The 10-film best-picture Oscar field has become such a tease.
In just two years, it has created the illusion of more — and more popular — films vying for the top honor. But in the end, it boils down two or three movies jockeying for the award.
It would be wonderful to see Chris Nolan's inventive and challenging Inception or Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan get the prize Sunday night. But we know that's not going to happen.
It also would be wonderful if the voters got over their anti-animation snobbery and gave a real shot to some of the outstanding animated films, such as Pixar's Toy Story 3, nominated this year. But we know that's not going to happen, either.
And speaking of snobbery, could any of these award shows give an honest-to-God, unpretentious comedy a shot? I won't say it.
Old Oscar habits die hard, and it probably will happen again this year.
If ever there was a movie tailor-made for Oscar, The King's Speech is it.
British, or European? (See: Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient.) Check.
Focused on a person contending with a disability? (See: A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump.) Check.
The heft of Harvey Weinstein, Mr. Oscar promoter? (See: Chicago, No Country for Old Men and several movies already mentioned.) Check.
Did we mention that strong acting performances often propel best-picture winners? (See: Firth, Colin; Rush, Geoffrey; Bonham-Carter, Helena.) Check.
Before the Golden Globes were handed out, it looked as if The Social Network, the cheeky movie about the founding of Facebook, was the frontrunner for best picture. But then almost all of the Hollywood trade guilds — which are much more reflective of Oscar voters than the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — went with The King's Speech, and the tide started shifting. Unfortunately.
Nothing against The King's Speech, but The Social Network is so good, so relevant and so unexpected. Remember the buzz before The Social Network came out? How are they going to make a movie about Facebook interesting? Who wants to watch a movie about the entity that made friend a verb?
And then we saw this brilliant piece of film work that cast a Harvard computer geek as this sort of tragic king, cutting his onetime loyalists off at the knees and slowly isolating himself as his power grew. And that isolation — particularly the final scene — was an unsettling commentary on the simultaneous connectedness and detachment of online social media.
The Social Network still has a good shot at winning, and it would be great to see it happen for the movie's relevance and outstanding take on an excruciatingly current topic. Last year's win for The Hurt Locker makes me think the Academy might be in that sort of mood, but the The King's Speech is the sort of Oscar bait voters probably won't be able to resist.
Here's The Social Network's best shot at one of the big six awards. In another director's hands, the film might have lacked the punch that David Fincher brought to Aaron Sorkin's script. But Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech, won the Director's Guild award, usually a good predictor of the winner. So it's another close race, but considering it is not just directors who vote for the best-picture Oscar, a best picture-best director split seems plausible this year, with Fincher taking home the prize.
Best actor and best actress
Firth's humanizing performance in The King's Speech and Natalie Portman's psychotic break in Black Swan look to be mortal locks for the top acting prizes, although we certainly would take some Kentucky pride in Louisville's Jennifer Lawrence staging an upset for her lead role in Winter's Bone.
It won't happen, but Lawrence is a big winner this year anyway, making a name for herself in the gritty drama. She'll be back.
The story developing here is an always-a-bridesmaid saw about Annette Bening, nominated this year for The Kids Are All Right. Soon, if she just utters sentences coherently in an off year for actresses, she will get her Oscar. At least, for Bening's sake, Hilary Swank, who has beaten her twice, isn't a contender this year.
Best supporting actor and actress
Christian Bale is the lock for The Fighter, and you would have thought his co-star Melissa Leo, who has won most of the pre-Oscar awards, would be a solid bet. Bet there is this huge buzz for 14-year-old True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld to steal the Oscar. Supporting actress is the category with a history of upsets (most recently, Tilda Swinton's 2007 win for Michael Clayton) and awarding children (most recently, Anna Paquin, 11 in 1994, for The Piano). The coin toss (seriously), says Leo holds on and adds to her trophy cabinet, and Hailee has to wait.