Acknowledging -- though not officially -- the ever-growing importance and popularity of the Golden Globes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has hired (for them) the hippest and most au currant host in their history (grown-up Peter Brady lookalike Seth MacFarlane -- also a nominee for Best Original Song for "Ted").
Tall, dark, dashing, a gifted singer and in possession of many varied speaking voices, MacFarlane will surely rope in the largely previously absent, much sought-after 18-to-25-year-old heterosexual male demographic (read: "Family Guy" couch potatoes.)
While two of the acting categories are essentially foregone conclusions, MacFarlane and the broadcast itself will be aided considerably with two other tight races and a boatload of controversy surrounding the final two awards (Best Director and Best Picture). Will it be as fun as the last Golden Globes telecast? Not likely, but it should prove to be the most interesting and high-wire Oscar broadcast of the past two decades.
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
The Nominees: Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook," Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln," Hugh Jackman in "Les Miserables," Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master" and Denzel Washington in "Flight"
Missing In Action: John Hawkes in "The Sessions"
The Skinny: This is one of the two slam-dunk categories of the evening and probably the weakest as far as collective performances are concerned. As good as he was, Cooper wasn't great and is still regarded by most as a pretty boy who will need to pay far more dues. Much the same can be said for the histrionic and showboating Jackman. In addition to playing a completely unlikeable character, Phoenix has alienated himself from the industry by choice and Washington was great until his character went nutsofagen at the end of the film.
The Bottom Line: Even though he's already won twice, Day-Lewis is acknowledged by most to be the finest actor of his generation and one of the all-time greats. It helps that this was actually the best performance in any category this year. He'll win in a cakewalk.
Best Actress in a Lead Role
The Nominees: Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty," Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook," Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour," Quvenzhane Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Naomi Watts in "The Impossible"
MIA: Aubrey Plaza in "Safety Not Guaranteed"
The Skinny: If for no other reason, this category is the most interesting of the night thanks to the inclusion of the youngest (Wallis) and oldest (Riva) acting nominees in the history of the Academy Awards. Neither of them has a chance, nor does Watts who appeared in roughly half of an only so-so film. A month ago this looked to be a neck-and-neck horse race between Chastain and Lawrence; now, not so much.
The Bottom Line: Mostly because she plays an emotionally guarded character in a movie that has been mired in controversy even before it was released, Chastain (the most deserving of the lot) will come up short with the more touchy-feely voters. It's rare for a lead character in a comedy (or, in this case a dramedy) to be the front-runner, so if Chastain can't emerge as the winner, Lawrence is the next best choice.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
The Nominees: Alan Arkin in "Argo," Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook," "Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master," Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln" and Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained"
MIA: Javier Bardem in "Skyfall" and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Django Unchained"
The Skinny: This category offers up another rarity: Every nominee has already won an Oscar. Arkin and De Niro -- both acting royalty -- are pretty much out of it. Many people considered Hoffman's title character to be a lead performance, which is accurate, but not really fair. Initially written off, Waltz has gained considerable momentum and thanks to his win at the Golden Globes, his chances have increased exponentially.
The Bottom Line: Easily the most competitive race of all the major categories, anyone could win, but no one will do so with a majority. Jones won the SAG award which has essentially the same voting blocks as the Academy and that's bad news for Waltz, the most recent Oscar winner in the bunch. In an industry so fiercely politically liberal, Jones' portrayal of a stringent and unwavering abolitionist of slavery should push him over the top, but just barely.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
The Nominees: Amy Adams in "The Master," Sally Field in "Lincoln," Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables," Helen Hunt in "The Sessions" and Jacki Weaver in "Silver Linings Playbook"
MIA: Judi Dench in "Skyfall"
The Skinny: The second no-brainer of the night also includes the strongest field of nominees, which is, in a way, a pity. If she hadn't won twice already, Field would have a decent shot. Despite now being a multiple nominee, most people and many of her own contemporaries couldn't pick Weaver out of a police line-up. Hunt was brave to go full-frontal nude, but most consider hers' to be a leading role. Going way against type, Adams turned in the kind of gritty, meat-and-potatoes performance the Academy adores.
The Bottom Line: It's not typical to give an award to someone who sang most of their relatively short performance and even rarer to bestow it upon someone so young, beautiful and (to many) -- a lightweight. Because "Les Miserables" will likely come up short in everything but the technical categories and due to her escalating, steamroller momentum, Hathaway will win hands down.
The Nominees: Michael Haneke for "Amour," Ang Lee for "Life of Pi," David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook," Steven Spielberg for "Lincoln" and Benh Zeitlin for "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
MIA: Kathryn Bigelow for "Zero Dark Thirty" and Ben Affleck for "Argo"
The Skinny: Not usually the category garnering significant attention in any year, this year's race for Best Director might go down as the most controversial in the history of the Oscars. Snubbing what most felt to be the top two front-runners (Affleck and Bigelow) will automatically lessen the significance and artistic value to whoever wins and could lead to a drastic overhaul and rethinking of the entire nomination process. Lee is one of two viable candidates fully deserving of a nomination and in a perfect world, he would only come up only fourth in the voting.
The Bottom Line: If you dig just a little, the Affleck/Bigelow imbroglio makes a bit of twisted sense. Both films take place in the relatively recent, strife-riddled Middle East where America was (and still is) wrongly viewed as the evil oppressor. As "Lincoln" portrays America in the most favorable light imaginable and it is helmed by perhaps the greatest director of all-time, Spielberg -- by clear and tainted default -- will take the prize.
The Nominees: "Amour," "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty."
MIA: "Looper," "Hit & Run," "Lawless" and "Safety Not Guaranteed."
The Skinny: Though not glaringly obvious, the questionable nature of the Best Director situation will spill over into this category -- and thus taint it as well. Of the 10 nominees, seven have no chance of winning and the eighth ("Zero Dark Thirty") is too controversial and peaked in news-worthiness way too soon. It's now a two-horse race and one of them has a considerable lead.
The Bottom Line: The Best Picture category is the only one voted on by all Academy members and you can bet they're collectively planning on sending a loud and angry message. In any other year, any movie with 12 overall nominations would be the clear favorite, but that won't happen this time. As with "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg the director will win, but Spielberg the producer will lose to "Argo" and the most anticipated acceptance speech of the evening will belong to producer/snubbed director Affleck. Don't be surprised if he (as he did at the Golden Globes) pokes a stiff and pointed finger in the eye of the Academy overlords.
Probable winners in other categories:
Best Animated Feature: "Brave"
Best Production Design: "Anna Karenina"
Best Foreign Language Film: "Amour"
Best Documentary: "Searching For Sugar Man"
Best Adapted Screenplay: "Lincoln"
Best Original Screenplay: "Django Unchained"
Best Costume Design: "Anna Karenina"
Best Cinematography: "Life of Pi"
Best Editing: "Argo"
Best Score: "Life of Pi"
Best Original Song: "Skyfall" from "Skyfall"
Best Sound Editing: "Argo"
Best Sound Mixing: "Les Miserables"
Best Special Effects: "Life of Pi"
Best Make-up: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"