A loose consensus is forming around a core of titles in the Best Picture race.

Awards season prognostication has never been an activity that enjoys a close relationship with empirical evidence. How could it? Judging art is a capricious affair and when talk turns to Hollywood’s most prestigious awards race, the roles of whimsy and trivia becomes grotesquely engorged. Opinion, nostalgia, peer pressure, relationships and the matter of who can shout loudest and longest… all feed in to the mix and determine who will vie for the prize.

Oh, and quality counts.

So much so that on the basis of observation and several decidedly unscientific chats with industry professionals, it seems that a loose consensus is forming around a core of titles in the Best Picture race. Notwithstanding the quirks of the individuals canvassed by Screen, a number of films have already inspired passion: The Artist, The Help, The Descendants, Moneyball, Midnight In Paris and War Horse. And they’re going to need every ounce of passionate support they can get in a year when a drastic rule change by the Academy means there could be anywhere between five and 10 best picture nominees announced on Jan 24, each of which will have needed to snag at least five per cent of Academy members’ number one votes.

Sharp-eyed readers will be aware that few people have actually seen War Horse at this stage, which means those who have not done so are allowing Steven Spielberg’s pedigree dilute their critical faculties in the rush to join the chorus of preapproval. It might well be a great film – let’s hope so. In the case of Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, people admire the craft, warmth and sheer exuberance of the performances. The Help is a flawed but popular feel-good hit in North America and has evinced a charm that lingers. Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a gem that has engendered widespread admiration across all branches of the business, while Moneyball has earned loyal fans and proves that Capote director Bennett Miller is not a one-trick pony. Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris is a crowd-pleaser with impeccable credentials.

There is also plenty of respect for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson’s slow burning, beautifully crafted adaptation of John Le Carre’s classic Cold War spy story that boasts an extraordinary male cast. It’s too good to be ignored, surely, but seems to be taking its time to gain a foothold in the collective psyche of US voting members. And then there is Clint Eastwood’s grand J Edgar biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which has spawned fans and detractors alike. It’s an Eastwood film, so that prestigious tag alone could enable it to overcome all semblance of opposition and land a place at the table.

We’ve touched on War Horse. It shares a stable with Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, The Iron Lady and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which for the time being at least remain mysteries. The first screenings of Young Adult have gone down well and there has been universal praise for Charlize Theron, which could inform the awards season trajectory of Jason Reitman’s latest comedy-drama.

Floating just outside the bulls-eye are highly respected films that may not figure in the best picture race because they are small and/or involve difficult, niche or complex themes or storylines. That said, every one deserves a nomination and, who knows, there could well be five per cent of voting membership willing to espouse their cause. This band includes The Ides Of March, The Tree Of Life, We Need To Talk About Kevin, A Dangerous Method, the dark horse Martha Marcy May Marlene and possibly even 50/50. Steve McQueen’s immense Shame seems too risqué for Oscar voters, and in that regard the title says it all.

There’s nothing niche about the Harry Potter finale or The Adventures Of Tintin, so don’t rule out either tentpole. Martin Scorsese’s majestic Hugo went down well at a DGA screening but may lack the broad appeal required to mount a challenge in the best picture category. Finally, Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers Of War is in the race after Wrekin Hill acquired North American rights. Early word says the film stands a better chance of contesting the acting and cinematography categories.