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Gold Standard: How the best picture categories are shaping up

The season’s last two movies, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” have been roundly ignored by key critics groups handing out their year-end baubles. Will they connect any better with motion picture academy voters? We’d ask the films’ producer, Scott Rudin, but we’re afraid he’d embargo the answer until Valentine’s Day.

So let’s soldier ahead, alone and unencumbered …

BEST PICTURE

1. “The Artist”

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2. “The Descendants”

3. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

4. “The Help”

5. “Hugo”

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6. “War Horse”

7. “Midnight in Paris”

8. “The Tree of Life”

9. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

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10. “Moneyball”

Bubbling under: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” “Shame,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Young Adult,” “The Ides of March,” “Margin Call.”

Analysis: After the veil finally lifted from the year’s last two contenders, we learned several things: (1) David Fincher was right when he noted “there’s too much anal rape” for “Dragon Tattoo” to be nominated; (2) that Fincher’s version of “Dragon Tattoo” does not help the film’s cause; (3) that 9/11 trumps WWI, so move “War Horse” behind “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”; and (4) that even though “Extremely Loud” is extremely flawed and, at times, emotionally dishonest, its third-act resolution packs enough of a tear-inducing wallop to make it a serious contender here and in several other categories as well.

At this stage, only the top 10 films here have much of a chance. With Oscar’s new math, how many will be nominated depends primarily on passion. Do enough voters love, say, “Harry Potter” to the point that they’ll list it No. 1 or No. 2 on their ballots? You could make a case that might happen with “The Tree of Life,” given the number of Terrence Malick disciples found in the academy. A movie like “Moneyball” faces longer odds.

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DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

1. “Project Nim”

2. “Pina”

3. “Bill Cunningham New York”

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4. “We Were Here”

5. “Buck”

Bubbling under: “Undefeated,” “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” “Hell and Back Again,” “Jane’s Journey,” “Sing Your Song,” “Semper Fi: Always Faithful.”

Analysis: The academy predictably delivered another head-scratcher of a shortlist, leaving off Werner Herzog’s brilliant death-penalty meditation, “Into the Abyss,” and ignoring audience favorite “Senna” as well as Steve James’ acclaimed “The Interrupters,” which follows, over the course of a year, members of a Chicago anti-violence network working to safeguard their neighborhoods. That “The Interrupters” sits at 99% favorable at Rotten Tomatoes and has been selling out houses apparently carries no weight with the academy, who outrageously ignored James’ “Hoop Dreams” as well.

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Now that we’ve unburdened ourselves (seriously … what did James do to these people? … deep breath), we can note that it’s possible to sift through the 15 shortlisted docs and come up with five decent nominees. James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” won in this category three years ago, and his latest, “Project Nim,” is almost as good. Wim Wenders’ elegiac tribute to German choreographer Pina Bausch works even if you don’t particularly like the avant-garde dance it showcases.

As for the others, the joyous bio “Bill Cunningham” is loved by just about everyone who sees it, as is “Buck,” the horse whisperer story and the year’s second highest-grossing doc after Herzog’s ineligible “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” The moving chronicle of the AIDS epidemic “We Were Here” should sneak in ahead of the crowd-pleasing sports feature “Undefeated” and the flawed advocacy work “Paradise Lost 3.”

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FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

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1. “A Separation” (Iran)

2. “Monsieur Lazhar” (Canada)

3. “Footnote” (Israel)

4. “In Darkness” (Poland)

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5. “Le Havre” (Finland)

Bubbling under: “Where Do We Go Now?” (Lebanon), “Pina” (Germany), “The Flowers of War” (China), “Happy Happy” (Norway), “Superclasico” (Denmark), “Terraferma” (Italy), “Sonny Boy” (Netherlands), “Beyond” (Sweden), “Black Bread” (Spain).

Analysis: Another category that produces its fair share of outrage, though its recently revamped system does guarantee that critical darlings like “Dogtooth” (a nominee last year) receive the equivalent of a governor’s reprieve. Voters initially comb through the list of 63 submitted movies and pick six. An executive committee then takes over, adds another three (like “Dogtooth” or “Incendies”) and then yet another committee settles on the final five nominees.

The upshot: Every studio with a movie that might be a bit offbeat or emotionally cool believes their film will be one of the three “saves.” This applies to the blood-soaked “Miss Bala” and the violent Nanking massacre-era epic, “Flowers of War,” which might also be discounted because it has too much spoken English. (Voters don’t like that … not “foreign” enough.) The clever comic fable “Where Do We Go Now?” ranks as another “save” possibility.

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Asghar Farhadi’s tense social drama “A Separation,” which has been sweeping up critics prizes, looks to be the front-runner and could very well land an original screenplay nod too. “Monsieur Lazhar” and “Footnote” have both been playing great with voters. There’s an embarrassment of riches in this category; now balloters simply need to avoid embarrassing themselves with their choices.

Next week: Golden Globes and best picture.

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