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Oscar race hasn’t come into focus yet

As the fall season’s first wave of film awards and nominations roll in, the Oscar picture continues to be a murky mass of contenders and question marks.

On Tuesday, “The Artist,” a black-and-white silent film from the French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, picked up momentum with top prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and five nominations for the Los Angeles-based Spirit Awards, which honor independent movies.

The accolades established “The Artist,” a Weinstein Co. release about a silent film star who fades with the advent of the talkies, as the closest thing to a front-runner in this chaotic season.

Critics’ awards and the Spirits have a spotty record for predicting Academy Award winners, but they can help define which films and performances will be in Oscar contention. And this year it still seems anyone’s game.

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“There are still pictures that haven’t played yet,” said Sony Pictures Classics chief Tom Bernard. “There is a lot of diversity in the field that has yet to hit the spotlight.”

Among the movies that have yet to be seen even by academy and guild members, critics and other tastemakers is Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of the Sept. 11 novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Daldry has Oscar nominations for best director for all three of his previous films and his cast includes two-time winner Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock in her first film since she won the lead actress award in 2010. In addition, “War Horse,” the World War I epic by academy favorite Steven Spielberg, is just beginning to screen.

Meanwhile, a number of heavyweights have taken some lumps. Clint Eastwood’s historical biopic “J. Edgar,” for instance, divided critics and has performed modestly at the box office, slowing awards momentum. The New York critics group delayed its voting for a screening of David Fincher’s much-anticipated crime thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” then didn’t give it any prizes.

Even a critical favorite such as the Alexander Payne-directed “The Descendants,” which stars George Clooney, failed to land a single prize from the New York critics on Tuesday, although it netted four Spirit nominations.

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Meanwhile, some dark horses may be emerging. The gay family drama “Beginners,” a little-seen June release, was nominated for best feature by the Spirits and shared the top prize Monday from a third group, the independent-film-centric Gotham Awards. The Spirits also nominated for best feature “Take Shelter,” a moody drama from the young filmmaker Jeff Nichols that has failed to gross even $2 million at the box office.

“These things are kind of like the lottery. There’s no rhyme or reason to this,” Nichols said in an interview, citing a thought he said the director David Cronenberg shared with him at the Gothams ceremony.

“Beginners” was such a surprise that, when it tied with “The Tree of Life” for the top prize at the Gothams, it prompted director Mike Mills to tell The Times that he was just “really happy to be remembered and invited to the party.” (Both he and Nichols were also nominated for best director by the Spirits.)

The lack of clear favorites could also open the door for hits from earlier in the year, such as Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and the civil rights drama “The Help.” There is precedent for such a turn: Six years ago, the Paul Haggis race drama “Crash,” a spring release that had been on few Oscar radars, sneaked into a race devoid of front-runners and walked away with Oscars’ best picture prize

And “Tree” remains an intriguing x-factor. In addition to the Gothams, stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain were cited by the New York critics group. “Anything that makes noise is good -- especially for a film that was released so early in the year,” said Nancy Nutley, co-president of Fox Searchlight, which released the film.

In the acting categories, Pitt was boosted by the New York award, which cited not just his performance in “Tree” but also his role in the more popular and accessible baseball dramedy “Moneyball.”

Meryl Streep, who has 16 Oscar nominations, more than any actor in movie history, has been seen by awards pundits as a potential nominee almost from the moment she was cast as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in “Iron Lady.” But few people have seen the movie, which is scheduled for limited release Dec. 30. The New York critics award Tuesday could vault Streep into the front-runner’s spot alongside Viola Davis, whose critically praised performance in “The Help” has had her on awards-watchers’ Oscar short list for months.

All that said, it’s still early.

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“Until we see a pattern or they are compiled into the aggregate, the critics’ awards are tricky to use as a barometer for the ultimate prize,” said veteran awards consultant Tony Angellotti.

The next signposts are the Los Angeles film critics winners on Dec. 11, the Screen Actors Guild nominations on Dec. 14 and Golden Globes nominations Dec. 15.

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rebecca Keegan and John Horn contributed to this report.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

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The kudos begin

The film awards season is in full swing with three announcements in just two days. On Tuesday, Independent Film announced its Spirit Award nominations while the New York Film Critics Circle awarded its honorees for best of the year. New York’s Gotham Awards announced its honorees on Monday. Here’s a look at the New York film critics’ selections and the top Spirit Award nominees.

NEW YORK FILM CRITICS CIRCLE WINNERS

Film: “The Artist”

Director: Michel Hazanavicius: “The Artist”

Lead actor: Brad Pitt: “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life”

Lead actress: Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”

Supporting actor: Albert Brooks, “Drive”

Supporting actress: Jessica Chastain: “Tree of Life,” “Take Shelter,” “The Help”

Screenplay: Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, “Moneyball”

Nonfiction film: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

First feature: “Margin Call”

Foreign film: “A Separation”

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, “Tree of Life”

TOP SPIRIT AWARD NOMINEES

Best feature: “The Artist”; “Beginners”; “The Descendants”; “Drive”; “50/50"; and “Take Shelter”

Director: Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”; Mike Mills, “Beginners”; Jeff Nichols, “Take Shelter”; Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”; and Nicolas Winding Refn, “Drive”

Screenplay: Joseph Cedar, “Footnote”; Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”; Tom McCarthy, “Win Win”; Mike Mills, “Beginners”; and Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, “The Descendants”

Female lead: Lauren Ambrose, “Think of Me”; Rachael Harris, “Natural Selection”; Adepero Oduye,” “Pariah”; Elizabeth Olsen, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”; and Michelle Williams, “My Week With Marilyn”

Male lead: Demian Bechir, “A Better Life”; Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”; Ryan Gosling, “Drive”; Woody Harrelson, “Rampart”; and Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”

Supporting female: Jessica Chastain, “Take Shelter”; Anjelica Huston, “50/50"; Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”; Harmony Santana, “Gun Hill Road”; and Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”

Supporting male: Albert Brooks, “Drive”; John Hawkes, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”; Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”; John C. Reilly, “Cedar Rapids”; and Corey Stoll, “Midnight in Paris”


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