12/02/2011 06:49 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2012

Oscars 2012: Reading This Week's Critical Tea Leaves

The glitterati's gladiatorial combat for Oscar has officially commenced: the Gotham Independent Awards, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review all handed out their end-of-year kudos this week and the Indie Spirit Awards announced their nominations. The crystal balls of Oscarologists everywhere have been sorely in need of a spit-shine because, unlike last year, it's a murky, wide-open battlefield with few frontrunners dominating. And where there's an awards opening, there is Harvey Weinstein. Apparently in search of a new challenge after he felled zeitgeist movie of the year The Social Network with Colin Firth's stiff upper lip in The King's Speech, Weinstein has set himself a near impossible feat: win an Oscar for a silent film. And he's off to a running start -- the New York Critics Circle picked The Artist as its best film of the year.

Before the announcement, Weinstein's campaign love letters popped up in the New York Times and on The Huffington Post, and he's been doing the two step with Charlie Chaplin's granddaughters, so he clearly smells blood with The Artist. Those shark-like instincts were amply awarded as the New York critics not only named it Best Film of the year but also gave its director Michel Hazanavicius the Best Director prize. On top of that, the Indie Spirit awards nominated it for Best Feature, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, and Jean Dujardin for Best Actor. Even though the Spirit Awards are more like the Oscar's spunky little sister -- the one who wears black nail polish and will blow her rent on boots -- they can be an important heat-builder, especially in a season devoid of heavy favorites. So, The Artist is definitely now a Brando-style contender for the big show.

However, it's by no means the favorite, and the National Board of Review's decision to smother Hugo with its film-love indicates just how wide open the Best Picture race is. Granted the NBR is an eclectic group that doesn't necessarily overlap with the Academy, but the endorsement is just the kind of shot in the arm Hugo needs to drive the Academy's older members to see it in 3D and marvel at Martin Scorsese's love song to cinema's earliest roots -- that is if the special 3D glasses don't give them headaches and leave them prone on the couch afterward. Ironically, this might be one case where you don't mind if the 65+ crowd catches it on a screener.

This year's Best Actor race was already in contention to be the sexiest Best Actor Race ever--George Clooney, Leonoard DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt are all in the running -- and now it's blossomed into what may well be a clash of the A-list titans. Clooney has been a presumed frontrunner for Alexandar Payne's wry, touching family drama, The Descendants, which picked up Best Feature, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress nominations from the Indie Spirit Awards. Further, Clooney got the National Board of Review's nod for Best Actor (which also picked brilliant young Shailene Woodley as best supporting actress.) However, Clooney was not nominated by the Spirit Awards, which has more Academy crossover. To boot, the New York critics named Brad Pitt Best Actor of the year for Moneyball AND Tree of Life. The fact that Pitt made a rare appearance at a Thanksgiving Q&A at Sony means he's definitely in the hunt. Considering he's never won his Oscar, he may well be due. Don't expect George to go down without a fight, though; this winter these two could be set for the ultimate smoldering stand off. Will Clooney beat a retreat to his Lake Como Villa? Will Pitt run off to do charity work in Indonesia with Angelina? Who knows, but to quote Optimus Prime, "one shall stand, one shall fall."

Cannes' Palme d'Or winner Tree of Life got a boost with the New York Critics giving it best cinematography and the Gotham Independent Awards naming it co-Best Picture of the Year. Terence Malick isn't exactly an unknown when it comes to the Academy, so his stream-of-consciousness biopic meta-tone poem will probably get some acknowledgement despite its elliptical, all-existence-encompassing nature. However, the much bigger boost came to Mike Mills' The Beginners, the other co-Best Picture of the Year. Marking its territory as the best movie this year few have seen, The Beginners was also nominated at the Indie Spirits for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Captain Von Trapp himself, screen legend Christopher Plummer. Plummer was also the National Board of Review's pic for best supporting actor. So, The Beginners might break through to the Oscars as well, if it can get enough Academy members to actually see it.

The other dark horse may be the neon-noir love letter to Los Angeles Drive. A cinegeek favorite, it scored big, too, at the Indie Spirits with nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Ryan Gosling, and Best Supporting Actor, Albert Brooks. It also got a mention as one of the National Board of Review's ten best pictures. Some doubt whether Drive can head-stomp its way into the Academy's heart -- what with all that casual ultra-violence -- but I wouldn't count it out. Everyone raves over Albert Brook's turn as the ultimate sleazy producer/mob boss, and his line about making films that critics call "European" may stir fond memories for some Academy members: he might well be the man to beat for Best Supporting Actor. Of course, the most notable thing about this slew of kudos and nominations is that it still looks like there's no one film set to sweep the Oscars yet. Which is just how Generalissimo Weinstein likes it.