"The Hurt Locker" seems to have the most No. 1 votes in this Oscars derby, followed by "Avatar," but, remember, a preferential ballot is being used that requires voters to rank Academy Award choices. Just as both films have strong advocates, they both have many detractors who gave those pix low ranking on their ballots. Most voters have "Inglourious Basterds" ranked in the top three. Upset? If I were betting a ranch, I'd put it on "Hurt Locker," but since I'm merely wagering my professional reputation, I'm sticking with "Basterds."
Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart") can't lose because he's got everything going for him. He is an overdue veteran (four past losses) and plays drunk. Oscar voters are suckers for that. Think Nicolas Cage ("Leaving Las Vegas") or, in terms of recent upset, James Coburn ("Affliction").
Most pundits say Sandra Bullock ("The Blind Side") will win easily, but that's not what you hear when dishing with academy members. Their votes are split all over the place. Meryl Streep ("Julie & Julia"), Carey Mulligan ("An Education") and Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious") are really in this race. Many voters don't believe that Bullock's performance is really Oscar-worthy in the film, so that makes her vulnerable, but I still think she'll prevail. Heck, no one really thought Reese Witherspoon gave the best performance of the year in "Walk the Line" (she was really a supporting player giving a rather passive performance), but she won anyway. Bullock's already won the Golden Globe and SAG Award. With rare exceptions like Julie Christie ("Away From Her") and Lauren Bacall ("The Mirror Has Two Faces"), that almost always equals Oscar victory.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR AND ACTRESS
Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds") and Mo'Nique ("Precious") have won everything and are thus unstoppable. Only once in modern history has a star won every major precursor award, then failed to nab the Oscar: Michelle Pfeiffer ("Fabulous Baker Boys") was stopped by Jessica Tandy ("Driving Miss Daisy").
Even if "Avatar" or "Inglourious Basterds" wins best picture, Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker") will still prevail here because Oscar is ashamed that he's never given this prize to a woman.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
"Up" looms above all rivals because it's the only nominee here also in the running for best picture, a rare accomplishment.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Close race between "The White Ribbon" (Germany), "The Secret in Their Eyes" (Argentina) and "A Prophet" (France). "Ribbon" won Cannes' Palme d'Or, which is usually the kiss of death in this race, but it has the snooty art-house appeal that the other nominees don't. We hear that "Secret" played best among academy members who attended the screenings in L.A. and New York -- it generated the most buzz in the lobby afterward -- but it's a crime thriller that may seem too much like a TV episode of "C.S.I." "Prophet" is a violent mafia flick a lot like "Gomorrah," which many pundits thought would win last year, but it didn't even get nominated. So I'm picking recent Golden Globe champ "White Ribbon" because of its pretentiousness and snob appeal.
BEST SCREENPLAY (ORIGINAL)
Quentin Tarantino won this for "Pulp Fiction" and should claim this again, but not if there's a "Hurt Locker" juggernaut. My prediction is that Tarantino will prevail, but sweeps can be powerful things at the Oscars.
BEST SCREENPLAY (ADAPTED)
"Up in the Air" has this in the bag.
BEST MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
"Up" has this in the bag.
BEST MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
"The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)" from "Crazy Heart" is a slam-dunk shoo-in.
BEST ART DIRECTION
Technically, this award goes to the production and set designers, so voters associate this category with the set. The set of "Avatar" is largely digital, so voters may pooh-pooh it in favor of "The Young Victoria," "Nine" or "Sherlock Holmes," but I'm betting they'll give "Avatar" its due here.
"Avatar" is my official prediction, but I'm queasy. The movie that wins usually has the most obvious cinematography -- big, sprawling, epic sweep. Those big, sprawling desert scenes in "Hurt Locker" could result in victory here. There's an off chance that "White Ribbon" could win because it has the most pretentious lensing -- that is, all black and white footage.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Remember, voters don't like anything subtle in these crafts categories, so the most frilly, ornate costumes usually win, especially if they're draped over royals. Consider the last three winners: "The Duchess," "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," "Marie Antoinette." That means "The Young Victoria" will reign supreme this year.
BEST DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)
"The Cove" has the right mix of critical appeal and box-office ka-ching that usually results in victory. There's an off chance that "Food, Inc." or "Pentagon Papers" could upset.
BEST DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)
I haven't seen these contenders, but I hear that "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province" is the most gripping weepie and that usually pays off. Entertainment Weekly is betting on "Music by Prudence" because it's a heart-tugger about a disabled African singer. Lots of other pundits are betting on "The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant" because it's relevant to America's economy mess, but it's about trailer trash folks whom snooty Oscar voters usually scorn. If there's a surprise here, it's "The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner," which documents the struggle of the former Washington governor to legalize assisted suicide while he suffers from Parkinson's disease. My prediction is "Disaster," but I have little confidence in it.
BEST FILM EDITING
The most obviously edited movie wins -- the one with the most zigzagging, chop-chop camera work. That's "The Hurt Locker."
"Star Trek" wins thanks to pointed ears and weird aliens.
BEST SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
"A Matter of Loaf and Death" has this easily because Wallace and Gromit films almost always prevail. A few have won this category in the past ("The Wrong Trousers," "A Close Shave") and another ("Curse of the Were-Rabbit") won best animated feature.
BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)
I'm betting on "Kavi" because it's a gut-wrenching tale of modern-day slavery in India -- kind of "Slumdog Millionaire" (best pic champ last year), but real. Some pundits are betting on "The Door" because of its quirkiness, enhanced production values and message (about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster). Others say "The New Tenants," which is about an annoying gay couple spooked by what occurs when they move into a new apartment, but I think the chaps are way too annoying.
BEST SOUND EDITING
The sound awards usually go to the loudest movies, which mean "Avatar" or "The Hurt Locker" this year. "Avatar" may have the edge because this category favors blockbusters like past winners "The Dark Knight" and "King Kong." But I'm betting on "Hurt Locker" here for two reasons. There's a lot of love for this film and voters will want to spread it around. Secondly, it probably strikes voters as the loudest film because it's about bombs going off (or not going off). Recent winner in this category was another war movie up for best picture, "Letters From Iwo Jima."
BEST SOUND MIXING
Let's explain the difference between these sound categories. Editing refers to how the individual sounds were chosen and edited into the film. Mixing is, literally, how they all mix together. Sometimes the same movie wins both awards ("The Bourne Ultimatum," "King Kong") and that's what I'm counting on this year. However, the two races usually split. Because of that, some Oscarologists are betting that "Avatar" will win editing and "Hurt Locker" will claim mixing. They each won those equivalent guild awards recently, so that does make sense. But when do the Oscars make sense?
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
"Avatar" can't possibly lose, of course.
Photo credit: Los Angeles Times