Early favorites like "Belfast" suddenly are getting a run for their money

One reliable rule during awards season is that when most of the contending films have been seen and you get down to the final handful, you should lower your expectations and not expect any last-minute game-changers that'll shake up the Oscars.

This year, though, that rule doesn't seem so reliable. Long after the fall festivals appeared to leave us with a Best Picture race focused around "Belfast," "The Power of the Dog" and "King Richard," a string of films have arrived to mess with that picture.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's "tick, tick ... BOOM!" premiered at the AFI Fest and picked up strong buzz, particularly for lead actor Andrew Garfield. Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza" generated good vibes and landed the National Board of Review's award as 2021's best film. Adam McKay's "Don't Look Up" and Aaron Sorkin's "Being the Ricardos" were more entertaining and more substantial than many anticipated.

And this week, Steven Spielberg's vibrant new version of "West Side Story" screened on Monday to raves and strong best-pic talk, followed two days later by the premiere of Guillermo del Toro's noir gem "Nightmare Alley."

Suddenly, it seems, the Oscar race is a lot more crowded and more interesting than it felt a month ago.

It's still not necessarily a robust year, but there are 15 to 20 films with a legitimate chance at landing a Best Picture nomination, and another group that might have the ability to make a move.

And here's an important thing to keep in mind: This year, the Academy is returning to a guaranteed 10 Best Picture nominees, which does more than just add one or two films to the slate. It also means that voters get to list their top 10 films on their nominating ballots rather than their top 5,which could result in some voters thinking beyond the usual suspects. And it means that instead of a single round of ballot redistribution, there will be as many as it takes to narrow the field to 10. That will give films that score low in initial rounds a lot more opportunities to move up.

With that in mind, here's the state of the race at the beginning of December - two months to Oscar nominations, three-and-a-half months to the big show.

The Top 4

"Belfast" (Focus)

"King Richard" (Warner Bros.)

"The Power of the Dog" (Netflix)

"West Side Story" (20th Century)

"Belfast," "King Richard" and "The Power of the Dog" were de facto front-runners in September, and they haven't lost that position. Jane Campion's austere "Power of the Dog" may be the shakiest of the four, and it hit a speed bump on Thursday when it wasn't even in the National Board of Review's Top 10 - but the overlap between the NBR and AMPAS is somewhere between small and nonexistent, so you can't read too much into one snub. And by winning three awards from the New York Film Critics Circle the next day, it reasserted its position as a film that Oscar voters will know they have to see.

(The NYFCC would have made even more of a statement if it had also named it best film -- but that went to the Japanese drama "Drive My Car," which essentially sent the message that the critics had no interest in trying to influence voters.)

"Belfast" and "King Richard" remain crowd-pleasing choices, and "West Side Story" is a latecomer that unequivocally put itself into the top echelon. Down the road, the time will come to question if a remake can win Best Picture. (The only one that ever has is "The Departed," and that was a remake of a Japanese gangster movie that few Oscar voters saw, not the remake of a movie that already won Best Picture and nine other Oscars.) But for now, it seems likely to be one of the top two or three most-nominated films this year.

Passion Plays

"Licorice Pizza" (United Artists Releasing)

"Nightmare Alley" (Searchlight)

Is the former too languid and meandering? Is the latter too pulpy and too much of a stylish genre exercise? In both cases, the answer is probably not. Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza" and Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley" aren't for everybody, but they'll have lots of passionate supporters, which is what you need to land Oscar nominations. (Strangely enough, the Academy's ranked-choice (or preferential) voting system looks for passion in the nomination round, consensus in the final round.)

Looking for Those Final Slots

"Being the Ricardos" (Amazon)

"C'mon, C'mon" (A24)

"CODA" (Apple TV+)

"Don't Look Up" (Netflix)

"Dune" (Warner Bros.)

"tick, tick...BOOM!" (Netflix)

"The Tragedy of Macbeth" (A24/Apple TV+)

In a normal year, a couple of these films might squeak in; this year, most of them could become nominees. "Dune" will have all the below-the-line voters, "C'mon, C'mon" and "CODA" are genuinely affecting, "Being the Ricardos" and "Don't Look Up" and "tick, tick... BOOM!" are very entertaining (and at times also affecting), and "The Tragedy of Macbeth" is a singular achievement. There's not room for all of them, but there probably is room for many of them.

Arthouse Avengers

"The Lost Daughter" (Netflix)

"Spencer" (Neon)

Maggie Gyllenhaal's "The Lost Daughter" might get a boost from its sweep of the Gotham Awards. "Spencer" might get one from all the acting awards Kristen Stewart is likely to win from critics' groups (though it has to sting that she was beaten in the NYFCC voting by Lady Gaga). But the films themselves are in many ways uncompromising and severe - not a bad thing if you're looking for artistry, but potentially problematic when you're trying to gather hundreds or even thousands of votes.

Bubbling Under

"Cyrano" (MGM)

"The French Dispatch" (Searchlight)

"The Harder They Fall" (Netflix)

"House of Gucci" (MGM)

"The Last Duel" (20th Century)

"Passing" (Netflix)

"Red Rocket" (A24)

Many of these films will be nominated in some categories: "The French Dispatch" for design, "House of Gucci" for Lady Gaga, "The Harder They Fall" quite possibly for song. For them to go further, they'll need to get to the top of those screener queues and ignite a chunk of voters. Oh, and "House of Gucci" will have to find a lot of voters to ignore the critics and embrace the fact that they're probably laughing at things that weren't really meant to be funny.

Foreign and Doc Longshots

"Flee" (Neon)

"A Hero" (Amazon)

"Parallel Mothers" (Sony Pictures Classics)

"Summer of Soul" (Searchlight)

"Titane" (Neon)

In the past decade, four movies not in English have been nominated for Best Picture, out of a total of 86 nominees in that stretch; in the history of the category, no documentary has ever been nominated. Those are the odds faced by Asghar Farhadi's "A Hero," Pedro Almodóvar's "Parallel Mothers" and Julia Ducournau's "Titane" on the international-film side, and Questlove's "Summer of Soul" and Jonas Poher Rasmussen's "Flee" on the doc side. (Actually, "Flee" is a doc, an international film and an animated film, all in one.)

Among the international films, "A Hero" probably has the best shot, given the respect afforded Farhadi (a two-time winner in what was then the Best Foreign Language Film category). "Parallel Mothers" would need a boost from a Penélope Cruz Best Actress nomination (which is not out of the question), and "Titane" is probably just too weird and transgressive, despite that Palme d'Or from Spike Lee's Cannes jury.

As for the nonfiction films, the Documentary Branch is one of the fastest growing branches in the Academy, and docs have crashed international category for the last two years in a row, so there's a chance - a slim one, mind you -- that it could be time for them to do the same in Best Picture.