Pete Hammond badgeSome years, the Best Picture Oscar race already has boiled down to one, two or three sure things by the time December rolls around. It coincides with critics groups voting on their picks, and screeners being sent out. That is not the case this year in a competition that is about as wide open as you can get. I base this on Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members with whom I have spoken, who—unlike the critics who see and digest all films in contention much quicker than the average voter—take their time in trying to see everything.

Oddly, the conventional wisdom that it’s better to release Oscar hopefuls in the final three months of the year actually might not be the smartest piece of advice. Many of the titles I am hearing enthusiasm for—Straight Outta Compton, Inside Out, Love & Mercy and others—were released in the summer but are getting a boost now, not only from early screeners but also the fact that they have had a much better chance to be seen. Having said that, most movies being mentioned for one of up to 10 spots in the Best Picture race have, as usual, been released in the Oscar-friendly corridor of fall and Christmas.

SpotlightCommonly thought to be leading the pack at this date are two films: a classic studio box office blockbuster, The Martian, and a growing indie success story, Spotlight. The latter deals with a journalistic investigation into a scandal revolving around the Catholic Church in Boston and priests accused of sexually abusing kids. It roundly has been applauded by critics groups, including Los Angeles and Boston (duh!), who voted it their top award. The Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, and SAG Awards also have taken major notice. On the other hand, the highly entertaining The Martian not only is a rare Best Picture front-runner that combines box office success with critical acclaim, it also represents director Ridley Scott’s strongest shot at finally getting his own Oscar statuette. He directed the 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator but was overlooked in the director race that year in favor of Traffic’s Steven Soderbergh. This all makes the 78-year-old director and his movie somewhat of a sentimental favorite this year.

RevenantSome directors who are no strangers to Oscar glory have returned with contender films. There’s Alejandro G. Iñárritu and his brutal, bloody Western, The Revenant, which could bring him riding back into the Dolby Theatre for a second year in a row after his Birdman won the Best Picture prize last year; David O. Russell has Joy, the cast of which—Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper—promises to be another strong winner with the actors branch, the Academy’s largest; and Steven Spielberg has returned with Bridge Of Spies, the latest in a long line of Best Picture hopefuls from perhaps the most successful director in motion picture history.

Like The Martian, these films all are from major studios and signal what could be a very strong year for the majors, Oscar-wise. Seven of the ten films named to AFI’s Top Ten list just announced this week are from the majors.  Throw in Universal’s Straight Outta Compton, which has been earning strong Best Picture buzz and could get on the nom list for making the story of rap group N.W.A about as compelling as a music biopic possibly could be. A Best Picture nomination would be a nice capper for Universal’s incredible year at the box office, despite the lukewarm returns and fairly disastrous wide rollout of Steve Jobs, which still has Oscar potential even if it’s on an uphill climb.

Warner Bros. has in the mix Mad Max: Fury Road, Black Mass and late bloomer Creed, which really has surprised as a solid contender and could be the sleeper here even though WB has put the lion’s share of its efforts behind Mad Max and Mass. Of the latter two, Mad Max has been the big news so far with key nominations from the Globes, Critics’ Choice, a Best Picture win from the National Board Of Review and a spot in AFI’s prestigious Top Ten list.

Also looking to break into this race is Disney; in addition to Bridge Of Spies, which it has as part of an expiring DreamWorks association, it also has Pixar’s Inside Out. The ‘toon could break out of the Animated Feature ghetto and into the Best Picture leagues, where only three of its ilk have landed before. This is a title I hear about repeatedly. And, although the studio doesn’t need awards love to make Star Wars: The Force Awakens the biggest movie of all time, the J.J. Abrams-helmed phenom just could be good enough, based on rapturous industry response at its world premiere Monday night, to add a Best Picture nom to its haul and become the first in the seven-film series to land a Best Pic nomination since A New Hope in 1977.

the big shortIn terms of other majors, Paramount was looking to sit this season out until it decided to drop the star-laden dramedy The Big Short into the mix. The pic, revolving around the 2008 financial meltdown, has been well received in early awards contests and has a great ensemble cast that could drive it forward, especially among the actors branch. Par’s Toronto Film Festival pickup, Anomalisa, seems like a longer shot here and more likely to land in the Animated Feature and Adapted Screenplay categories.

Sony Pictures had hoped technical wonder The Walk would put a Robert Zemeckis vehicle back in the race, but the pic’s box office failure also caused it to lose much of its awards mojo. The visual effects category is its best Oscar bet. The studio’s timely Christmas Day release, Concussion, about the doctor who links traumatic brain injury with football, will assuredly put its star Will Smith in the Best Actor race. The Peter Landesman-directed film could be just ripped-from-the-headlines enough to land a long-shot bid in the Best Picture race, too—another feather in the cap for Ridley Scott, who is one of its producers.

After the Academy increased the potential Best Picture nomination slots from five to 10, voters often placed smaller, indie films in those extra spots. This year is likely to have several indie movies on the list, including The Weinstein Company’s Cannes Film Festival success Carol—which picked up Globe, Critics’ Choice, AFI and SAG mentions as well as four big awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, including Best Film—as well as Quentin Tarantino’s violent but fun genre outing, the Western The Hateful Eight. It should be noted: Tarantino films have been nominated for Best Picture three times in the past.

Fox Searchlight is back in the action with its duo of Youth—from foreign-language Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino, who enlisted an Academy-friendly cast in his English-language foray—and the magnificent Brooklyn, which the Fox specialty division—winner in the Best Picture race the past two years—picked up at Sundance.

Focus Features might be back this year with The Danish Girl, following last year’s nomination for The Theory Of Everything. The film’s transgender underpinnings might help it gain traction since it’s such a hot-button topic these days.

RoomA24 could break into this contest with its emotional powerhouse Room, a strong contender, or a real long shot like the much-admired Ex Machina, just as another new indie player, Bleecker Street, tries to defy odds and land the Hollywood blacklist story Trumbo a surprise nom, even though the industry seems more taken with the film than some critics. SAG, Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe noms have been raising its profile considerably. Lionsgate, kind of a mini-major with indie cred, is looking to return to the Best Picture crowd after winning in 2006 with Crash. It actually just might do it with the critical and box office success of the drug cartel drama Sicario, which has lots of buzz. It appears there’s also some support out there for Netflix’s maiden feature film effort, Beasts Of No Nation, even though the pic faded from theatres in just two weeks to go exclusively online. It will be an interesting test for the streaming service, and Hollywood, if the film lands a slot.

Finally, Sony Pictures Classics is hoping to repeat the success it had in landing the Foreign Language Film winner Amour in the Best Picture race in 2012, this time with the chilling Holocaust tale Son Of Saul. Time will tell who makes the cut.