In far more ways than one, the Oscar ceremony this coming Sunday will be a grand celebration of the past and should provide more competitive drama than the last ten telecasts combined. In all six major categories there is not a single clear-cut, runaway favorite and it's unlikely even the most seasoned prognosticator will be correct with all of their predictions.
The show will be hosted (for the 9th time) by Billy Crystal, who agreed to take the gig after original choice Eddie Murphy -- under a heavy air of controversy -- did the right thing and bowed out. Even if Crystal has an off night (which is unlikely), it will be a marked improvement over last year's co-hosts -- the near comatose James Franco and way-too-perky Anne Hathaway who had zero chemistry and provided the show's most crushingly awkward moments.
Below is my take on the six major categories, a few glaring omissions and some of the lower-profile winners.
Best Actor in a Lead Role
Demian Bichir in "A Better Life," George Clooney in "The Descendants," Jean Dujardin in "The Artist," Gary Oldman in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and Brad Pitt in "Moneyball."
Michael Fassbender in "Shame" and Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter."
Not quite the strongest group of the night but easily the hardest to predict. Start by tossing out Bichir; his was a left-field inclusion. On paper, the race is between Dujardin and Clooney; both won Golden Globes (one in comedy, the other in drama) each has received almost equal amounts of critic's group's prizes and both men recall the look of Hollywood's Golden Age.
The Bottom Line
In a perfect world with a group of sentimental, warm 'n' fuzzy voters, Oldman would have no competition. It's unfortunate that the only nomination in his stellar career was for one of his weakest performances. The rich, handsome and truly blessed Clooney and Pitt both earned their spots in this lineup but also run in the same social circle and will likely cancel each other out. The other unknown in the pack -- Dujardin -- won't get the majority of the votes but he'll snare just enough of them to eke out a win.
Best Actress in a Lead Role
Glenn Close in "Albert Nobbs," Viola Davis in "The Help," Rooney Mara in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady" and Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn."
Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
As good as both were, Mara and Williams have no chance. They're relative youngsters in a field of serious, old-school contenders. Davis' performance was considered by some to be supporting, not lead. Because of their collective legendary status, this is really just a two-woman race between Close and Streep ... or is it?
The Bottom Line
With all due respect to Close and Streep -- who both starred in only so-so-films -- each was nominated solely on their hefty resumes. If anyone deserves an award, it is their makeup artists. Much like the Lead Actor category, they will probably cancel each other out and allow the statue to go to past-nominee Davis.
Best Actor in a Supporting RoleThe Nominees
Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with Marilyn," Jonah Hill in "Moneyball," Nick Nolte in "Warrior," Christopher Plummer in "Beginners" and Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
Albert Brooks in "Drive."
The esteemed Branagh was good but not great while channeling Lawrence Olivier. Hill -- to practically everyone's surprise -- was fantastic but is a minnow here in a pool full of barracudas. Nolte ... really?! Co-starring in a mixed martial-arts movie? Even he's a relative newcomer in what will be a welcomed competition between two impeccable, timeless legends.
The Bottom Line
As positively ludicrous as it may sound, octogenarians Plummer and von Sydow have received a measly one previous Oscar nomination between them; that is a crime. Both men are highly worthy of the prize but von Sydow's performance came in what was one of the worst movies of the year and Plummer has already won ever other major award leading up to the Oscars. Its Plummer's to lose and he'll win by a nose.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Berenice Bejo in "The Artist," Jessica Chastain in "The Help," Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids," Janet McTeer in "Albert Nobbs" and Octavia Spencer in "The Help."
Jessica Chastain in "The Tree of Life" and Vanessa Redgrave in "Coriolanus."
In keeping with its history as the most unpredictable and up-in-the-air category, the Oscar could go to anyone. Bejo might pull it off but only because hers was actually a leading role. McCarthy is the most deserving of the bunch but the Academy rarely acknowledges comedy. Previous nominee McTeer was the best thing in an only average film. It's between Spencer and Chastain but not really.
The Bottom Line
Whenever two or more performers from the same film are nominated in the same category, they usually cancel each other out in the voting. Last year, however Melissa Leo proved that trend/theory wrong. Many people (myself included) feel that Chastain should get it solely due to her superlative collective 2011 output, but in the long run it will probably be Spencer.
Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris," Michel Hazanavicius for "The Artist," Terrence Malick for "The Tree of Life," Alexander Payne for "The Descendants" and Martin Scorsese for "Hugo."
Lynne Ramsay for "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
The second-to-the-last award of the evening will be the fifth major two-person contest. Forget about Allen and Payne -- they'll both be compensated with screenplay awards. The reclusive and anti-everything Malick probably won't even show up. This race is between a cunning old master and that up-and-coming French dude with an unpronounceable last name.
The Bottom Line
It didn't used to be this way, but in the last couple of decades, the Academy has tended to split the final two awards of the night between two great films. Even though Scorsese won semi-recently (for "The Departed"), many members feel he has still been overlooked too often and ... unfair as it might be ... they actually know him -- and that means a lot. Both men (in drastically different ways) paid reverential homage not only to old but actually formative Hollywood and both were phenomenal efforts. But this has also been a category in which the Academy gives the award to upstarts and actors ("Ordinary People," "Dances with Wolves") who are more politically correct than Scorsese. I hate to say it, but it's going to be Hazanavicius -- sorry, Marty.
Best PictureThe Nominees
"The Artist," "The Descendants," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "The Tree of Life" and "War Horse."
"The Debt," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "Bridesmaids" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
Wait a cotton-picking minute here ... aren't there supposed to be 10 nominees in this retro, over-stuffed category?! To explain why there's only (only?!) nine this year would require more of a mathematical mumbo-jumbo explanation than what was laid out in "Moneyball." Speaking of which, dismiss it and the six other not-quite also-rans. This competition is between a big-budget 3-D spectacle and a bare-bones black and white charmer.
The Bottom Line
Both "Hugo" and "The Artist" are critical darlings that have more or less underperformed at the box office. In a manner similar to the recent competition between "The Hurt Locker" and "Avatar," each represents far-reaching ends of the budgetary extremes. Both are uplifting (almost forcibly so) and both have only been embraced by critics, Hollywood insiders and film junkies. Adversely, both employ formats (3-D and black and white) that don't fit into the typical Best Picture mindset. My heart wants "Hugo" but my head overrides it with "The Artist."
Probable winners in other categories:
-- Best Animated Feature: "Rango"
-- Best Art Direction: "Hugo"
-- Best Foreign Language Film: "A Separation"
-- Best Documentary: "Pina"
-- Best Adapted Screenplay: "The Descendants"
-- Best Original Screenplay: "Midnight in Paris"
-- Best Costume Design: "Hugo"
-- Best Cinematography: "The Tree of Life"
-- Best Editing: "Hugo"
-- Best Score: "The Artist"
-- Best Song: "Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets"
-- Best Sound Editing and mixing: "Hugo"
-- Best Special Effects: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
-- Best Makeup: "The Iron Lady"