The Academy Awards honor greatness in films. But how that greatness is measured is the question. Does Oscar honor independent, lesser-known films? Or does it honor the big-budget hits? Sometimes, it does both. But with one of the closest, most contrasting — and largest — best picture races in recent history, it will most definitely have to choose between the two.
It's story versus spectacle, underdog versus favorite — the stuff that Oscar is made of in every way, and the kind of showdown we love to watch.
So settle in. It's gonna be a long night — that's a measurement we can be sure about. But Oscar wouldn't have it any other way.
Here are my predictions for this year's major categories.
"The Blind Side"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
"A Serious Man"
"Up in the Air"
The best picture race is bigger this year with the expansion of five nominees to 10 (which is the way it used to be — but the last time there were 10 nominees was when "Casablanca" was named best picture of 1943).
Tallying is different this year, too. In previous years, voters got one vote for best picture. This year, they ranked their films in order, and some insiders are saying that such a preferential voting system could help second or third choices win over No. 1 picks. Odds, schmodds.
My personal vote is "Precious," though the film is too dark and unsettling for some.
So is "Inglourious Basterds," which has seemed to gain some steam late in the race (and some insiders are saying that the new voting system could particularly help this film win).
But the real neck and neck race is between "Hurt Locker" and "Avatar," and it has heated up even more in the past few weeks.
"Hurt Locker" has recently suffered some nasty backlash. One of its producers, Nicolas Chartier, showed terrible lack of judgment when he sent an e-mail a few weeks ago to Academy voters saying that "if everyone tells one or two of their friends, we will win and not a $500M film."
The e-mail was a violation of the Academy's campaign rules, and though Chartier sent out a formal apology, the act was deemed underhanded and desperate. The Academy has now said he won't be allowed to attend the Oscars ceremony, even though he is one of the film's nominated producers — ouch.
Also, some Army officials have recently criticized "Hurt Locker's" accuracy, and a soldier this week sued the film's producers, saying that he is the real-life basis for the film and wants to be compensated.
Regardless, "Locker" is the critical favorite — it practically swept all the critics' prizes, it won the Producers' Guild Award (an almost guaranteed indicator of a best picture win) and the British Film Award, though it lost the Golden Globe for best picture to "Avatar."
And even though all these signs are pointing to "Hurt Locker" — and most critics are predicting it will win — I still think "Avatar" is going to sweep in and take best picture.
It's a risky guess, but the biggest factor against "Hurt Locker" is its tiny box office take, around $19 million worldwide ("Avatar," by contrast, has topped $1 billion worldwide).
That doesn't make "Avatar" the better film, necessarily, it just means it has more appeal. Plus, it is essentially the kind of sweeping blockbuster the Academy loves to name best picture.
Oscar prediction: "Avatar"
Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"
George Clooney, "Up in the Air"
Colin Firth, "A Single Man"
Morgan Freeman, "Invictus"
Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"
First-timer Renner is the long shot nominee here, though he's certainly deserving — his work as a cocky bomb squad captain is intense and courageous.
Clooney (who has previously won a supporting actor Oscar for "Syriana") brings weighty subtext to his man-boy character, and Freeman (who won a supporting actor Oscar for "Million Dollar Baby") waited for years to play Nelson Mandela and finally saw his dream come true.
First-time nominee Firth gives a beautifully pained performance as a gay man who must secretly mourn the loss of his lover in the 1960s.
But Bridges (my personal pick) absolutely owns the screen as a weary, boozy country singer, and this will be his shining moment — the culmination of a long and respected career.
Oscar prediction: Bridges
Sandra Bullock, "The Blind Side"
Helen Mirren, "The Last Station"
Carey Mulligan, "An Education"
Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Meryl Streep, "Julie & Julia"
Previous winner Mirren (for "The Queen") is expectedly grand as Sofya Tolstoy, while newcomer Mulligan is wonderful as a naive girl who falls for an older playboy. It's a jubilant performance (she won the British version of the Oscar).
Sidibe is my pick with her astounding screen debut as an abused teen living in Harlem. She simmers with rage and guilt in a sympathetic, moving performance.
Some say Streep (who extends her lead as the most nominated performer — this is her 16th nomination) has picked up steam with her delightful portrayal of Julia Child.
But Bullock remains the front-runner, coming into her own as a spunky Memphis mama who takes in a poor, homeless teen. I was skeptical at first, but she won me over — as she did her peers, winning the Golden Globe and SAG awards.
Is this the best performance of the year? No. But the film is a huge hit, Bullock is surprisingly good, she's well-liked and this will be the Academy's chance to honor her for a resilient career and stellar year.
Oscar prediction: Bullock
Matt Damon, "Invictus"
Woody Harrelson, "The Messenger"
Christopher Plummer, "The Last Station"
Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones"
Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds"
Only Damon has been nominated before (as lead actor for "Good Will Hunting" — he won an Oscar for its screenplay).
Harrelson shows impressive range as an Army Casualty Notification officer, moving from maniacal to serious to saddened.
Tucci is fittingly creepy as a serial killer, though I think he made the character too obvious — it wasn't shaded with any complexities.
Veteran actor Plummer, who at 81 finally gets his first Oscar nomination, is enthralling as author Leo Tolstoy.
But Waltz (my personal choice) —an acting veteran who was until now relatively unknown in Hollywood — sizzles in a role he seemed made for, a sinister Nazi officer. It's a broad yet frightening performance — we see the evil behind the smiling facade, and we're on edge the very moment he shows up on screen. Brilliant.
Oscar prediction: Waltz
Penelope Cruz, "Nine"
Vera Farmiga, "Up in the Air"
Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Crazy Heart"
Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air"
Mo'Nique, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Gyllenhaal was a bit of a surprise with her first nomination as a journalist who falls in love with a country singer legend. But she deserves it — hers is truly supporting work, and she is a sturdy anchor to Bridges.
First-time nominees Farmiga and Kendrick were both good in "Air," but I didn't think their roles were that demanding, and Cruz essentially plays the same fiery character she won an Oscar for last year, in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
But Mo'Nique — mostly known up until now for her comedy — is absolutely ferocious, and has created one of the most vile screen mothers of all time. Her win is pretty much a sure thing, and she would become only the fifth African-American actress to win an Oscar (the others are Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry and Jennifer Hudson) —and that's even more impressive when you consider that her previous acting credits included "Phat Girlz" and "Beerfest" — hardly "serious actress" material.
Oscar prediction: Mo'Nique
James Cameron, "Avatar"
Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
Quentin Tarantino, "Inglourious Basterds"
Lee Daniels, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Jason Reitman, "Up in the Air"
Tarantino's giddily violent revenge fantasy shows much maturity and artistic growth (he previously was nominated for directing "Pulp Fiction" and won an Oscar for its screenplay). Every frame of "Basterds" reeks with a sense of danger, and he crafted an engrossing, sweeping tale without his usual fanboy distractions.
Reitman's work in "Air" was confidently low-key and sophisticated (this follows his previous directing nomination for "Juno"), but we will see even better things from him yet — he's only 32 — and he will probably win an Oscar for "Air's" screenplay.
Daniels — who is only the second African-American to get a directing nomination (the first being John Singleton for "Boyz n the Hood") — brings an almost theatrical touch to "Precious." His film deftly juggles brutality and optimism almost simultaneously.
But the heated showdown is between Bigelow and Cameron — who were once married.
Bigelow has won most of the critics' prizes and the prestigious Directors Guild Award, but she lost the Golden Globe to Cameron.
Her film is unnervingly suspenseful, with a documentary-like feel. She puts us right in the middle of the action, and her story is every bit rooted in fierce reality.
Cameron's work, by contrast, is rooted in complete fantasy, set in a fictitious world created on a computer. He employed groundbreaking technology and his film is unlike anything we've ever seen — but that he makes us care about his digital characters is the real victory.
Still, I think Bigelow's momentum will carry on (she's my personal choice), and she'll become the first woman to get a directing Oscar.
Oscar prediction: Bigelow