By Chris Beachum Senior Editor

So far this Oscar season, 'The Social Network' has ended up on top of the friends' lists of every major award.

It won Best Picture from all leading trophy groups: National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics. Its juggernaut has two chances to continue, or halt, this weekend -- the Critics' Choice Awards on Friday and Golden Globes on Sunday –- but even if 'The Social Network' loses one or both, award watchers wonder: Is it already destined to win the top Academy Award?

Last year, 'The Hurt Locker' swept most of the critics' awards and went on to the Best Picture Oscar. Will voters heed the critics again or go their own way as they did in 2005 when critics hailed 'Brokeback Mountain' but Academy members chose 'Crash'? Or in 1997 when 'L.A. Confidential' was the overwhelming choice of critics, but 'Titanic' steamed to success at the Oscars?
The vast majority of Oscar experts polled by predict 'The Social Network' will win the Best Picture Oscar –- but, beware: the movie has some drawbacks. 'The Social Network' has no real sympathetic figure or rooting factor at its core like most previous Best Picture winners ('Slumdog Millionaire,' 'Million Dollar Baby') and most of its chief current rivals ('The Fighter,' 'The King's Speech,' 'True Grit'). Furthermore, the movie skews young. Too young for average academy members, who are mostly above age 50 (many way, way, above)?

There are several benchmarks to monitor over the next few weeks to determine whether 'The Social Network" is destined for the big prize or a big fall.

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What film will receive the most Oscar nominations when they're announced on Jan. 25? That leader usually wins Best Picture more than two-thirds of the time. 'The King's Speech' is expected to reign with the most this year, since it'll surely score bids in the top races (picture, director, script, acting) plus lots of crafts categories (costume design, art direction). 'Black Swan,' 'True Grit' and 'Inception' could also reap eight or more nominations. 'The Social Network' doesn't have artsy costumes and sets, so the most nominations it can score is only be around six or seven.

How will 'The Social Network' fare this weekend? Most pundits predict that it will win the Best Picture category at the Critics Choice Awards (Fri., Jan. 14, 9PM ET on VH1), which is no surprise considering how it's fared at other critics' kudos. On the other hand, Globe voters have an admitted affinity for British films like 'Atonement' and 'Sense and Sensibility' in some years over Oscar favorites. If 'Social' topples 'King's Speech' at the Globes, that will be a major step towards Oscar. It has only a slight edge (11 to nine over 'Speech') among the 20 experts offering predictions to Gold Derby.

Will the British Academy give their top BAFTA crown to local favorite 'The King's Speech' over critical favorite 'The Social Network'? Again, a win by 'TKS' would be no surprise but a 'Social' win would be a huge upset and would virtually guarantee an Oscar win.

The Director's Guild of America Award has the best rate (above 80 percent) when predicting what will win the Oscar for Best Picture. Will DGA choose a technical visionary like three-time nominee Christopher Nolan ('Inception')? If so, it might signify a shocking swing toward that blockbuster film within the Academy. David Fincher ('The Social Network') is currently favored to prevail.

Will the Screen Actors Guild award their award for best ensemble award to 'The Social Network' or the more actor-friendly 'The King's Speech'? The past three SAG ensemble winners ('The Hurt Locker,' 'Slumdog Millionaire,' 'No Country for Old Men') have gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The upset win by 'Crash' in this category for the 2005 season was a hint of its Oscar upset ahead over 'Brokeback Mountain' that year.

Can 'The Social Network' maintain the buzz it has achieved throughout the early pre-Oscar awards season, even though the film was released in the early fall (Oct. 1)? Other recently released films, like 'The Fighter,' 'Black Swan' and 'True Grit,' have also received major support from guilds and other awards groups while hitting screens during the crucial end-of-season cycle. Late-year releases usually win Best Picture.

From everything that has happened so far this awards season, 'The Social Network' looks like it's on the right path for the top Oscar victory in late February. Take a closer look at the unfolding events over the next few weeks to make your final predictions.

'The Social Network' Clip
The Social Network
PG-13 2010
Based on 42 critics

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categories Features, Oscars, Awards