Happy New Year everyone! While that giant ball has finally descended upon Times Square, another countdown is set to begin – the countdown to the 79th Academy Awards.

As you know, December is the month that gets things rolling. January is when it all comes together. December is the month of the critics. January is the month of the guilds. What is the difference, you may ask? Well it’s as simple as this. The guilds consist of actual Academy voters. No matter how much we love them, Roger Ebert and Kenneth Turan do not cast actual ballots. While there has traditionally been overlap between critics and guild favorites, it is not unusual to see the guilds champion films that are ignored by critics.

The best example goes back to 1999 when the early critics’ awards championed “American Beauty,” “The Insider,” and the god-awful “Magnolia.” All of a sudden, the guilds weighed in and three films appeared for the first time on Oscar’s radar. They were “The Green Mile,” The Cider House Rules,” and the popular box office smash “The Sixth Sense.” As you know, all three eventually snagged Oscar nominations for Best Picture. So here’s a word to the wise, when predicting your Best Picture nominees, don’t just look at the critical consensus rating on Yahoo! movies. There’s a lot more that goes into it.

So which films will benefit and which will suffer when the guild nominations are announced on Jan. 4th? We’ll have our full predictions later, but here’s an early look. Without a doubt, the three films to be most widely embraced by critics so far this year are “The Departed,” “United 93,” and “The Queen.” All three could be in trouble. “The Departed” probably looks the safest, since it’s helmed by Scorsese, features an A-list cast, and quite simply, is a helluva film. But it’s also pretty violent and doesn’t have an uplifting message like many other past Oscar winners. “United 93” has no stars and deals with obviously a very touchy subject. “The Queen” has one big star, but also a very independent, even somewhat foreign feel to it. We wouldn’t be surprised if both “United 93” and “The Queen” are left off the guild lists, although “The Queen” seems to be less vulnerable since it garnered a Golden Globe nominaition.

As for what could take these films’ places, don’t count out “Flags of Our Fathers” just yet. Yes, it received a lukewarm critical reaction, but it’s still an Eastwood film and it’s still particularly moving at times. Most people have written off “Flags” after the release of “Letters From Iwo Jima,” but this may be premature. There is still a compelling argument to be made that the Iwo Jima film that portrays American soliders MORE favorably will resonate better with voters.

Anyway, for all you Oscar enthusiasts out there, get ready for three heart-pounding weeks of non-stop Oscar blitz until the nominations are revealed on January 23rd. We’ve got the guilds announcing this week, the Broadcast awards next week, and of course, the all-important Golden Globes. Plus, keep an eye out for Entertainment Weekly’s January Oscar issue. They’ve been 5 for 5 in Best Picture picks the last two years. So keep it here for the latest news, and may your favorite film make the cut.The Faculty download