This year's Oscar ceremony boasts several interesting aspects, including the battle royale between the blockbuster "Avatar" and the indie war film "The Hurt Locker" (a war of words that has resulted in the "Hurt Locker" producer being barred from the ceremony — oops!); the one-two punch of comic masters Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin as co-hosts; and the presence of no fewer than 10 Best Picture nominees, which were voted on using a 1-10 preferential ranking system that could result in a good old-fashioned Oscar night shocker (more on that in a minute).
It's a good thing we've got these features to distract us, because the races themselves offer little to no suspense.
This is the easiest-to-call awards field I've seen since I started following the Oscars nearly 20 years ago and, with the exception of the aforementioned potential spoiler in the Best Picture category, it seems very hard to believe that any of my predictions in the major fields could be "off."
In this case, though, I'd love to be proven wrong, even once, if only to add some modicum of surprise to the evening.
Anyway, here we go …
Misunderstood flick up for Best Picture
"The Blind Side"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
"A Serious Man"
"Up in the Air"
Will win: "The Hurt Locker"
Should win: "Inglourious Basterds"
Even though producer Nicolas Chartier has been banned from Oscar night due to his explicit attacks on "Avatar" in the context of Academy campaigning, there are no hard feelings, and his film is more or less a lock to win this award.
It's a quality work, very well-liked, and unless you're 10 years old and/or a Furry, there's simply no denying that it is superior to top competitor "Avatar" in every meaningful way.
But here's the caveat: Due to the preferential tabulation of votes, there's every possibility that Quentin Tarantino's World War II riff "Inglourious Basterds" could sneak in with enough No. 2 and No. 3 votes to put its average over the top of "The Hurt Locker" and "Avatar," which could both be harmed by polarized voting (i.e. a "Hurt Locker" fan putting his film as No. 1 and "Avatar" as No. 10, and vice versa, to inflict maximum damage to the opposing film).
Of course, my support is squarely behind "Inglourious Basterds," a wildly entertaining and sophisticated genre medley that actually was the year's best film.
It is my firm belief that the film's critics simply don't understand it, and have no frame of reference for how Tarantino utilized genre history to form a completely new and unique ode to cinema itself.
This is intellectually stimulating meta-filmmaking — plus, it's just so bloody entertaining, isn't it?
Frankly, I can't fathom how someone could watch the fantastically suspenseful, Leone-infused prologue (or the feverishly intense La Louisiane barroom sequence, or the Marx-Brothers-meet-DePalma climax at the movie theater, or …) and not completely geek out with orgiastic glee. But to each his own. I guess.
Best Actor nominee defines entire film
Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"
George Clooney in "Up in the Air"
Colin Firth in "A Single Man"
Morgan Freeman in "Invictus"
Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker"
Will win: Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"
Should win: Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"
I suppose Jeremy Renner has a slim chance of winning this, and part of me wants to say he deserves it for his subtle, understated performance as a wartime bomb disposal expert in "The Hurt Locker."
But the fact remains that without Renner, "The Hurt Locker" still would have been an excellent film.
The same cannot be said of Jeff Bridges and "Crazy Heart," a movie that is indeed defined by its central performance. As a washed-up, alcoholic country western singer seeking redemption for a wasted life, Bridges nailed every detail of his character, which may have been a cliché in the hands of a less capable actor.
There's not one moment of the film that feels inauthentic, and that is all thanks to its star, who is front-and-center in almost every scene.
Best Actress nominee shows natural ability
Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side"
Helen Mirren, in "The Last Station"
Carey Mulligan in "An Education"
Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"
Will win: Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side"
Should win: Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
I still refuse to watch "The Blind Side" on the grounds that it is stupid, but I can see the writing on the wall.
For some reason that I cannot comprehend, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences feel that they owe something to Sandra Bullock, and so they figure they'll give her an Oscar because, hey, why not, right?
This can't be a career-achievement thing (if it was, they'd be giving it to Meryl Streep), so I'm guessing that voters are simply impressed that an over-40 female headliner can still be a consistent box office draw, and they see fit to throw Bullock a bone.
Gabourey Sidibe may not be cute and adorable, but in her screen debut in "Precious," she displayed a natural ability that an actress like Bullock can never hope to equal.
As a morbidly obese black teen struggling against everything from sexually abusive, drug-addicted parents and incestuous pregnancy to illiteracy and HIV, Sidibe — like Bridges — took a walking cliché and brought it to life in ways I wouldn't have thought possible. The film itself is crap — a disjointed, weirdly stylized mishmash of socio-economic torture porn and Lifetime movie-of-the-week sentimentality — but Sidibe shines like a diamond amidst the rubbish.
Best Supporting Actor: The obvious choice
Matt Damon in "Invictus"
Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger"
Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station"
Stanley Tucci in "The Lovely Bones"
Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"
Will win: Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"
Should win: Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"
Last year, Heath Ledger won this award not because it was a posthumous honor, but rather because, as The Joker in "The Dark Knight," he gave us a highly creative, deliciously villainous performance that demanded every bit of our attention when he was on screen. And when he wasn't on screen, we were wishing he was.
As a Nazi investigator in "Inglourious Basterds," Christoph Waltz operates on the exact same level. It's such a creepy, fun, instantly involving, one-of-a-kind performance that, as much as they may want to honor Christopher Plummer's body of work, Academy voters couldn't possibly justify marking the ballot for anyone else.
Best Supporting Actress deserves every bit of praise
Penelope Cruz in "Nine"
Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"
Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart"
Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"
Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Will win: Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Should win: Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
A little more than a year ago, upon seeing "Beerfest," I remarked to a friend that Mo'Nique was perhaps the least-likely performer to ever have a shot at an Oscar. Lo and behold, a few short months later, we now live in a world where Mo'Nique is the front-runner for a major Academy Award. Funny how life works sometimes.
In any case, there's no way she'll be walking away from the ceremony empty-handed (like Waltz, she has already won every major trophy up to this point), and there's no arguing against the fact that she deserves every bit of praise she's gotten.
As the cruel and abusive mother of title character "Precious," she brings humanity (not to be confused with sympathy, or even empathy) to a truly monstrous character, and there are few harder feats for a dramatic performer — especially one with no real background in drama.
Best Director goes to a national treasure
Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker"
James Cameron for "Avatar"
Lee Daniels for "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds"
Jason Reitman for "Up in the Air"
Will win: Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker"
Should win: Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds"
Director's Guild Award winner Kathryn Bigelow gets to face-off against former hubby and general butthole James Cameron, and when she inevitably comes out on top, the hard-fought victory will be sweet indeed.
Among industry insiders, she has been one of the most respected female directors for decades (although she had to take a seven-year hiatus after the disastrous "K19: The Widowmaker"), and the popular success of "The Hurt Locker" is suitable reward for a filmmaker who has previously received very little mainstream attention.
And I'm tempted — so, so tempted — to say that she deserves the award for her impeccably assembled, high-tension, episodic Iraq War drama, but I'm afraid that in the end, she is competing against Tarantino.
And how can you say "no" to Tarantino?
He's like the American answer to Jean-Luc Godard (only, you know, good), and after he's gotten a few more masterpieces under his belt, I'm confident that my unbridled enthusiasm for his work will be vindicated.
In the meantime, I think he'll to settle for another Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (unless "The Hurt Locker wins that one, too), but the Academy's blindness does not alter the fact that the man is a national treasure, and he deserves a lot more respect than he's gotten.