For one, the new best picture balloting system has left us with nine nominees instead of the usual 10; for another, several categories don’t have nearly the certainty they did last year. We’ll know for sure on Feb. 26; in the meantime, here’s how we project the major categories will turn out:
Nominees: Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Demian Bichir, “A Better Life,” George Clooney, “The Descendants,” Jean Dujardin, “The Artist,” Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
WILL WIN: Jean Dujardin
For the second year in a row, one film is the favorite for best picture, best director and best actor. Dujardin, who’s a frequent collaborator with director Michel Haznavicius in their native France, already won a Golden Globe for this performance, an entirely silent one that demonstrates just how far an expressive face can take you. In addition, his speeches on the awards circuit have been charming enough that the academy probably has developed a liking for him.
SPOILER: George Clooney
Clooney won best supporting actor in 2005 for “Syriana”, but has yet to pick up the lead award. Enter this performance as a Hawaiian lawyer trying to reconnect with his daughters after his wife ends up in a coma, widely hailed as a career best. Clooney also won his respective Golden Globe, making best actor much more volatile than it was last year. It is possible the academy will want to reward a veteran rather than a promising newcomer to the game.
Nominees: Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady,” Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs,” Viola Davis, “The Help,” Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn,” Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
WILL WIN: Viola Davis, “The Help.”
Davis was nominated for best supporting actress three years ago for “Doubt.” It’s depressing fact that she’s only the second woman of color ever nominated for more than one Academy Award. She’s won well-deserved raves, and the Screen Actors Guild award, usually a pretty reliable indicator, for her performance as the long-suffering black domestic who anchors this film. Unlike most of the other nominees, Davis’ film is just as acclaimed as her performance (not to mention a huge hit), which will also help her case.
SPOILER: Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady.”
Streep can never be completely discounted; despite tepid reviews of the film itself, her performance as Margaret Thatcher has earned fairly universal praise. If the film itself had better buzz, Streep + historical figure + British would seem like an unbeatable combination, but even as things stand, she’s one to watch out for.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominees: Nick Nolte, “Warrior,” Christopher Plummer, “Beginners,” Max von Sydow, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn,” Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
WILL WIN: Christopher Plummer, “Beginners.”
It’s hard to believe that Plummer, whose long career includes such highlights as “The Sound of Music,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Insider” didn’t get his first Oscar nomination until 2009. That said, he’s the clear favorite this year, for his warm, heartfelt performance as an elderly widower who comes out to his son. Frankly, the only supporting performance that had a comparable amount of buzz all year was Albert Brooks’ vicious gangster in “Drive,” who surprised many pundits by failing to get a nomination, making Plummer probably the closest nominee to a sure thing.
SPOILER: Nick Nolte, “Warrior.”
The recession-themed mixed martial arts drama “Warrior” got great reviews, but disappointed too much at the box office to be a big awards player; that said, Nolte, like Plummer, is an elder statesman who’s paid his dues but never won before, and his performance as a recovering alcoholic father (Oscar loves roles that mirror actors’ off-screen struggles) was tipped as an awards contender from the beginning. Again, chances are very slim that Plummer won’t make it, but if he doesn’t, it’ll most likely be due to Nolte.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominees: Octavia Spencer, “The Help,” Jessica Chastain, “The Help," Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids,” Berenice Bejo, “The Artist,” Janet MacTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
WILL WIN: Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
Spencer, whose biggest deal prior to this was a role on “Ugly Betty,” has swept the precursors even more effectively than her lead actress counterpart Viola Davis; it’s a real testament to her skill as an actress that she turned her character, which, done improperly, would have veered dangerously close to a patronizing Mammy figure, into one of the highlights of a film of great performances.
SPOILER: Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
OK, yes, Bejo is the wife of “The Artist” director Michel Haznavicius. That said, she’s better in the role than a director’s wife has any business being. If the film cleans up as many suspect, her performance as a bubbly ingénue actress may well become part of the sweep.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Nominees: “The Artist,” “Margin Call,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Bridesmaids,” “A Separation”
WILL WIN: “The Artist”
Despite the inevitable “What screenplay?” jokes that will follow, Haznavicius’ pleasantly retro script displays plenty of wit even when the dialog is limited to title cards. One could argue that this film is far more about the acting and direction than the writing, but regardless, the best picture very rarely loses its respective screenwriting Oscar.
SPOILER: “Midnight in Paris”
Woody Allen is a notorious Kodak Theater no-show, which is a shame, because this is not only his most critically acclaimed film in 15 years, it’s also his most profitable ever. This breezy story of a nostalgic screenwriter who finds himself transported to the Paris of the ’20s is probably the biggest threat in this category to “The Artist,” although this is the rare category where nearly every nominated film seems equally worthy.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nominees: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The Descendants,” “Hugo,” “The Ides of March,” “Moneyball”
WILL WIN: “The Descendants”
Alexander Payne, who both directed the film and co-wrote it with comedians Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, hasn’t made a film since 2004’s “Sideways”, which won him the best original screenplay Oscar. Here, he displays the same melancholy humanity in adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel. As demonstrated by “Sideways,” the academy has a liking for Payne, and he’ll probably ride that to his second Oscar.
It’s always hard to adapt a work of nonfiction into a cohesive narrative film, but Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian managed it, injecting Michael Lewis’ study of how the struggling Oakland Athletics used statistics to their advantage with Sorkin’s trademark rat-a-tat banter. If this film, a critical favorite that regardless isn’t the favorite for any major awards, walks away with any, it’ll likely be this one.
Nominees: “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Help,” “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Moneyball,” “The Tree of Life,” “War Horse”
WILL WIN: “The Artist”
A French silent film whose only recognizable American actors are in supporting roles didn’t seem like it would ever take off outside of the festival circuit, but this aesthetically on-point tribute to moviemaking in the late ’20s has been this year’s Little Movie That Could, winning big at the Golden Globes, a pretty reliable predictor of the eventual Oscar winner.
SPOILER: “The Help”
The civil rights-era drama made out like a bandit at the Producers Guild of America awards, and unlike “The Artist,” it was a huge commercial hit. In addition, cynical though it may seem, the Oscars love rewarding movies that explore racism but manage to insert a white perspective (see “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Crash”), and let’s not pretend the academy doesn’t love self-back pats.
Nominees: Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” Michel Haznavicius, “The Artist," Alexander Payne, “The Descendants,” Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris,” Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”
WILL WIN: Michel Haznavicius, “The Artist”
As best picture goes, so, typically does best director, especially when they’re as much work behind it as French director Haznavicius put into recreating the trappings of late-1920s Hollywood. Not bad for a guy very few people outside of France were aware of prior to Sundance.
SPOILER: Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
Scorsese picked up the Golden Globe for this masterful fairy tale interwoven with film history, and while he’s far less likely to win this year (he’s already got his Oscar, after all), he looks like a strong second, particularly if the academy decides Haznavicius hasn’t paid his dues sufficiently.