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Oscar watch: 5 very early Best Picture predictions

Academy Award nominations won't be announced until January — but that's not stopping critics from forecasting which films will win Oscar gold

The Toronto International Film Festival ended on Sept. 16 after a string of buzzy screenings that included many Oscar hopefuls. For many film aficionados, the festival marks the unofficial beginning of Oscar season, as studios begin rolling out their period pieces, weepy melodramas, and uplifting tales of the human spirit in a race that won't come to an end until Oscar night on February 24, 2013. Nominations for the Academy Awards won't be announced until January, and many of the leading contenders are months away from hitting theaters nationwide. But that's not stopping some eager critics from claiming that they already know what's going to win Best Picture. Here, five very early predictions: 

1. The Master (Sept. 21)
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which chronicles the tumultuous relationship between a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his troubled disciple (Joaquin Phoenix), has come out of the film festivals in Venice and Toronto with a "media spotlight blazing," says Pete Hammond at Deadline, and the film's "record-breaking limited release gross" after its debut in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 17 is sure to keep it in the Oscar hunt.

2. Argo (Oct. 12)
"The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture will be Ben Affleck's tense new thriller Argo," proclaims Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times. Success at the Toronto festival has become the most reliable harbinger for Oscar success: All five of the last Best Picture winners (The Artist, The King's Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, and No Country For Old Men) have been well-received by audiences in the Canadian city. And it doesn't hurt that Argo, which tells the true story of a 1979 CIA plot to smuggle five Americans out of Iran under the cover of a fake film production, is also "a terrific film," with a series of stellar supporting performances.

3. Cloud Atlas (Oct. 26)
The timeline-hopping, science-fiction flick "is an epic film with an all-star international cast, so most of the Academy is bound to know someone," says Mark Juddery at The Huffington Post. And the fact that a sci-fi film has never been awarded Best Picture may actually work in Cloud Atlas' favor: The Academy has a vested interest in proving that it's "all-inclusive," and after rewarding horror (The Silence of the Lambs) and fantasy (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), voters may decide it's finally time to "reward the geeks' other favorite genre."

4. Silver Linings Playbook (Nov. 21)
David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook won the Audience Award in Toronto, which may indicate that the "massively crowd-pleasing comedy has the edge on Argo at this point," says Oliver Lyttelton at Indie Wire. The film, which stars Bradley Cooper as a troubled young man attempting to reconnect with his ex-wife, seems to have touched audiences on "a much more mature, universal level" than the other early favorites, and recent Audience Award winners like Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech have gone on to win Best Picture.

5. Les Miserables (Dec. 25)
A recent poll at online ticket-buying website Fandango saw 49 percent of its users deem Tom Hooper's adaptation of hit musical Les Miserables the "film that could sweep the Oscars," reports Zorianna Kit at Reuters. Fandango Editor-in-Chief Chuck Walton says a duet between Les Miserables stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway at the 2009 Academy Awards stirred up early interest in the film: "Clearly movie fans liked what they saw." A musical hasn't been awarded Best Picture since Chicago won a decade ago, so the Academy might decide a musical win is overdue.

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