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I can't remember a year when it seemed easier to predict the Oscars. Those words may come back to haunt me, but there you have it. Of the top eight categories, seven look like sure things. The only dicey one is best picture, and although “Avatar” may roll in on its record-breaking profits, I think it's a win for “The Hurt Locker.”
How did this happen? In a year when the best picture category had been doubled to 10 nominees? And when every year there are categories everyone seems to guess wrong?
(1) The expanded category dilutes the vote, and probably works in favor of the front-runners, which are “Up in the Air,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar.” (2) The year-end awards have mostly been in unusual agreement with the critics' groups, creating a bandwagon effect.
One possible game-changer: This year, the academy is introducing a weighted ballot in the best picture category. Voters will be asked to arrange the 10 films in order of preference. In previous years, you voted for one film and it got one vote. This year, every film will take away something from every ballot. What will this mean in practice? Search me.
Some gurus claim it will work to the advantage of films running close to, but not at the head of, the pack. I'm not a statistician of odds. Those guys work in Vegas. Real money depends on their odds. This year, it could get complicated. My instinct is that the picture Vegas ends up betting on should have a very good chance of winning.
If you want to win the office pool, you're going to have to do it with categories further down in the list, and even some of those look like shoo-ins. In my Outguess Ebert contest, with its smaller number of categories, it may come down to the tie-breakers: Which film will win the most oscars, and how many will it win?
Here we go:
Picture“Up in the Air” was the front-runner much of the autumn. It's a movie from and of these times, about unemployment. George Clooney stars as a man whose job is firing other people. There really are such “termination facilitators,” and director Jason Reitman used many real people who had just been fired in real life.
Kathryn Bigelow's “The Hurt Locker,” with Jeremy Renner as a bomb-disposal expert in Iraq, opened in July to great praise but was considered a dark horse because of its low budget, lower profile and earlier release date. Then it started sweeping up year-end awards and many more people saw it. I think it's the current favorite.
James Cameron's “Avatar” you know all about. The top-grossing movie in history, and also a very good film and a sensational experience. But will academy voters cast their ballots on that basis?
The crucial factors may be “The Hurt Locker's” recent victories in two guild awards: It has been honored for best direction and best production. In many years, the Directors Guild winner is a predictor of the best picture Oscar. Of these three, I'm predicting “The Hurt Locker.” If one of the other seven wins, let's say I'll be very surprised.
ActorJeff Bridges for “Crazy Heart.” The movie opened late in December and moved out more widely in January. But the distributor, Fox Searchlight, made a wise move: They screened it extensively in advance for movie critics and sent out lots of screeners. Bridges' great performance swept the critics' awards, won a Golden Globe, a SAG award and now looks like the winner. Jeremy Renner or George Clooney could win, but Bridges has the momentum.
ActressFew people saw this one coming, especially in a year where her two earlier pictures bombed, but Sandra Bullock's comeback in “The Blind Side” was dazzling, and she also collected a lot of year-end awards. Meryl Streep was thought to be the front-runner for “Julie & Julia,” but Oscar likes a comeback role, and Streep has never needed one.
Supporting actressHere again, what looks like a sure thing: Mo'Nique, for her powerful performance as the mother in “Precious.” Known primarily as a TV personally and comic, she came, in a way, out of nowhere to create a character who was a damaged, cruel woman. The other four nominees were all very, very good, but Mo'Nique will win.
DirectorIf you vote against Kathryn Bigelow of “The Hurt Locker,” you'll be going against years of precedent that say the winner of the Directors Guild Award will win the Oscar.
Original ScreenplayQuentin Tarantino for “Inglourious Basterds.” Who else would have the audacity to rewrite World War II? Tarantino remains a uniquely individual filmmaker, admired as a craftsman and visionary. There's a possibility of an upset in this category if Mark Boal benefits from an Oscar sweep for “The Hurt Locker,” but my money is on QT.
Adapted screenplayJason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for “Up in the Air.” I think it's the best of the five nominees, but more important, perhaps, this category gives academy members a chance to vote for what many of them consider the second best film of the year, and some consider the best.
Animated film“Up,” everyone seems to agree. After it premiered at Cannes, it was for a time considered as a possibility for best picture. Critics would prefer “Coraline.” The possible dark horse here is “The Secret of Kells,” a film that has still to open widely in America. All of the academy members will have had the chance to see it via screeners or on DVD, however, and I'm told it is very good.
DocumentaryA race between “The Cove,” about the Japanese slaughter of dolphins, and “Food, Inc.,” a harrowing film about the American food industry, dominated by corporations that place profits ahead of nutrition and farmers. But, along with most others, I haven't seen the other three nominees. On the basis of what I know, I think the winner will be “The Cove.”
Foreign Language FilmI've seen three of the five. The voters are required to see all five. That's how the unseen “Departures” from Japan surprised everyone by winning this category last year. It turned out the voters may have been right, and “Departures” was one of the year's best films. This year, I believe “The White Ribbon,” an oblique parable by Michael Haneke set in Germany in the years before World War I, is just about certain to win.
CinematographyMauro Fiore seems likely to win for the technical mastery and emotional impact of his work in “Avatar,” which raised the bar for 3-D technology. Robert Richardson's work in “Inglourious Basterds” is the best classical cinematography in this category, I think, but Hollywood, infatuated with 3-D, will think otherwise.
OK. Regarding the categories above, I have (or think) I have reasons for my predictions. In the categories below, I think of myself more in the category of your average office-pool entrant. When the results are in, I suspect I'll do better with the picks above than those below. One year I scored something like 95 percent, but I have no idea how I did it.
Art Direction“Avatar,” don't you think?
Film EditingHere, I'm going for “The Hurt Locker,” because so much of the film's appeal depended on the precise timing and arrangement of shots. Well, that's true of all films, but in this one it became unusually important.
Original ScoreI'm gonna say “Up.” I'm probably gonna be wrong.
Original SongI'm going with “The Weary Kind” (from “Crazy Heart”), with music and lyrics by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett.
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