Forecasting the Oscars is always an iffy business, but few years beat this one for maximum movieland unpredictability.
We should have expected as much in June, when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced a shake-up — yet another — in the nominating rules. Only two years after doubling the field of best picture nominees, the powers that be decided to allow for any number from five to 10. Could have been six. Might have been eight. Instead, they gave us nine.
Some of the nominees this year were obvious; others, less so.
Now, as for who'll take home prizes this year — that's a whole other universe of fickleness and inscrutability. No one outside Hollywood can possibly fathom the complex neural processes that result in naked gold castrati being passed around the Kodak Theatre like totems at a drum circle. Jonah Hill's statistics whiz in Moneyball would have a better shot at foretelling events than I would. But, he's not here, and I am. So here I go.
The likely winner: The Artist.
The long shot: The Descendants.
The logic: Discounting the occasional (and inexplicable) voice of dissent, acclaim has been universal for The Artist. Which, for the record, isn't a black-and-white silent movie; it's a masterwork of nimble cinematic storytelling that just happens to be black-and-white and silent, or near to it.
The likely winner: Michel Hazanavicius, who displayed a shimmering directorial sleight of hand — and made everything old new again —in The Artist.
The long shot: Alexander Payne, The Descendants. How a film so prickly made us (read: me) expel so much saline is one of the year's abiding mysteries.
The logic: Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) is Malick (i.e., dividing the sea of viewers with Mosaic force). Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) in comic mode is Allen in comic mode (i.e., witty and familiar). And, yes, Martin Scorsese (Hugo) is Scorsese (i.e., the consummate technician and film buff), but since when do kid-friendly flicks score in the major categories?
The likely winner: Viola Davis, who conveys unshakable moral rectitude — and a simmering, beautifully gauged righteous anger — in The Help as the maid who speaks truth to power in a segregated South.
The long shot: Michelle Williams, a fine actress who brings out the vulnerability (and, OK, the hotness) in My Week With Marilyn, her tribute to blonde bombshell Monroe.
The logic: Meryl Streep is brilliant in The Iron Lady, a meh movie. Glenn Close is brilliant in Albert Nobbs, a meh movie. Williams is brilliant in a meh movie ... As for Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), she's still young. Give her time.
The likely winner: Jean Dujardin for The Artist. Unless it's George Clooney, left, for The Descendants.
The long shot: Clooney. Unless it's Dujardin.
The logic: All five nominated actors are brilliant, and not one of the movies is meh. The fact that Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has never even been nominated strikes many observers as a crime against filmmaking. But it's not his year. This year, the race boils down to just two performances: Clooney's exquisitely judged turn as a rumpled, grieving Hawaiian dad; and Dujardin's silent, stirring triumph as a down-and-out film star at the dawn of talkies.
Best supporting actress
The likely winner: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist.
The long shot: Melissa McCarthy, who stole scenes (and puppies) in Bridesmaids as a tough-talking eccentric with a sizzling undercarriage.
The logic: The Artist, if it sweeps, should have coattails long enough to yank Bejo along. Plus: She's adorable. And in this category, the Academy loooooves adorable.
Best supporting actor
The likely winner: Christopher Plummer, Beginners.
The long shot: There isn't one. Unless you think it's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close's Max von Sydow's night, in which case you also think Academy members have it in them to recognize two mute performances in the same year.
The logic: Plummer deserves it. His gentle-mannered turn as a dying gay dad blows away the rest of the field for elegance, emotional impact — and twinkle.