. So much room to maneuver and I'm betting even the nominations leave unanswered questions. We'll see if I'm right in 10 days' time.

Until then, have a Happy Holiday and we'll reassess the standings again in 2013.

Check out my updated predictions HERE and, as always, see how Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood and I collectively think the season will turn out at THE CONTENDERS.