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And the Oscar goes to ...

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Even though it is the most-watched, non-sports TV broadcast of the year, the ratings for the Academy Awards show have been doing a steady slide since before the turn of the century.

Not usually a group that cares what others think or bows to outside commercial pressures, the big wigs at AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) finally blinked and decided to make a single, but game-changing modification to this year's format.

For the first time since 1943, there are 10 titles nominated in the Best Picture category. To its credit, AMPAS did nothing to conceal the fact that this was done solely to boost ratings by including more commercial, audience-friendly titles. Within hours of the late summer announcement, loud dissent within the artistic community was voiced with almost all of it accusing AMPAS of selling out.

And they are right.

The Oscars are not awarded for commercial success, but rather for artistic achievement (and the occasional political consideration). There are other shows that tend to the opinions of the masses, most notably the People's Choice Awards. Even if the ratings for this year's show go up (which is likely), this huge, knee-jerk tinkering with the process will result in the type of loss ratings can't convey.

Hopefully, the "10 in '10" experiment will be a one-time affair and will be noted in future reference materials with an embarrassing asterisk and a slight morning-after level of remorse.

As far as the dramatic element is concerned, half of this year's "Big Six" winners are forgone conclusions and the other half are total nail-biters. Luckily for AMPAS and ABC, most of this drama will be delivered in the final half hour of the marathon show.

Here are the nominees in the six major categories and my predictions of the probable winners:

Actor in a leading role

Colin Firth in "A Single Man"

For him: For the always dependable Firth this nomination is well-deserved and marks a career filled with great performances.

Against him: As liberal as they'd like to paint themselves, the Academy just doesn't reward performers who play gay characters. 8-1 odds of winning

George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

For him: He's one of the most powerful people in Hollywood and one of most well-liked.

Against him: He won recently in the supporting category and his early fall heavily-favored status totally evaporated with the late December release of "Crazy Heart." 5-4

Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"

For him: You name it. He's already won the SAG, the Golden Globe and virtually every critic's group poll. He's eminently humble and is as deserving of a "lifetime achievement" as anyone given that consideration.

Against him: Not a thing. This is a lock. 1-5

Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker"

For him: Delivered a throttling performance as a fearless (maybe psychotic) U.S. soldier in what most consider the year's Best Picture.

Against him: The movie did next to nothing at the box office and most voters couldn't pick him out of a line-up. 15-1

Morgan Freeman in "Invictus"

For him: Played an iconic, real-life figure (Nelson Mandela), something the Academy absolutely loves.

Against him: The Clint Eastwood-directed film itself tanked at the box office, and like Clooney, Freeman won recently in the supporting category. 20-1

Who deserves to win: Clooney

Who will probably win: Bridges

Dark horse: Firth

MIA: Tom Hardy in "Bronson"

Actress in a leading role

Carey Mulligan in "An Education"

For her: This British ingenue delivered by far the strongest performance of anyone in this category playing a '60s teen falling for a man twice her age.

Against her: Few people saw the film and the queasy nature of the subject matter is a total deal killer. 9-2

Gabby Sidibe in "Precious"

For her: The California-born regular girl wowed everyone with her spare portrayal of an obese, illiterate and victimized Harlem teen overcoming adversity.

Against her: Like Mulligan, she's a relative unknown going up against much higher-profile stars. 12-1

Helen Mirren in "The Last Station"

For her: Surprisingly little. She played a live-wire, nonfictional character who battled bureaucrats trying to steal her children's inheritance.

Against her: Won in this same category recently and is the third person in the race who doesn't have a prayer. 25-1

Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"

For her: She's the most nominated performer of all time and an automatic favorite, no matter the role.

Against her: "Streep Saturation." This is not among her best efforts and though she's only won twice, being nominated so frequently is a net negative. 5-4

Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side"

For her: Played a selfless (but wealthy) Southern housewife who took in a homeless black teen and has won the SAG and Golden Globe.

Against her: Other than the perception that she's not deserving, not much. 2-3

Who deserves to win: Mulligan

Who will probably win: Bullock

Dark horse: Mulligan

MIA: Melanie Laurent in "Inglourious Basterds"

Actor in a supporting role

* Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds" -- For him: Almost everything. He's already won every group's award and was the best part of an excellent film. Against him: Virtually unknown to voters prior to this performance, also he played a slimy Nazi officer nicknamed "the Jew Hunter." 1-5

* Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station" -- For him: Another possible "lifetime achievement" situation for this first-time nominee who played a colorful icon (Leo Tolstoy). Against him: The studio distributing the art-house film released it far too late for most voters (actors) to see. 25-1

* Matt Damon in "Invictus" -- For him: Not much. The best that can be said of his performance was his weight gain to look like a real rugby player. Against him: Too many people still consider his win a decade ago in the screenwriting category to be suspect and not completely above board. 15-1

* Stanley Tucci in "The Lovely Bones" -- For him: He's a phenomenal actor who totally disappeared into a squirm-inducing role most performers would be too scared to attempt. Against him: Played a murderous child rapist in a movie that almost nobody saw and even fewer people liked. 10-1

* Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger" -- For him: Like Renner in "The Hurt Locker," Harrelson played a U.S. soldier charged with a most unenviable task and he pulled it off splendidly. Against him: His high profile real-life participation as a hemp activist is a turn-off for older voters. 9-2

Who deserves to win: Waltz. Who will probably win: Waltz. Dark Horse: Harrelson. MIA: Alfred Molina in "An Education."

Actress in a supporting role

* Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air" -- For her: Proved she's capable of providing more than just wallpaper background in the "Twilight" films by delivering perfectly rigid contrast to George Clooney's suave cool. Against her: Her part is incorrectly perceived as too lightweight. 8-1

* Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart" -- For her: Performance appeals to blue-collar females. She played a protective single mom who takes a chance on a guy with a lousy track record. Against her: There's really not a whole lot of acting going on here -- more like impressive reacting. 25-1

* Mo'Nique in "Precious" -- For her: A whole bunch. The former bawdy stand-up comedienne and failed talk-show host transformed herself into one of the most convincingly despicable mothers in movie history. Against her: Nothing at all. Like Waltz and Bridges, she'll win in a landslide. 2-5

* Penelope Cruz in "Nine" -- For her: Other than playing a psychotic actress and delivering a good pole dancer imitation, zilch. Against her: Everything. The movie, excellent as it was, tanked big time. She won in this same category last year, and then there's the whole pole dancer thing. 12-1

* Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air" -- For her: She's a wonderfully gifted actress playing a heavily conflicted character in a great movie. Against her: Mo'Nique and whenever multiple performers from the same film are nominated in the same category, each always cancels the other out. 12-1

Who deserves to win: Kendrick. Who will probably win: Mo'Nique. Dark horse: Farmiga. MIA: Rachel Weisz in "The Brothers Bloom."

Directing

* Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker" -- For her: The former Mrs. Cameron won the DGA and could be the first female to ever win in this category; something that could aid the Academy's ailing credibility. Against her: The Gulf War movie made next to nothing at the box office. 2-3

* James Cameron for "Avatar" -- For him: He made a technical masterpiece that is now the highest grossing movie of all time. Against him: The previous (showboat) winner for "Titanic" is highly respected, but not well liked by his peers and he lost the bellwether DGA Award to Bigelow. 4-3

* Jason Reitman for "Up in the Air" -- For him: This is his third perfect movie in as many tries. Grew up in the business but is remarkably unaffected. Against him: Character-study dramadies aren't perceived as a big challenge for directors. He's young and will win multiple times in the future. 15-1

* Lee Daniels for "Precious" -- For him: Sorry to say, zero. Against him: His flamboyant direction was totally inappropriate for the sensitive material and his politically-correct inclusion as a nominee is due to producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry making a lot of behind-the-scenes noise.

50-1

* Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds" -- For him: He made the best WWII film since "Saving Private Ryan" (which won this award) and did it "his" way. Against him: He's an outspoken maverick and his trademark ultra-violent style is too much for most voters to stomach. 20-1

Who deserves to win: Bigelow. Who will probably win: Bigelow. Dark horse: Reitman. MIA: Duncan Jones for "Moon."

Best picture

"A Serious Man"

For it: At this point, any dramatic Coen Brothers film deserves consideration in this category and this one is good.

Against it: It's a downer period piece with a no-name cast and their win for "No Country for Old Men" went far in upping the number of nominees to 10. 50-1

"An Education"

For it: This is a superb movie and easily the most underrated of the year. If this list was limited to five titles, it would have still made it.

Against it: It tanked at the box office, is artsy and its "Lolita" type subject matter makes it automatically award-proof. 50-1

"Avatar"

For it: After a long string of mostly depressing and mainstream-unfriendly Best Picture winners, it's the only logical choice. It's the highest grossing movie of all time. Money talks; everything else walks.

Against it: It's not the Best Picture of the year -- or the 10th or the 20th -- and it lost the BAFTA (the British Oscar) in this category two weeks ago to "The Hurt Locker." 2-3

"District 9"

For it: It's perhaps the most original, thought-provoking and entertaining science-fiction/horror flick since "Alien," made a considerable profit and appealed to both critics and the masses.

Against it: It's a popcorn science-fiction/horror movie with lots of pyrotechnics. 100-1

"Inglourious Basterds"

For it: It was able to adhere to the blueprint of a sacred-cow sub-genre (WWII flicks) while going bat-guano crazy and delivered a fantasy ending everyone loved.

Against it: It's a radical Quentin Tarantino film and will likely be acknowledged with the Best Screenplay Oscar. 12-1

"Precious"

For it: As art films go, the initially grim, ultimately hopeful urban heart-warmer did reasonably well at the box-office and was overflowing with standout performances.

Against it: The first half is just too bleak and sexually explicit for most conservative voters to take. 25-1

"The Blind Side"

For it: It was a surprise box-office champion, delivered nothing but good vibes and legitimizes the Academy's iffy decision to double the number of nominated films.

Against it: It's far too lightweight, artistically wanting and Hallmark-flavored to be taken seriously. 30-1

"The Hurt Locker"

For it: The Big Mo'. Overwhelming critical and industry accolades along with groundbreaking technical achievements, visceral performances and a brilliant screenplay make it "Avatar's" worst nightmare.

Against it: The touchy Gulf War setting and a low box-office take. 2-1

"Up"

For it: Yet another example of Pixar Studio's uncanny ability to break artistic ground without loosing any kind of mainstream appeal.

Against it: As it will likely win in the animation category, this is a wasted nomination that could have gone to at least five other titles. 100-1

"Up In the Air"

For it: It's the best movie of the year. It was smart without being elitist, funny without being obvious and prior to December, it was the heavy favorite.

Against it: With the release of "Avatar" and re-release of "The Hurt Locker," it lost every bit of its momentum. 8-5

What deserves to win: "Up in the Air"

What will likely win: "Avatar"

Dark Horse: "The Hurt Locker"

MIA: "Moon," "Star Trek," "Nine," "The Hangover" and "Little Ashes"

Probable Winners in Other Categories

* Best Documentary Feature: "Food, Inc."

* Best Animated Feature: "Up"

* Best Foreign Language Feature: "Ajami" (Israel)

* Best Adapted Screenplay: "Up in the Air"

* Best Original Screenplay: "Inglourious Basterds"

* Best Original Score: "Up"

* Best Original Song: "The Weary Kind" from "Crazy Heart"

* Best Cinematography: "The Hurt Locker"

* Best Editing: "The Hurt Locker"

* Best Art Direction: "The Young Victoria"

* Best Costume Design: "The Young Victoria"

* Best Sound: "The Hurt Locker"

* Best Make-up: "District 9"

* Best Production Design: "Avatar"

* Best Visual Effects: "Avatar"