LOS ANGELES -- Granted, the first eight months of the Hollywood calendar have rarely yielded much of an Oscar crop.
But this year seems especially barren, analysts say.
Consider 2011, when The Help and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris has successful runs by the end of summer -- and stuck around for Academy Award nominations and wins.
This year, forecasters not only differ on what films might make the final Oscar cut; they disagree on whether you could find five movies to fill a ballot from among those released so far.
Some observers note that the January-August pre-Oscar season has produced two standout films that could make the best-picture ballot: Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises and Beasts of the Southern Wild, a small-budget drama that has earned a healthy $8.3 million since it began its slow roll-out in late June.
"I think it wasn't a bad summer for independent films," says Katey Rich, Oscar columnist and editor-in-chief of CinemaBlend.com. "Especially Beasts. People are already rallying behind it. It will just depend on whether Oscar will keep going for small movies or a big, popular hit."
The academy's plan was to include more summer and popular fare among the nominees after 2008's The Dark Knight didn't make the final five, sparking an outcry among critics and fans. New rules allow from five to eight best-picture nominees.
But Entertainment Weekly Oscar analyst Dave Karger isn't convinced that any movies out yet will make the cut -- and guesses he could better handicap the industry's dubious honors than its solemn ones.
"I could name you more top contenders for the Razzies (the Golden Raspberry Awards, honoring the worst in film) than I could for the Oscars," Karger says. "It's been a wasteland."
Of the movies out so far, he considers only The Dark Knight Rises "a true contender. And even that was not as well received as The Dark Knight."
Still, critics and fans found reason to get behind a few films this year that could be waiting for the envelope to open. USA TODAY takes a look at the cream of the crop, how they fared with critics and fans (as measured by pollsters Rottentomatoes.com), and their chances come Academy Awards time.
The Dark Knight Rises
Positive reception: 87% critics, 92% fans
Outlook: Solid. The Dark Knight became the first comic-book movie to win a major Oscar (a posthumous supporting-actor prize for Heath Ledger), and the academy "may be looking to honor the franchise, as they did The Lord of the Rings," says Tom O'Neil, author of Movie Awards.
Positive reception: 94% critics, 90% fans
Outlook: Solid. The quirky Wes Anderson drama did a healthy $43 million and could snag him a surprise directing nomination, says Stacie Hougland, executive editor of Movies.com. Its home-video release in October "could ignite its Oscar fire," she says.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Positive reception: 77% critics, 82% fans
Outlook: Fair. This comedy about a group of retirees who intend on spending their golden years in India earned a surprising $46 million -- strong for a $10 million British comedy. But fall tends to see the release of these kinds of films by the busload, and Hotel will face a number of competitors by the end of the year.
Positive reception: 92% critics, 96% fans
Outlook: Fair. Were it any other year, The Avengers would be an Oscar shoo-in. In addition to the raves from reviewers and fans, the movie collected $618 million, making it the third-biggest film on record. Alas, the academy isn't known for its comic-book devotion and may have to choose between superheroes.
Positive reception: 77% critics, 80% fans
Outlook: Iffy. While this European-flavored fairy tale helped Pixar recover with critics after last year's panned Cars 2, Brave still falls short of the plaudits earned for films such as Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Look for this to compete in the best animated category.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Positive reception: 86% critics, 83% fans
Outlook: Solid. This $1.8 million fantasy about a 6 year old living practically like an orphan won at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. "It's the one truly unique, different movie of the year," Rich says.
Positive reception: 73% critics, 72% fans
Outlook: Iffy. Don't laugh. While fans -- and particularly fanboys -- felt Ridley Scott's prequel to Alien fell far short of its ancestor's legacy, "it still has the scope, the prestige of director and tone that the academy loves," Karger says. "If the Oscars were held right now, I think it would be in the field."
(Scott Bowles, USA TODAY)