Production design is one of those fields in which the Academy almost always votes for “most” over “best”, even if it's at the expense of a film they clearly like more. The sets need to draw attention to themselves in order to take the gold here, and for my money, there's only one nominee in this group that looks like a winner, although it's far from a slam dunk:
Anna Karenina is the one of which I write. Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer's ingenious integration of facades and props transforms an empty theatre into dozens of distinct environments, all keeping with the director Joe Wright's bold artistic vision. If you ask me, it deserves to win hands down. It would be nice to see Greenwood and Spencer (who deserved to win three years ago for Sherlock Holmes) with Oscars in hand, but the one roadblock they could face is that the film itself is divisive. And how many people saw it?
For the fourth time, Peter Jackson's dalliances in Middle Earth have yielded a nomination for his art department. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey features some interesting new environments from Dan Hennah (Oscar winning set decorator of Return of the King), such as the doomed dwarf kingdom and the goblins' underground lair, but it wouldn't surprise me if most Academy members are getting a bit of an been-there-done-that vibe from this franchise.
Perhaps the stealthy fantasy contender in this field is Life of Pi, which recently bested The Hobbit and other richly designed fantasy films for the ADG Award. True, many voters may simply think of a guy on a boat when considering the production design (of course, there's more to David Gropman's contribution than that), but since Life of Pi is likely winning Cinematography and Visual Effects, we have to consider it a real possibility here too.
The sets of Lincoln are among the year's best, and I'm glad that Rick Carter's attention to detail and minutia was not overlooked by this branch, but for the Academy at large, that may be another story. While the film has Best Picture clout in its corner, the sets are not flashy or particularly attention grabbing. The King's Speech couldn't translate Best Picture love into a win over more conspicuous work in this category, but I still wouldn't count Lincoln out.
Nor would I count out Les Miserables for Eve Stewart's recreation of 18th Century France. Like Lincoln, it has the boost of a Best Picture nomination, but also like Lincoln, it has an inherent drawback; not that the sets are too low key, but that Tom Hooper's proclivity to shoot his actors in tight closeup doesn't exactly do the sets a whole lot of favours. It's not out of the running, but it doesn't feel like the natural choice.
Will win: Anna Karenina
Runner-up: Life of Pi
Should win: Anna Karenina
Should have been nominated: Prometheus