The late entry into the race by buzzed-about films Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has made for a wide-open Oscar race for Best Picture this year.
"I can't remember a year like this where there was no clear front-runner," says a longtime awards season veteran. "Nobody knows where this race is going."
Complicating the race is that few critics, much less Academy voters, have seen two of these major Awards season players.
The Social Network director David Fincher's much-anticipated adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the post 9/11 family drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which features Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks in supporting roles, have only just begun to screen. (The films hit theaters Dec. 21 and 25, respectively.)
"There are so many movies to see right now that it's overwhelming," says one Academy voter who recently caught a screening of Extremely Loud. "People are frantic right now."
The buzz from initial screenings indicates that that emotionally charged film will soon join the crowded tier of competitors for the top prize. Dragon Tattoo may also be a contender, and will likely be in play in technical and acting categories, especially for newcomer Rooney Mara's portrayal of the iconic post-punk hacker Lisbeth Salander.
Critical DarlingsBecause so few critics have seen the films with late release dates, those movies, as well as Steven Spielberg's World War I epic War Horse, have been left off the list of early critic's awards winners.
The largely silent black-and-white film The Artist has emerged as a leading competitor for Best Picture, after nabbing best picture from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Film Critics, as well as five Independent Spirit Award nominations.
Meanwhile, the George Clooney-starring dramatic-comedy The Descendants, a top contender ever since generating positive buzz during at the fall film festivals, was chosen best picture by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association over the weekend.
Other top contenders for Best Picture – which this year will feature between five and 10 nominated pictures, per a change in Academy voting rules – include The Help, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, and Terrence Malick's contemplative Tree Of Life (the San Francisco critic's choice for the year's best film).
Those movies are fighting to stay at the top of people's minds despite their long ago release dates.
As one Academy member puts it, "All the horses left the gate at different times, but it's neck and neck at the finish."
Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 24 and Oscars are Feb. 26. Check PEOPLE.com Wednesday morning for the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations announcement, and Thursday the Golden Globe nominees will be revealed.