The other three -- all American productions -- have considerably better chances. Some suggested Benh Zeitlin's Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was a bit too experimental for awards season. But a strong limited debut at the box office and absolutely glowing reviews seems to make it the first half of 2012's safest bet for a best picture nomination, the sort of slot that "Winter's Bone" and "The Tree of Life' managed in recent years.

Wes Anderson is getting some of the best reviews and biggest box office of his career for "Moonrise Kingdom." The filmmaker has never received a best picture nomination (though one wonders if there had been more than five nominees if "The Royal Tenenbaums" could have done so), and this is definitely his best chance yet. There's a slightly smaller chance Ben Lewin's "The Sessions" makes the cut, though that film is a very good bet for an original screenplay nomination as well as acting nods for Helen Hunt, William H. Macy and especially John Hawkes.

Then of course there's John Madden's "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" which has turned into something of a box office sensation. It's a definite best picture possibility, if the rest of the year proves weak. It also could give Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench yet another Oscar nod (they each have six so far, and have both won). Dench is probably one of the safest bets of any of the potential nominees at this point, actually. She joins six other sure bets we're willing to bet money on seven months before Oscar gives us his nominations:

  • John Hawkes receives a best actor nomination.
  • Judi Dench receives a best supporting actress nomination.
  • "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is nominated for best adapted screenplay.
  • "Brave" is nominated for best animated feature (though likely doesn't win).
  • "Moonrise Kingdom" is nominated for best original screenplay.
  • "Mirror Mirror" is nominated for best costume design.
  • "The Avengers" is nominated for best sound editing, best sound mixing and best visual effects.
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes Star in "The Sessions"
Fox Searchlight Helen Hunt and John Hawkes Star in "The Sessions"

As for acting possibilities beyond the noted Hawkes and Dench, there's three very possible best actress nominees from films we've already seen -- Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Helen Hunt in "The Sessions," and Marion Cotillard in "Rust and Bone."

Hunt and Cotillard are both previous winners, but Wallis -- probably the best bet of the three -- would be something of an anomaly. Just six years old when she filmed "Beasts," Wallis beat out 4,000 other children who had auditioned for the part. She's stunning in the role, and the thought of the charismatic young actress getting a nomination might be too precious a thought for voters to resist. She would become the youngest female nominee ever in any category, and second youngest ever after 8 year-old Justin Henry's nomination for "Kramer vs. Kramer" (she'll be 9 on the night of the ceremony).

Another potentially interesting nominee is Matthew McConaughey, who is having an extraordinary year thanks to his work in "Bernie," "Killer Joe," "Mud," "The Paperboy," and most notably, "Magic Mike." As previously suggested, the mix of box office success and critical acclaim that is meeting "Mike" could propel McConaughey -- never nominated for an Oscar -- into the race in a fashion akin to Burt Reynolds' nomination for "Boogie Nights."

But in the interest of keeping this first column from excess, we'll stop here. The rest of the story can be told through the list on the following page. Category by category, it details the chances of films that have officially screened at either a festival or in theaters. Keep in mind the difficulty of picking candidates in the categories of best foreign language film, best documentary feature and best original song, all of which are notoriously unpredictable even at the end of the year (with regard to foreign language, we don't know which films will even be submitted for consideration).

At the end of the summer, this column will relaunch with thoughts on what Venice and Toronto could soon tell us about Oscar. Until then, continue to the next page to see what we might already know about the eventual nominations (and here's updated charts featuring guesses that include the films no one has seen yet).