It's getting harder to identify an official kick-off point for the precursor run – is it the Gotham Awards? The Independent Spirit nominations? Such-and-such magazine's Top 10 list? But whether it began days or weeks ago, we are already in the thick of it: by Friday, two of the Big Three critics' groups will have showed their hand, while the picks of the not-quite-critics' group that is the National Board of Review are still on the cooling rack. 

Next week: SAG, Globes, the BFCA Awards, sundry small critics' groups... you know what, I can't think about next week for now. I still have a truckload of movies to see, for starters, and my own critics' group voting deadline is just nine days away. My family may just have to settle for opened screener discs as Christmas gifts this year. If I find time, I'll wrap them. 

If I'm quite happy not to leap ahead in the red carpet calendar just yet, that's because this week's first rumblings from the critics have been rather exciting. Yes, the New York Film Critics' Circle and the National Board of Review anointed the same film (and its director) as the year's best, but there was hardly an air of inevitability about either crowning – and neither does it yet feel like a mandatory critical meme of the “Social Network” variety has been set. We may have joked about the length of the New Yorkers' marathon voting session, but it's surely encouraging that they had to deliberate for so long over so many categories, with steadfast support bases for a wide range of contenders struggling to comes to an agreement. 

Between the NYFCC and the NBR alone, a handful of fresh, individual choices have expanded and even challenged the awards conversation. You don't usually count on the NBR for inspiration, but Ann Dowd's Best Supporting Actress win for abrasive indie “Compliance” is perhaps the furthest they've been on a limb since Campbell Scott scooped their Best Actor prize a decade ago. The NYFCC, meanwhile, took a leaf from their West Coast counterparts to confound pundits in the Best Actress category, breaking a Jennifer Lawrence-Jessica Chastain stalemate by opting for Rachel Weisz's exquisite but little-seen turn in “The Deep Blue Sea,” the March release of which is equivalent to ice-age history in this business. 

Bradley Cooper for Best Actor. “How to Survive a Plague” for Best First Feature. “Looper” for Best Original Screenplay. Certainly, some choices have been more predictable than that – “Lincoln” star Daniel Day-Lewis notched up his fifth win with the New York critics – but it's been a while since the race felt this limber at the outset. (Last year, on the other hand, when the NYFCC opened proceedings by crowning “The Artist,” most savvy pundits saw the writing on the wall.) Even the Academy got in on the act, taking a lot of flak for a Best Documentary shortlist that omitted some presumed frontrunners – but, in my opinion, not getting nearly enough credit for letting in such unorthodox, exciting choices as “This Is Not A Film” and “The Imposter.” 

Still, not everyone welcomes surprises. Twitter (not to mention our own Greg Ellwood) has been abuzz with indignation that two significant voting groups have had the effrontery to prefer – at least as a collective – other actresses to supposed Oscar-champ-in-waiting Anne Hathaway. Weisz's leftfield win, which I'd had an inkling about without fully predicting, was greeted with a mixture of cinephile elation and message-board bafflement. “LOL like shes [sic] even going to be nominated,” tweeted one particularly bright spark. 

And therein lies the rub. Will Weisz be nominated for an Oscar? The odds still don't favor it, though distributors Music Box are working hard, and I certainly like her chances more than I did a week ago. Either way, it should be an incidental concern: the New York critics aren't in the business of predicting other awards, and to suggest that they'll have somehow failed if the Academy doesn't like one of their choices as much as they do is positively hostile to the notion of critical (or indeed any) opinion.

An award from one of the leading critical bodies in the US represents something very different to an industry nomination from the Academy or a Guild, and neither means any less without the other. For "The Master," yet to find a foothold on the precursor beat, topping the august Sight & Sound poll isn't an achievement that crumbles to dust if, say, the LA critics aren't quite as enthusiastic. The film's still there, and so is its following. It'd be nice to call any award irrelevant garnish, though their benefits can be worth pursuing. 

Witness Linda Cardellini's self-financed Best Actress campaign for the shoestring drama "Return." She's not expecting an Oscar nod, though any exposure the film and her work get via her efforts -- including last week's surprise Spirit nomination, already a major win in this context -- attracts a few extra viewers or future investors. To view precursors – the very word, convenient as it is, is problematic – as mere enablers of Oscar recognition doesn't only undermine the achievement of those worthy honorees who don't necessarily complete all the stepping stones, but it positively encourages the single-file uniformity of voting, across multiple organizations, that we all start railing against when the season starts getting samey. 

“But do you really think he's the best?” replied one disgusted reader when I mentioned how pleased I was to see the NBR plump for Bradley Cooper's jagged, endearing star turn in “Silver Linings Playbook” ahead of more hotly fancied competition. I had to say no: there are other performances I hold in even higher regard (though not, incidentally, that of current Best Actor kingpin Daniel Day-Lewis). But awards season needn't become such a game of favorites that you can't take pleasure in seeing other good work rewarded, particularly with more trophies to go round than ever before. 

Someone like Cooper may or may not get the Oscar nod, so it's nice to know both that he won't leave the season empty-handed, and that not every voting group – whether it's the National Board of Review, the Academy or even a European festival jury – has the same idea of what constitutes a winner. And if that's the case, it hardly makes sense to regard their prizes as means to a single end. I'm reminded of a quote I once heard from a BAFTA winner who had missed out on the Oscar: did she feel shortchanged? “Not at all,” she said. “The Oscar might have been useful, but personally, I don't think it would look as nice on my dresser.”  

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