Since I've yet to see The Artist (I've finally scored a screener copy, so hope to get to it in the next night or so), my ability to do the traditional informed dissection of Oscar categories is limited right now. But here's one slate that, thanks to Netflix, I can discuss.
Best achievement in visual effects
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon
Real Steel qualifies as this year's "worst piece of crap I sat through because it got a nomination". The wholly generic set-up -- ne'er-do-well father forced to bond with son to whom he's never paid attention -- was so familiar it struck me people who patronize these films must not care they're seeing the same movie over and over, as long as the hardware varies. In this case, the hardware is giant fighting robots, which apparently have joined dinosaurs as things 15-year-old boys can't get enough of. I suppose those robot effects are impressive enough, but who gives a damn? And the film wasn't enough of a big deal to win over higher-profile efforts.
One nomination wasn't enough to get me to see the second Transformers film, but the three this edition got -- combined with easy home-viewing availability -- broke me down. And, surprise: either I'm going soft, or this film was a solid improvement over the ghastly first movie. This isn't to say I'm suddenly a Michael Bay fan-- it's still mindless action -- but the aggressively dumb stuff has been cut to a minimum (mostly involving LaBoeuf's parents), Megan Fox is gone and replaced by a female who exists as more than a walking vagina, and the film looks a lot cleaner than the usual Bay with its ugly color schemes. Put it this way: if the first film had been this (relatively) inoffensive, I'd bet The Golden Compass wouldn't have an Oscar. As for the effects here: they're actually quite impressive, particularly in the long action sequence that ends the film, and would be a solid contender were the film not third in a not-particularly-admired series. I'd say they still have a shot, but the competition is strong.
Hollywood Z raises the point elsewhere, that best picture nominees have had a way of winning this category, even where doubtful (as, say, Gladiator over The Perfect Storm, or, truly shocking, Cleopatra over The Birds). That would seem to give Hugo a significant edge. But, except for the train crash, I don't think many of the shots in Hugo register as special effects -- though no doubt there were many more CGI'd moments in the film, they weren't in the "fantastical things happening" that many voters expect in voting this category. As Magilla notes, there is precedent for a non-best picture nominee triumphing in the Tora! Tora! Tora! over Patton case -- again an instance where the sheer volume of effects was far greater in the ultimate winner.
The two strongest entrants appear, to me, to be Harry Potter 7.2 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, both of which benefit from relatively strong reviews and great financial success. Potter fans dramatically over-estimated the Academy's overall need to honor this final entry as tribute to the entire series, but it's possible voters could opt to salute the long-time cash cow with a win here. The effects are fine, about on the same level as the last few films in the series (though not, I'd say, up to Prisoner of Azkaban, with its amazing Buckbeak). BAFTA decided that was enough, and AMPAS may well follow suit.
But I'm leaning toward Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It, too, is another in a series, but it's been so long since most Academy folk have even thought about Planet of the Apes that it somehow seems fresher than the other entrants. And the visuals of the apes rampaging across the Golden Gate are just so striking I think they'll triumph in the end. But it's a very close call.