Nine films are competing for the biggest prize in the U.S. film world — the best picture Oscar.

Hugo (Eleven Oscar nominations) Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese’s first foray into 3D is a tribute to the early days of cinema. It portrays the adventure of Hugo, a wily orphan, who lives in the main Paris train station. His search for his father’s legacy thrusts him into the path of a cinematic pioneer, whose love for film is reignited by the boy’s exuberance.

The Artist (Ten Oscar nominations) A silent black-and-white tour de force by French director Michel Hazanavicius. It stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo as two actors whose fortunes diverge when Hollywood switches from silent movies to talkies around 80 years ago. A critical favourite and one of the few contenders actually shot in the U.S. movie capital, this French production is considered the overwhelming frontrunner in the Oscar race but has failed to generate much excitement among the ticket-buying public.

Moneyball (Six Oscar nominations) Moneyball stars Brad Pitt as an innovative baseball coach, who uses modern statistical techniques to turn a team of disadvantaged underdogs into the talk of the league. Based on a true story written by economics journalist Michael Lewis.

War Horse (Six Oscar nominations) Directed by Steven Spielberg, War Horse in an adaptation of a children’s novel and 2007 play of the same name. A World War I drama about a young man’s quest to find his horse, which has been conscripted by the British army, the film was popular in the early awards season but has since been overtaken by other Oscar hopefuls.

The Descendants (Five Oscar nominations) Director Alexander Payne’s wry comedy stars George Clooney as a low-key lawyer faced with a mountain of challenges — including an unfaithful dying wife, a wayward teenage daughter and a controversial business deal that’s the talk of all Hawaii. Earned great reviews and plenty of awards buzz but lags far behind The Artist in the best picture race.

The Help (Four Oscar nominations) A civil rights drama set in the 1960s U.S. South, in which a young white journalist decides to write about the daily racism suffered by the black women, who work as maids in the houses of wealthy Americans. A box office and critical success, which has received particular praise for the performances of its cast.

Midnight in Paris (Four Oscar nominations) The ever-mercurial Woody Allen directs a romantic comedy that stars Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams as a yuppie couple on a pre-wedding trip to Paris, where Wilson’s character begins having magical experiences that lead him to reconsider his life. Critics have called it Allen’s best film in 20 years.

The Tree of Life (Three Oscar nominations) A masterpiece by Terence Malick, who is widely regarded as America’s premier film auteur. The Tree of Life stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain in an impressionistic account of a Texas family in the 1950, focusing on the memories of a man as he struggles to understand the modern world. The Tree of Life won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Two Oscar nominations) Director Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film portrays the experiences of a nine-year-old inventor as he searches high and low for the purpose of a key left behind by his father who died in the attacks in the World Trade Centre in September 2001.

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Performance index February 20, 2012