Every year I'm shocked at how few nominees there are for the visual effects Oscar. Typically it's down to three. A few times it has been as little as two (the last year was 1995) and occasionally there's only one title worthy of the award (see 1990), which is just presented as a "Special Achievement Award," as it was called for most of the '70s when there was no official category or annual obligation to recognize special effects.

But long ago it could be anywhere from 5 (last was in 1979) to 14 (check out 1940!). So why are there so few noms these days? Doesn't it seem like most Hollywood movies these days have special effects? Well, most probably do, but technically they don't all fit the requirement for the category. According to the Wikipedia, the major determiner of eligibility is whether or not the effects are used to present something that can not otherwise be filmed without help from effects artists. The Academy Awards website, however, states that the determining factors are defined by the Visual Effects Branch Executive Committee, which means the factors might be different each year. It also states that the maximum number of films selected for the preliminary shortlist is seven.

This year's seven are: Casino Royale, Eragon, Superman Returns, X-Men: The Last Stand, Night at the Museum, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Poseidon. Surprisingly missing, says Variety's report, are Charlotte's Web and Flags of Our Fathers. Shockingly missing, says I, is Snakes on a Plane -- that snake-vision effect was genius (okay, I kid).

Before the three finalists are announced on January 23, the Visual Effects committee will watch 15-minute reels of each of these seven shortlisted pictures and then vote on their choices for the nominees. My prediction: Pirates, Superman and X-Men.