We are a month away from the Toronto Film Festival when awards talk will really get started. Many of this year's Oscar hopefuls are starting to enter the race with placement into festivals and speculation is going to get rampant once we get out of this pathetic summer excuse for a movie season. Every week from here on in this column will take a look at a different aspect of this year's marathon from the categories and statistics as new movies come in, some go, and the rankings change based on everything that influences the charge towards the cinema prognosticator's Super Bowl.

This week we'll kick things off in grand fashion by looking at the potential for Best Picture. Through the first seven months of 2010, there are reasonably only six films that figure to get any sort of traction into the Fall season. Leading the way for a nomination at the moment is clearly Christopher Nolan's Inception. Our greatest hopes were confirmed upon arrival, and audiences have just taken it to a third straight week at the top of the box office on its way to being the highest grossing "original" film of the year. How far you want to put the speculation in voters nominating it as payback for snubbing The Dark Knight is your argument since the suggestion of it backhandedly implies that Inception couldn't stand on its own in a field of five nominees, let alone the newest trend of ten. We'll get to the final five months soon enough, but even conservatively it is hard to imagine Inception being knocked off the list.



Back in June, I wondered whether or not Toy Story 3 could actually win the Best Picture prize this year. A pipe dream to be sure, it would still be a shock if it were not at least nominated. All of three negative reviews (out of 235) on Rotten Tomatoes and a box office tally that in the coming weeks should make it, at least, the ninth highest grossing film of all time and less than $40 million behind Shrek 2, the #1 grossing animated film ever. Only eight of the last thirty box office champions of their respective year were nominated for Best Picture, but if this whole trend of ten stays put those percentages are going to likely go up real fast.

After those two, the list gets a little more unstable. Scorsese's Shutter Island may have actually been a nominee for 2009 if Paramount stuck to its October guns on that one. The film still did very well ($128 million), reviews were a bit more mixed than expected as some critics seemed to prefer the dry emptiness of Polanski's The Ghost Writer to the rich psychological theatrics of Teddy Daniels' discoveries. A February opening is still a dicey proposition for people voting eleven months later though. Even with ten nominees in '09, the earliest contenders were from the month of June. He's Just Not That Into You and Madea Goes To Jail were hardly on people's minds come this time last year though.

Perhaps leap frogging Scorsese in the rankings at the moment is Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. It's the indie film critics are going ga-ga over at the moment. Its actors and screenplay are going to show up on year-end lists by some and it's headed towards the healthy indie box office tally that Winter's Bone hasn't quite found in its run. Debra Granik's film doesn't quite have the recognizable names that Cholodenko's cast does, and that factor may also help Aaron Schneider's Get Low. With the likes of Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and a trove of solid reviews, if audiences discover this movie they could help its chances for a top nomination to go along with its almost certain nomination (and I'm already saying victory) for Duvall.

From here on out there are, playing it very conservatively, twenty films -- give or take -- on the schedule likely to compete for probably up to eight slots. None of them open in August, so sorry Scott Pilgrim fans. In the past I have found it best to refrain from putting films into the discussion before these eyes had a chance to see and judge for myself. We all know how blurbing the name of the holy statuette can go. With the benefit of trailers though, combined with the pedigree behind them, you can get a sense of what films may be leaning closer to gold than others. So until we see a little more than blind anticipation, we'll leave the following titles off the table:

Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, Doug Liman's Fair Game, David O. Russell's The Fighter, Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, Tom Hooper's The King's Speech, Edward Zwick's Love and Other Drugs, Paul Haggis' The Next Three Days, The Coen's True Grit and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (If it finds a way to get on the schedule this year.)

These titles will naturally be revisited as soon as I can gander a look at more than just a handful of reviews. Yes, Fair Game played Cannes but one of the raves came from Pete Hammond. 'Nuff said. (Black Swan and The King's Speech are playing the Toronto festival.) Cannot say I am really sold on Bagman (aka Casino Jack) as a contender as George Hickenlooper hasn't had a narrative feature as widely acclaimed as his documentaries. The Debt looks to have many of the ingredients for Oscar-baiting including a first-rate cast (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds) -- and Sam Worthington -- Nazi war crimes and spy missions spanning multiple decades. But John Madden's post Mrs. Brown/Shakespeare In Love resume of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Proof and Killshot is hardly inspiring. We'll also know more on that one come Toronto.

Anton Corbijn's The American may draw some looks as its George Clooney's only entry into the season, but Focus may already have better plays with the forthcoming films from Sofia Coppola (Somewhere) and Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden (It's Kind of a Funny Story) not to mention the Cholodenko. Julian Schnabel's last film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, may have only needed a sixth Best Picture slot to earn a nomination back in 2007. The Weinstein's are backing his latest, Miral, but have we forgiven them for all The Reader's nominations? Sony Classics has both a Mike Leigh (Another Year) and a Stephen Frears (Tamara Drewe) to contend with. But in the last decade the studio has only contended for the grand prize with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Capote; and An Education. Are we expecting either rising to such levels?

Besides their primary division will have their hands full touting David Fincher's The Social Network, which some are calling a favorite sight unseen. Don't take your eyes off of Fox Searchlight though who aside from having the Aronofsky and Boyle have two trailers practically screaming Oscar at the moment. Conviction combines both a true crime and true underdog story headlined by two-time winner Hilary Swank and the long overdue Sam Rockwell, but has the less than inspiring Tony Goldwyn behind the camera. Still a good trailer, but their golden goose looks to be Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go. An acclaimed novel combining low-key science fiction with coming-of-age longing AND English accents? Make way for that impending steam train.

And with that we come to our first rankings of the year. Remember these are just preliminary placements based on only what these eyes have seen to date. Speculating any further is a fool's game as proven so forcefully last year when Invictus, The Lovely Bones and Nine all failed to blow our socks off. Higher ranks at the moment go to films I have seen to date and in no way reflect how the tide will turn between now and December. Each week we will examine another phase of the awards race and the circle will gradually come back to Best Picture and so on.

BEST PICTURE RANKINGS (to date)

1. Inception - The frontrunner until someone starts creating a moronic backlash.
2. Toy Story 3 - Highest grossing film of the year so far. 2nd highest animated of all-time.
3. The Kids are All Right - The indie film of the moment that audiences and critics are digging.
4. Shutter Island - Should have been in the ten last year.
5. Winter's Bone - Much better than the #3 film. Lead Actress talk may take front and center.
6. Get Low - If Crazy Heart was considered a contender, then this has to be.
7. Never Let Me Go - The trailer may as well just announce its already been nominated.
8. The Social Network - 10 nominations for Fincher's last film. And it kinda sucked.
9. Somewhere - Sofia Coppola back in Lost In Translation territory?
10. Miral - If Focus didn't already have two films on the list, I may have neglected Weinstein's chances.