Los Angeles -
The critics have spoken, and with awards season heating up, two very different films are emerging as the Oscar frontrunners.
Dark Zero Thirty, the sombre big screen drama about the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, was named the best film of the year Wednesday by the prestigious National Board of Review, boosting its already sizeable Oscar buzz.
The film's creator, Kathryn Bigelow was named best director, while Jessica Chastain, who stars as the determined CIA analyst who tracked down Bin Laden, won the best actress prize.
The award to Zero Dark Thirty came just two days after it scooped the top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle - a group that has a proud record of predicting the big Oscar winners.
But more than two months before the Oscar ceremony on February 24, Zero Dark Thirty is far from a shoo-in for Oscar glory, even though the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences clearly has a soft spot for Bigelow.
Oscar voters made her the first woman to win the best director award in 2008, the same year her film The Hurt Locker beat out blockbuster Avatar for the best picture prize.
This year her main challenge looks to come from the big screen adaptation of the hit musical Les Miserables. According to a poll conducted by Goldderby.com, a website which obsessively tracks movie awards, the French Revolution epic currently leads critics' bets for the big prize.
Starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe and directed by The King's Speech helmer Tom Hooper, the pic is currently rated at 4:1 odds to win the Oscar for best picture.
The great ensemble cast is likely to make the film a favourite among Hollywood actors, the most influential group of Oscar voters.
They are said to be particularly impressed by the fact that the actors actually sang their parts live on set during each take rather than just lip-sync to a prior recording.
“It's flattering. I'd be lying if I didn't say it doesn't thrill me that people are predicting this,” Hathaway said of the Oscar buzz. “However, I've also have been doing this long enough to know that nothing's set in stone.” ... So, I'm just really enjoying people's reaction to the film.”
Other movies in the Oscar running include Argo, a thriller directed by and starring Ben Affleck about an amazing CIA ruse to rescue some of the Americans held in the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979.
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, a loving and detailed rendition of a key period in the life and career of the US president who ended slavery has also gained a strong following, while the indie outsider is Silver Linings Playbook.
A quirky romantic comedy, it stars Bradley Cooper as a former teacher who is trying to overcome a failed marriage and a bipolar disorder while staying at the house of his parents, played by Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver.
Also in contention is Ang Lee's masterful adaptation of the bestseller Life of Pi, which has been widely hailed as one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, for its portrayal of the relationship between a shipwrecked boy and a tiger.
Then there are the blockbusters like The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, The Avengers and Skyfall to consider. Goldderby.com ranks them all as distant outsiders with odds of 100:1.
While that may be accurate for the artsy Oscars, the Golden Globes loves to honour popular films. With nominations for those awards due on January 13 and nominations to be announced next Thursday, at least we won't have to wait too long to find out. - Sapa-dpa