AFI honor adds to pic's kudos momentum, but early awards attention can be deceptive.

Last in the alphabet but first in the hearts of many a critic, “Zero Dark Thirty” was included Monday in the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of the year — hardly a surprise given the December awards dominance of the Kathryn Bigelow film.

Heading into this week’s reveal of the Screen Actors Guild Award and Golden Globes nominations, “Zero Dark Thirty” — the pride of the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review and more in the past week — has emerged as the flavor of the moment. It’s got momentum, but the filmmakers probably shouldn’t write their Oscar acceptance speeches just yet.

Two years ago, “The Social Network” won those awards and was called unbeatable, until “The King’s Speech” stepped in. So if history repeats itself, what are the possible contenders?

Some posit the alternative as the emotion-filled “Silver Linings Playbook” — which earned NBR recognition Wednesday in screenplay for David O. Russell and lead actor for Bradley Cooper — but the Russell-directed film may be a swing too far for this year’s Oscar pendulum. Among others, the three Ls — “Les Miserables,” “Lincoln” and “Life of Pi” — also lurk, but so do their detractors.

Also consider the well-liked “Argo,” another AFI selection that approaches the international stakes of “Zero Dark Thirty” while delivering much of the whip-smart fun that has so endeared “Silver Linings” to its fans. “Argo” doesn’t go to either film’s extreme but combines some of their best elements.

And the breadth of its popularity must be reckoned with. While it might not be everyone’s No. 1 film, “Argo” could very well be No. 2 on a lot of lists — a movie that could rise to the top as less popular picture nominees are eliminated, one by one.

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While acknowledging that every year brings debate about the films selected for the Oscar documentary shortlist, Academy branch governor Rob Epstein told Variety that for the first time he could recall, the process of choosing those films wasn’t at the heart of the debate.

The shortlist, released Dec. 3, had some noteworthy omissions, but Epstein said the feedback was generally positive about new Academy procedures that allow every branch member to weigh in on the shortlist.

At the same time, he did not rule out tweaks after the next Oscar ceremony is done. Epstein said that among other things, there will be a survey of the 160-member branch and analysis to inform what changes may be made in 2013.

“It’s the first year of a new system,” Epstein said, “so everyone is trying to figure out how to navigate that. But the feeling is we have to get through the entire election cycle to get through the whole process and let it play out to fully understand how it’s working and if there’s any need for immediate improvement or to continue on the path we’re on.”

Though there were a number of rules changes entering the 2012 Oscar campaign, the chief concern that emerged was that there were too many documentaries for voters to view as a result of submission parameters that still rankle some (for example, the inclusion of documentaries with television exposure). To guarantee that each doc received a baseline level of exposure, the 126 submissions were divided among branch members who were asked (though not required) to watch them. In addition, the doc branch has what Epstein called a “pretty active” internal chatroom in which members could bring up the films they had seen without lobbying for one over another.

Epstein said his fellow governor Michael Moore, who two months ago called this year’s rules changes “a miserable failure,” is “feeling good about the process as well now.”

The next stage of voting, narrowing the 15 shortlisted films to the five nominees, will largely operate as it has in years past, with the exception that voters no longer have to recuse themselves if they worked on a film in contention.

However, a much more significant change will take place post-nominations, when the entire Academy gets to vote on the winning documentary in similar fashion to best picture. That will give the nominated docs greater exposure within the Acad.

“That’s incredibly exciting for us,” Epstein said. “Before, you had to have participated in the process — (either as) part of the screening committee, or you had to sign up at a screening. … A lot more people are going to be seeing documentaries. It’s really on par with other branches in that respect.”

Jon Weisman covers the awards season at variety.com/thevote.

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