Also see: Oscar Preview Podcast

It’s that time of year again.

Oscar season officially begins today when the New York Film Critics Circle get out in front of the National Board of Review to hand out the first precursor awards of the year. It’s kind of like how all those states are attempting to hold their primaries before New Hampshire’s, except much more meaningful.

Before we enter the fray of FYC ads, inconsequential awards shows and forcing ourselves to go see ‘The Artist’ (even if we find the thought of seeing a silent French film abhorrent), let’s take a look at which films and performances that are leading the way before we really have any clue who the real frontrunners are.

For those of you who’ve read my power ranking before on various other sites (yes, I’m talking to both of you), you won’t need this disclaimer, but let me refresh all the newbies (e.g. everybody). These rankings have nothing to do with who will ultimately win. This is only a ranking of likelihood of being nominated. We won’t get into the winners until the nominees come out. But until that time, here are 2011’s initial Oscar Power Rankings:

ACTOR

1 – Jean Dujardin in ‘The Artist’

He might be the biggest Oscar lock across all categories right now. Since winning Best Actor at Cannes, critics have been gushing over his performance, even though most haven’t seen it yet. See, that’s the thing about buzz – tell a few critics that a performance is good and nothing will sway them. He’ll waltz to a nomination.

2 – George Clooney in ‘The Descendants’

You can say one thing about George Clooney – the guy knows how to pick an Oscar Bait role. Well, actually you can say a lot of things about him, but I’ll stick to the Oscar bait stuff. He’s as sure a lock here as he was for ‘Up in the Air’.

3 – Brad Pitt in ‘Moneyball’

This is a good old-fashioned movie star performance. Pitt dripped charisma into every scene of what may have been a dry baseball stats movie (y’know, as opposed to a thrilling baseball stats movie) and made it come to life. No actor was more essential to his film than Pitt, and the Academy loves to recognize performances like that.

4 – Michael Fassbender in ‘Shame’

The buzz surrounding this film is that it’s a tour de force for Fassbender and that the movie is essentially a showcase for him, and that’s all that matters. It’s going to be tough for the Academy to embrace such a risqué performance (they snubbed Brando for ‘Last Tango in Paris’ some years back), but he may be too much to ignore.

5 – Gary Oldman in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

Gary Oldman has never gotten nominated for an Oscar. That really sums it up right there. This may finally be the year the Academy rights this insane oversight.

6 – Woody Harrelson in ‘Rampart’

Reteaming with the director that got him a Supporting Actor nomination for ‘The Messenger’, Harrelson is said to equal that effort in a lead role as a troubled LAPD officer. He’s a very strong number six, but needs the critics to give him a lot of support if he wants to lock up another nomination.

7 – Michael Shannon in ‘Take Shelter’

Another indie buzzer with cache nearly equal to Harrelson’s performance. The big difference is that ‘Take Shelter’ has already come and gone while ‘Rampart’ still has yet to make its impact. I’ll always take the late release over the early-year darling.

8 – Ryan Gosling in ‘Drive’

Gosling is splitting with himself a bit for this and the torpid ‘Ides of March’. I think reason will prevail and voters will focus on this superb and understated performance (which is saying something for those who’ve seen this movie). Like ‘Take Shelter’, however, ‘Drive’ probably peaked to soon and has to start climbing back up the mountain to make Gosling a real threat.

9 – Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘J. Edgar’

This seemed like a lock a few months ago. Then the movie came out and turned out to be a three-hour yawn with bad makeup. His chances essentially ended on the film’s release date.

10 – Joseph Gordon-Levitt in ‘50/50’

This is my lone vanity pick. I don’t think Gordon-Levitt really has a chance, but he certainly deserves recognition for his complex performance in the best movie I’ve seen this year so far.

ACTRESS

1, 2, 3 – Meryl Streep in ‘The Iron Lady’, Glenn Close in ‘Albert Nobbs’, and Viola Davis in ‘The Help’

I’m putting all three of these leading ladies at the top because they’re all virtual locks already and it’s hard to figure out who is going to win between them. Seriously, nobody else has  a chance, and I’m already talking about winning rather than getting nominated. That’s how far out in front they are. I’ll put Streep and Close at one and two in the nomination category since they have more pedigree, but don’t think for a second that they’re any more (or less) of a lock than Viola Davis.

4 – Michelle Williams in ‘My Week with Marilyn’

Well, that didn’t go quite as planned. ‘My Week with Marilyn’ was supposed to be an awards gobbler and then it landed with very lukewarm reviews and box office receipts that seem to scream, “no more than 200 screens!” Somehow, Williams got out of that unscathed and still looks like a good bet for an Oscar nomination. Though the weak reception for the film turned this category from a big four into a big three.

5 – Keira Knightly – ‘A Dangerous Method’

Fassbender is going to get all his votes for ‘Shame’, Mortensen just seems to be detested by The Academy, and the film itself doesn’t seem like it’s going to make that much of an impact. That leaves Knightly as the lone recipient of buzz as one of the first patients of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. These flashy roles in period pieces are favorites of Oscar voters, as are films with a lone female standout performance.

6 – Tilda Swinton in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

Her studio is planning a major push for Swinton in this tiny indie about a troubled teenager and his bewildered mother. The Academy seems to love Swinton, emphasis on the seems as she’s been shut out for a lot of buzzworthy performances in the last few years, so they could throw her a line here if the film and campaign hit the sweet spot.

7 – Charlize Theron in ‘Young Adult’

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody teamed a few years ago to land Ellen Page a lead actress nomination and Theron’s role promises to be far more complex than Page’s string of one-liners. But will ‘Young Adult’ hit with the same force as ‘Juno’? That’s the big question.

8 – Elizabeth Olsen in ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

The other Olsen sister was leading the planet in buzz coming out of Sundance and into September. Then the movie kind of came and went and so did the talk about her performance. This is a deep category, so she has a good shot, but not nearly as good as she did a month ago.

9 – Rooney Mara in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

She’s the big X-Factor in this category. If the film hits big at the box office and the critics show it a lot of love, she’s going to leap past just about everyone on this list. If it falters and critics are lukewarm, she’ll be dismissed. I’m leaning toward the dismissive end, though I’m hoping for the former.

10 – Kirsten Dunst in ‘Melancholia’

It’s going to be hard for the Academy to get behind any Lars Von Trier film after his weird Hitler-praising rant of a few months back, but the reviews for the movie (particularly for Dunst) are so glowing that the Academy can’t possibly shut it out entirely. Oh wait, yes they can.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

1 – Max Von Sydow in ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’

Von Sydow is said to own this movie as a mute man who communicates with tattoos that say “yes” and “no” and a notepad around his neck. Yes, that sounds weird, but it’s the high degree of difficulty the Academy laps up.

2 – Christopher Plummer in ‘Beginners’

It took him about 50 years, but Christopher Plummer finally got his first Oscar nomination two years ago for ‘The Last Station’. Now he’s back with a bigtime performance in an adored indie that could land him his first win. There may be a little vote splitting with his role as Henrik Vagner in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, but I think voters will focus on this work.

3 – Albert Brooks in ‘Drive’

One of those, “If this was four weeks ago, he’d be a certain number one” guys. ‘Drive’ has taken some heat recently to the level that people are suing the producers for false advertising, and that’s made Brooks less than the surefire lock he was back in August. He’s still going to get nominated though. He’s too well-respected not to.

4 – Jim Broadbent in ‘The Iron Lady’

Broadbent has probably the most obscure Oscar win in recent memory (he won Best Supporting Actor for ‘Iris’, beating Ian McKellen as Gandalf in the first ‘Lord of the Rings’, because that made sense), but it just shows how adored he is by the Academy. This year he gets a plum role as Margaret Thatcher’s husband and gets to bask in the Oscar glow of one Meryl Streep.

5 – Nick Nolte in ‘Warrior’

Hey, everyone! Nick Nolte’s back! In grizzled fight trainer form! Yes, it’s time to resume what was once a near-annual, “is this the performance that finally wins Nick Nolte the Oscar?” conversation. I don’t think it will, but it has a good shot at earning him a nomination.

6 – Brad Pitt in ‘The Tree of Life’

Two nominations for Pitt? It’s not impossible if voters can wade into the difficult ‘Tree of Life’ and recognize the acting that went on inside. It may be a bit tough, but this is the guy who got nominated for the nine-hour nap that was ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, so nothing’s impossible.

7 – Kenneth Branagh in ‘My Week with Marilyn’

As I mentioned previously, the buzz has gone away from this film, and that’s really bad news for Branagh who seemed like a lock for his role as Laurence Olivier. Now he needs a lot of help to notch his first acting nomination since ‘Henry V’.

8 – John Hawkes – ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

He snuck in last year for similarly buzzed-about indie ‘Winter’s Bone’. Can he pull the double? I’m not so sure as this just doesn’t quite have the cache of his previous effort.

9 – Andy Serkis in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’

Yes, this might happen. His studio is said to be going ‘all in’ on a campaign for a guy who pretended to be a monkey and then had his entire performance covered up by a digital monkey. No lines. No screen time. No actual appearance in the movie. An Oscar Nomination? I hope not.

10 – Kevin Spacey in ‘Margin Call’

I don’t know if you knew this, but, apparently, a few years ago there were some people on Wall Street that may have been a bit dishonest and hurt our economy. You didn’t? Well, the Academy sure does and they’ll love congratulating themselves for nominating Spacey for this film if it gains more traction.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

1 – Octavia Spencer in ‘The Help’

There are approximately 915,000 supporting female performances in ‘The Help’, but Spencer has earned the lion’s share of the buzz. The Academy will definitely nominate at least of these ladies, and Spencer is by far the most likely.

2 – Melissa McCarthy – ‘Bridesmaids’

Oh yes. It’s true. The hype machine has taken Sookie from ‘Gilmore Girls’ and turned her into a full-fledged Oscar contender. Like Robert Downey, Jr. in ‘Tropic Thunder’ or Jack Black in ‘School of Rock’, this is the rare comedic performance that’s simply too funny, too popular and too good for the Academy to ignore.

3 – Shailene Woodley in ‘The Descendants’

You’ve probably heard this cliché – Woodley really “holds her own” with George Clooney in this film, Because, apparently to people, acting is a competition and it’s like a battle of wills between to prizefighters for Woodley to perform in a movie opposite Clooney. Well, that’s not true, but it is important to note, that “holding your own” is a good step in any young actor’s Oscar campaign.

4 – Janet McTeer in ‘Albert Nobbs’

There’s precedence here – Janet McTeer was nominated previously for ‘Tumbleweeds’, a movie I’m sure less than 5% of the people reading this have even heard of – but she does have to hope she’s swept up in the Glenn Close wave and that the movie becomes bigger than just about its lead’s performance. There’s a good shot at both.

5 – Bernice Bejo in ‘The Artist’

Like Ethan Hawke for ‘Training Day’ or Gabourey Sidibe for ‘Precious’, Bejo has to contend with the fact that she’s the much-less-buzzed-about performer in her own movie. The good news for her is that both of those performances got nominated for Oscars. Depending on just how big ‘The Artist’ ends up being, she’ll likely do the same.

6 – Vanessa Redgrave in ‘Coriolanus’

Ever since Vanessa Redgrave won in 1978 for ‘Julia’ and delivered her famous Zionist acceptance speech, fans of train wrecks have been salivating at the idea of her accepting another Oscar. Academy members have been less than obliging, but just the mere thought of her in the race is enough to make her buzworthy.

7 – Sandra Bullock in ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’

I know she somehow won an Oscar for ‘The Blind Side’, but on paper this movie is actually Bullock’s Oscar baitiest role ever. She’s been a bit below-the-radar recently, but if this film hits big she’ll likely be a big beneficiary.

8 – Jessica Chastain in ‘The Help’, ‘The Tree of Life’, or ‘Take Shelter’

Jessica Chastain’s biggest problem is that she’s going to split votes with herself so many different ways that getting traction for just one of those performances is going to be tough. My bet is for ‘The Tree of Life’, but until we figure out which one is catching on, it’s going to be hard to make her much of a contender for any of them.

9 – Carey Mulligan in ‘Shame’

It’s hard to imagine an NC-17 earning more than one Oscar nomination, but if the buzz grows for this movie it may sweep her up in Fassbender’s wake. It’s still going to be hard for this type of movie to gain that much traction, though.

10 – Emily Watson in ‘War Horse’

Really, I just needed a 10th. And what’s a better compromise than a multiple nominee in a big-time Oscar contender? She’s the movie’s best shot at an acting nomination.

BEST DIRECTOR

1 – Alexander Payne for ‘The Descendants’

A comedy director  at number one? Yes, this year it just might happen, as critics are finally figuring out that controlling tone is a director’s first responsibility, and nobody did it better than Alexander Payne this year. I expect him to suck up the critics awards like a strong riptide.

2 – Stephen Daldry for ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’

Stephen Daldry has made three feature films and every single one of them has earned him a Best Director nomination. This is his highest-profile film he’s made yet, so it may vault him past a perennial nominee into a first-time winner. Either way, if it’s good, he’s a lock.

3 – Michel Hazanavicius for ‘The Artist’

“A black and white silent movie? Tres Bien.” ~ every single critic filling out a Best Director ballot during awards season.

4 – Steven Spielberg for ‘War Horse’

I’m not sure if you knew this, but Steven Spielberg is kind of a renowned and famous director. I like his chances with a war movie. I really like them.

5 – Terence Malick for ‘The Tree of Life’

Throughout the course of these Oscar Power Rankings, I will do my due diligence to ensure I never drop Terence Malick outside the top five. Because I think he WILL get nominated. Seriously, if I ever drop him out, write me some really nasty comments. REALLY nasty.

6 – Bennett Miller for ‘Moneyball’

A previous nominee for ‘Capote’, Miller has the pedigree the Academy seems to require in order to nominate anybody, but I question the staying power of this baseball flick. He’ll likely need to hit really early with the critics’ awards to have a good shot. Otherwise, he may be too far out to ever catch up.

7 – Steve McQueen for ‘Shame’

This is one of those indies that’s hailed as a director’s triumph. Unfortunately for McQueen, that usually means a slew of critics’ awards and ultimately coming up short come Oscar morning. Still, he’s going to be a factor during precursor season.

8 – David Fincher for ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

David Fincher won last year lost to Tom Hooper last year showing that the Academy just might not be ready to honor him yet. Now he comes back with a super-dark popcorn flick

9 – Woody Allen for ‘Midnight in Paris’

Woody Allen is much more likely to be recognized for his screenplay than he is for directing this ‘comeback’ film. Though it is kind of strange that the studio’s first set of screeners for this movie did not even mention Allen.

10 – Martin Scorsese for ‘Hugo’

This is actually one of the best-reviewed movies of Martin Scorsese’s career. It’s also a children’s movie – a genre that’s basically non-existent at the Oscars. He’s a long shot at best.

BEST PICTURE

1 – The Artist

This movie has so much buzz going for it, I wonder if anybody would even have to see it for it get nominated for Best Picture. It’s been so widely lauded for the last few months at various festivals, that Academy ballots may as well come with it pre-checked. It’s this year’s ‘Hurt Locker’ or ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as the festival darling that can do no wrong. It’s a virtual cinch for a nomination.

2 – The Descendants

This film got out in front of the late-season Oscar Buzz, and it remains to be seen if its wave crested too soon. The platform release will certainly help ride the surf for awhile, and George Clooney never hurt any movie’s Oscar campaign. It should be smooth waters for this Hawaiian family dramedy on its path to The Kodak.

3 – War Horse

The buzz on this one is very simple. Critics are probably going to dismiss it as a bit trite and saccharine. Meanwhile, the press and public are going to eat it up like a horse at a trough. Sound like ‘The Blind Side’ with far more pedigree (Spielberg, War, British People)? You bet it does.

4 – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

This has a lot going for it: Stephen Daldry (3-for-3 in Best Director Nominations), 9/11 (Could be the next Holocaust in terms of Oscar bait), Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock (they’re kind of famous), and an acclaimed novel as its source material. Really the only issue is if the movie’s any good or not. If it is, this one’s a lock.

5 – Moneyball

This one is very tough to call. I probably need some sort of Oscar SABR stats to really accurately judge its chances. On the one hand, it got great reviews, did good business and has a giant star. On the other hand, it’s a sports movie and if a sports movie doesn’t involve horses, boxing or track, the Academy tends to not pay attention. Plus, it came out before the NBA season started. Okay, that’s probably a bad sports analogy, but it does have to fight the Academy’s short memory to storm into Oscar night. It could be close, but I believe in this underdog.

6 – The Help

Here’s where it starts to get a little muddy. Remember, the number of nominations has to be at least five, but it can stop there. This was a huge hit in August and got the accolades to go along with the adoration of its audience, but it may seem a bit slight as the Oscar race deepens into December. Right now, it looks like it will get in, but this is a year where five Best Picture nominees is a real possibility.

7 – Midnight in Paris

I’m not sure if you heard, but Woody’s back! Wait? Wasn’t he back 3 years ago with ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’? And 3 years before that with ‘Match Point’? Well, I guess it’s required that every 3 years Woody have a comeback and this time he’s REALLY back. Is he back enough to get his first Best Picture nomination since ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’? I’m not sure if he’s THAT back.

8 – The Iron Lady

So British. So True. So Streep. It’s like a perfect three-punch combo of Oscar catnip. It will have to hit ‘King’s Speech’ or ‘The Queen’ level big to turn into a lock, but no matter what, it’s at least a strong contender.

9 – Tree of Life

You may have seen it and wondered what the Hell was going on. Sean Penn sure did. Well, it doesn’t matter what YOU think: It’s Terence Malick! The Academy loves Terence Malick! It’s got a shot even if it involved out-of-context dinosaurs.

10 – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy

So far, this movie has been very divisive on the festival circuit. Some love its ‘Bond for Smart People’ vibe. Others simply find it extremely confusing to the point of near inscrutability. This is a movie that will need some love from the viewing public to move into a real contender’s role.

11 – Shame

This movie is rated NC-17. The last such rating to get nominated for Best Picture was Midnight Cowboy (it won). This may be a bit too much for the Academy to embrace, but if it starts sweeping the critics’ awards, they may not be able to ignore it.

12 – Beginners

The charming indie comedy slot looks like it will be filled by ‘The Descendants’. And heaven forbid the Academy nominated two impeccable comedies that critics and audiences adore.

13 – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I always thought this overlong, repetitive, poorly written, grocery store novel of a book would make a much better movie as it could trim the fat and drew characters beyond journalistic descriptions of their clothing and laptop capabilities. I’m interested to see what Fincher does with it, but not too sure it will rise beyond popcorn level status unless he really makes this a character study. Otherwise, it’s a Lifetime movie plot in Sweden.

14 – A Dangerous Method

A lot of buzz, but it’s all indie buzz. Indie buzz doesn’t usually equal Academy buzz. Especially when the Fassbender love is going to be dominated by ‘Shame’.

15 – We Bought a Zoo

I probably should have stopped at ‘Shame’, but I wanted to make to Cameron Crowe. If only to remind everyone that ‘ALMOST FAMOUS’ DIDN’T GET NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE!