The "Critics" are the first step of every race. This starts with the National Board of Review and pulsates through the New York Critics, LA Critics, and virtually every major city/region of the country. This "phase" finishes off with the Critics Choice (which actually holds less weight than New York and LA as individual awards). Often, they unanimously pick one movie to get behind. In 2004, it was "Sideways." That film won honors from almost every major group and the Critics Choice. This year, Hurt Locker has been the "critics' darling," with Up in the Air winning its fair share.
The Globes are their own phase of the race. They get the most media attention of any other award, and they can help bring a film up or shut one out. They matter less than the Guilds (which I'll get to in a minute), as I think they only match with Oscar about 65-70% of the time, but they're important for momentum. They also have two Best Pictures. To go back to 2004: Sideways won Best Picture, Comedy. The Aviator won Best Picture, Drama, giving it a momentum surge into the Guild nominees.
Now, nominations are very important unto themselves. Thinking again about 2004, everyone viewed this as a three-way race between Sideways, The Aviator, and Million Dollar Baby, which had - at the time of the Globes - won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Film, the Golden Globe for Best Director, and been *nominated* in virtually every major race. The "Guilds" - Producers, Directors, Actors, Cinematographers, Editors, etc - are THE MOST IMPORTANT part of the race for two major reasons: they are the closest to the Oscars schedule-wise, which means their momentum is crucial. They are also voted on by people who are IN the Academy (not all the people in the Guilds are in the Academy, but a vast percentage of those in the Academy are Guild members).
What made 2004 so cool, as a case study, was that AGAIN the three major films split awards: The Aviator won the Producers Guild, Sideways won the Screen Actors Guild, and Million Dollar Baby won the Directors Guild. At this point in the race, the early momentum Sideways had gained dwindled significantly - most thought it would get Best Adapted Screenplay and maybe an acting Oscar - while Aviator and Million Dollar Baby were going head-to-head not only for Picture but for Director - Clint's second vs. Scorsese's first.
When Oscar night happened, The Aviator won five Oscars - all tech awards. Sideways won only Best Adapted Screenplay. Million Dollar Baby won Picture, Director, Actress, and Supporting Actor. If one looks at the race just in terms of who won what, this doesn't make much sense and looks a lot like an upset. What's MORE important is WHEN the awards happen - Million Dollar Baby opened at the very end of December. It scored nominations in all the right places, built a VERY slow word of mouth, and won the Directors Guild and the Globe for Director. These two awards gave it the momentum necessary to usurp Aviator for Best Picture.
Meanwhile, Sideways - the early favorite - went from winner to nominee, its Screenplay being its one consistent winner all the way to Oscar night.
I think it's important to build this up because if you just read the 2009 race in terms of who's winning NOW, it looks like The Hurt Locker will surge to the Oscars easily. But ESPECIALLY this year, with the Oscars being pushed to March to accommodate the Winter Olympics, it's all about who's on top closest to the broadcast. THIS is why I see Avatar winning - if it gets Guild support it can easily rocket past Hurt Locker. This is also why I still see Inglourious Basterds winning - hell will break loose if Tarantino yanks the Directors Guild award.
The Globes are unimportant, but at the same time they're VERY important - when Babel won in 2006 everyone said it would upset The Departed at the Oscars, and indeed it looked that way when Little Miss Sunshine won the PGA and the SAG and Departed won the DGA, but when Scorsese's film nabbed the Editors Guild ten days before the broadcast I knew it was safe - it's about playing numbers, stats and momentum. Babel peaked at the Globes.
Hurt Locker can peak tonight. So can Up in the Air. I dare say whichever film wins tonight WON'T win the Oscar. That sounds illogical, but I also see the major Guilds splitting between the "four films" considered the frontrunners. Either way, there's still a month and a half left. It's nowhere near over, and nobody knows anything.