Ben Affleck's "Argo," Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" and David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook." With Venice, Telluride and Toronto in the rear view, those are the three films with the early stranglehold on the 2012-2013 Oscar season.

In the case of Affleck's thrilling true story, an impressive ensemble carries the load and the zeitgeist has been unexpectedly tapped in very direct ways. In the case of Anderson's artful Rorschach, a pair of compelling performances reflects a vibrant thematic treatise that is sure to court the cinephile vote this year. And in the case of Russell's Toronto Audience Award-winning dip back into the world of quirk and comedy, an apparent (it's the one I've yet to see) return to form for a veteran actor matched with a sure-fire Best Actress contender -- and a lead with his fair share of praise -- reflects a filmmaker keeping an impressive stride.

I mention the performances of each because the actors branch -- the largest of the Academy -- is sure to find plenty to appreciate in this trio. And that will be key, as always. This even in the case of "Argo," which doesn't have a single stand-out, though Alan Arkin will surely land his share of votes.

Films like "Amour" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" are holding steady (particularly the former, which extended its festival run with Telluride and Toronto). But the new kids are on the block, and it's only going to get busier.

In two weeks, the 50th annual New York Film Festival will join the party, and with it, Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," David Chase's "Not Fade Away" and Robert Zemeckis's "Flight." But for a few more days, particularly with "The Master" already in release, this trio will be the talk of the circuit.

Greg Ellwood already outlined the awards potential of the early fall festival bows, but concentrating on these three, let's dig in a bit specifically.

"Argo," as I noted from Telluride, is a real player for Best Picture and Best Director. It's a step up for director Affleck, even if actor Affleck doesn't really demand as much consideration. And that's fine, by the way. It works for the movie that he doesn't let movie star moxie overshadow things. Alan Arkin -- who shares a number of scenes with John Goodman -- gets the film's best comedic moments and could certainly be a Best Supporting Actor contender.

Elsewhere, the stellar crafts -- from William Goldenberg's tension-mounting film editing to Rodrigo Prieto's crisp lensing to, particularly, design elements from Jacqueline West (costumes) and Sharon Seymour (production design) -- will definitely be in the conversation. Film composer Alexandre Desplat is prolific as always, so I'd expect one of his more pronounced scores to catch traction before his work here, but who knows?

As for "The Master," I have to be honest. My knee-jerk on the film (which I didn't have kittens over like the rest of the critical community) was that Best Picture was a big long shot. The Weinstein Company has an interesting pair of films on its hands in these early days and one seems like more of an awards home run than the other, really. Paul Thomas Anderson's film appeals to a much narrower audience than Russell's, but nevertheless, one can tell the train is running away, and the sense of feeling compelled to vote for high art is always lurking.

So with Best Picture, assume Anderson's direction to go hand-in-hand with any discussion. And his work on the page as screenwriter will certainly pop for that branch as well. Joaquin Phoenix is a sure thing for Best Actor and, assuming the studio sticks to a supporting actor push for co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman (who some argue as co-lead), he's in there. Amy Adams, meanwhile, will be assisted by a very thin Best Supporting Actress race. But the story here is really the crafts of the film, from Jack Fisk's (with David Crank) typically specific production design to Mark Bridges's fetching costumes to, but of course, Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s lush, gorgeous and above all, thematically persistent 65mm cinematography.

Will composer Jonny Greenwood make headway with a notoriously in-club music branch? I can't really say. But his work is a huge step up from "There Will Be Blood" and absolutely deserving. I also wonder if the film's sound design will find some room with that branch as well. "Blood" landed a somewhat surprising Best Sound Editing nomination, remember.

And finally, "Silver Linings Playbook." As mentioned, it won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival yesterday, which in recent years has gone to such films as "The King's Speech," "Precious" and "Slumdog Millionaire." I can't comment personally, but it seems Jennifer Lawrence (Best Actress) and Robert De Niro (Best Supporting Actor) are well within the realm of possibility. Bradley Cooper could face a tighter race for Best Actor consideration, but he's obviously in the conversation. Meanwhile, along with Best Picture and Best Director potential, David O. Russell's work as a writer is sure to show up in the Best Adapted Screenplay race.

Crafts seem somewhat less likely, and for a contemporary dramedy like this, that's not necessarily a surprise. Veteran editor Jay Cassidy could certainly make it in, though. I haven't heard a lot about Danny Elfman's original score, and he's faced weird aversion from the branch in the past, but who knows?

And so, a trio of very, very different films launches us into the season, highly praised all. And soon enough, they'll be joined by more. What will rise up to the bar they've set? And what won't? We'll see.

Guy and I have updated the Contenders section ourselves once more. I had mentioned some weeks back that Greg Ellwood would be joining us on that score. It didn't happen when expected but I think we should be good to go for that on the next update. I'll be sure to offer up some sort of post so you'll know who's handling which category (though, as always, clicking on the appropriate photo in the predictions sidebar will take you to that category's contender page and the respective prognosticator's thoughts on it).

For now, though, here's what we're thinking.