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Looking Into the Oscars Crystal Ball

oscar_statueThe most intriguing Oscar category Sunday will be for best director. It's the first time ex-spouses (James Cameron for "Avatar" and Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker") are competing. It could be the first time a woman (Bigelow) or an African American (Lee Daniels for "Precious") wins.

But most unpredictable is best picture, with its expanded field of nominees. USA TODAY's Claudia Puig assesses the key categories.

Best picture

The Hurt Locker: Should win and Will win

This little Iraq war film has won an increasing number of awards, including the Producers Guild Award for best picture, historically a strong predictor of Oscar gold, and top prizes from critics' groups.

It faces its toughest competition from Avatar and Quentin Tarantino's cleverly re-imagined World War II tale Inglourious Basterds. Both have won significant awards from industry groups and critics.

Up in the Air, a witty and superbly acted tale of corporate downsizing, is a serious contender, as well, but was not as universally admired as the main trio of contenders.

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, while a deeply moving story of a young girl's rise above her horrific surroundings, was disturbing in its harsh, violent content and therefore may not be as widely embraced for best picture.

An Education, about a high school girl in '60s Britain seduced by an older man, may be seen as lighter fare and less of a contender.

Ditto, ironically, for the darkly funny A Serious Man, directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen. While seen as their most personal work to date, Serious Man likely will be an also-ran, since the filmmaking brothers were honored two years ago as directors, as was their film No Country for Old Men, which won best picture in 2008. The academy traditionally likes to spread the gold.

Up, the animated tale of an adventurous old man and a young Boy Scout, is nominated for animated picture and will likely take that honor. Least likely are the very original and ultra-low budget District 9, a South African sci-fi story of alien invasion, and the inspirational sleeper hit The Blind Side, about a moneyed white family that takes in a homeless black teen. For those long shots, just being nominated, as they say, is a win.

The Hurt Locker is simply one of the best war films ever made.


Best director

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker: Should win and Will win

She won the Directors Guild award, which is a near-perfect barometer of the Oscar win. (Only six times in the history of the DGA Awards has that winner not won the Academy Award.) Hollywood deeply admires her film about a trio of Iraq war soldiers trained to dismantle bombs, and there is strong sentiment to make her the first woman to win the award.

It will be a close contest between Bigelow and her ex-husband, James Cameron, whose direction of Avatar included the invention of new technology in a movie that is widely regarded as both a dazzling feat of filmmaking and an important industry game-changer. But Cameron's movie is overlong and hampered by unoriginal storytelling.

Among the other nominees: Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) could win if Bigelow and Cameron split the vote, but that is unlikely. Even less likely is Lee Daniels (Precious) or Jason Reitman (Up in the Air).

But Bigelow's direction is flawless. She fashioned a film that is taut, fascinating and emotional.


Best actor

Colin Firth, A Single Man: Should win!

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart: Will win!

Bridges' has-been, alcoholic country singer, Bad Blake, has drawn nearly universal praise, and the actor has collected a wide array of awards: Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and many critics' groups. He's respected and well-liked by the academy, and there is a strong sense that he's due after three decades of memorable performances.

The emotionally rich Single Man hinges on Firth's subtle performance as a college professor coping with the sudden death of his longtime partner. His smallest gestures palpably convey his overwhelming grief. While Bridges is a superb actor, the character he plays felt familiar. Firth's bereft academic is someone we have not seen on the screen before, and his stirring portrayal is impeccable.


Best actress

Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia: Should win

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side: Will win

Bullock won a Golden Globe for her comic portrayal in The Proposal, but more important, she won the Screen Actors Guild award for her portrayal of real-life Memphis matron Leigh Anne Tuohy. The guild membership is the largest group within the academy, so that win, over the formidable Meryl Streep, speaks volumes.

Bullock called her SAG win a "fluke" and has been charmingly humble during awards season - and with good reason after making the universally despised, Golden Raspberry nominee All About Steve last year. Still, she's a likable actress who wowed audiences in The Blind Side, proving she is capable of more than the romantic comedies she tends to make. Plus, the academy loves winners, and The Blind Side was a sleeper box-office hit.

Streep played Julia Child with pitch-perfect brio. Though the actress has been nominated 16 times and won twice (best supporting actress for Kramer vs. Kramer and best actress for Sophie's Choice), it has been 27 years since she won. And she nailed Child's loping gait, voluble enthusiasm and distinctive voice without ever resorting to caricature.


Best supporting actor

Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds: Should win and Will win

The Screen Actors Guild, Hollywood Foreign Press Association and nearly all of the country's critics' groups have honored the Austrian-born Waltz for his enthralling portrayal of a charming, ultra-malevolent and multilingual Nazi official. A working actor for three decades, Waltz put it best when he asked and answered his own question at the SAG Awards: "What's it like, after 30 years, to be an overnight sensation? It's fantastic!" Waltz's performance is the kind of star-making turn the Oscars were made to honor.

There could be a sentimental feeling about honoring the estimable veteran Christopher Plummer, who turned 80 in December and received his first Oscar nomination for his role as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. Matt Damon, nominated for his portrayal of a South African rugby player in Invictus, had a good year with that and his starring role in The Informant!, but is not likely to win. Neither is Woody Harrelson as a soldier who must break tragic news to loved ones in The Messenger. And Stanley Tucci was certifiably creepy as a psychopath in The Lovely Bones, but the movie was not embraced.


Supporting actress

Mo'Nique, Precious: Should win and Will win

Like Waltz, Mo'Nique was as frighteningly awful a character as can be imagined. She played the cruelly abusive and narcissistic mother of a teenage lost soul, one of the worst parents ever portrayed on screen. She has swept all the awards this season, and her Oscar win seems like a foregone conclusion. Mo'Nique's performance was deeply disturbing, gritty, operatic and haunting, all at the same time.

Her worthy opponents from Up in the Air, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, may cancel each other out, and Penelope Cruz, nominated for Nine, won last year for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The final nominee, Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a surprise and a long shot.


Original screenplay

The Hurt Locker: Should win and Will win

This Iraq war drama written by Mark Boal skillfully blends suspense, action and poignancy. The dialogue - of the soldiers and local Iraqis - is convincing and is a large part of why this war film gets so deeply under the skin. But there is stiff competition from the whimsy of Up, the quirky origi nality of Inglourious Basterds and the eccentric A Serious Man. It would be wonderful, though unlikely, to see Hurt Locker and The Messenger (about veterans of the war in Afghanistan) tie in this category. They seem like companion pieces in their unconventional depiction of what it means to be a soldier.


Adapted screenplay

Up in the Air: Should win and Will win

Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner improved upon Walter Kirn's book about corporate downsizing, blending breezy and sharp dialogue with a dark and incisive satire that resonates powerfully, capturing the nation's mood and anxieties. It is at once funny, sensitive to our contemporary times and emotionally powerful. While the rapid-fire British satire In the Loop is clever and witty, the timeliness of Up in the Air's subject - unemployment - and its blend of romance, humor and social commentary are likely to draw the most academy votes. Though Nick Hornby's nimble dialogue and multifaceted character development in An Education is top-notch, and Precious has some devastating scenes, they are not likely winners. Even less so is District 9, despite its clever faux documentary patter.


Best animated feature

Up: Should win and Will win

While Disney had a great year with its return to traditional animation in The Princess and the Frog, this computer-animated Pixar offering was the best-reviewed movie of the year and has undeniably the widest appeal of all the strong contenders. The characters and dialogue were memorable, poignant and humorous, and the film boasts the most eloquent wordless montage ever put on film.


Best foreign language film

The White Ribbon: Should win and Will win

Germany's entry, directed by Michael Hanecke, won the Golden Globe and many critics' groups awards. It is a grim story of pre-World War I Germany that is gorgeously shot and haunting. Most of the other nominated films have an undercurrent of bleakness - Israel's Ajami is about racism, revenge killings and drug trafficking; Argentina's El Secreto de Sus Ojos centers on an investigation of a brutal rape and murder; Peru's The Milk of Sorrow is about disease, death and rape; France's The Prophet, set mostly inside a prison, deals with gangs and organized crime. Ribbon, filmed in stark black and white, is a visually stunning allegory that explores an important subject: the rise of fascism in Germany.

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