Before the voting late this afternoon among the Boston and Los Angeles film critics, it needs to be recognized that the resulting announcements (combined with tomorrow afternoon’s calls from the New York Film Critics Circle) are very nearly do-or-die verdicts for Joe Wright‘s Atonement.

It became apparent to me on Friday that this very well-crafted romantic tragedy (which I personally like and admire) is on the ropes, in part due to four significant dings. And to compete or least stand abreast with No Country for Old Men, Atonement will have to nab at least one Best Picture trophy today or tomorrow. If it succeeds, fine…off to the races. But if it gets shut out, it’ll be uh-oh time.

Of course, Atonement can still win the Best Picture Oscar if the L.A., Boston and New York critics shine it on. Academy voters can be myopic when so inclined and will vote by their own standards and prejudices, but a Best Picture contender has to have at least a little cultural fortification — tangible, verifiable support from outside-the-industry knowledgables — and without the imprimatur of having been named Best Picture by the big critics groups it’ll be hard (not impossible but certainly difficult) for Atonement to sustain cred and momentum from mid-December to mid-January.

That’s why I wrote on Friday that the Best Picture situation “may well be decided” by Monday afternoon. To repeat: “I’m not saying that the Atonement shortfall (if and when it happens on Sunday and Monday) will decide things absolutely — obviously it won’t — but it will nonetheless cast a certain light and define the situation in a way that will make the pro-Atonement argument a little harder to sell.”