If any picture could pull an upset, it’s Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which hits the same early cinematic nostalgia sweet spot, though some (this writer included) think it does so with greater emotional force and higher style — and it is the work of a domestic filmmaker who has become an Academy favorite after decades of snubs. Even if it doesn’t take Best Picture, it’s up for ten other prizes (the most-nominated film of the night), so it’s bound to pick up a couple of nods, if nowhere else but in the technical categories. (Also, it’s really, really good.)
3. The Iron Lady
With a total of 17 nominations but no wins since Sophie’s Choice nearly thirty years ago, Meryl Streep’s Best Actress-nominated performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is the closest thing we’ve got to an iron-clad lock on Sunday night. That said…
4.-5. The Help, My Week with Marilyn
That also would make a Best Actress upset a highly dramatic one, and there are, you might be surprised to hear, plenty of folks who’ve had it up to here with Streep’s accent-showcase performances. The actors most likely to stage that upset are Viola Davis, who beat Streep at the SAG awards, and Williams, who is dazzling in what could have easily been a mere imitation performance. Understand, neither of these are great movies — but both Davis and Williams are great in them. (The Help is also looking pretty solid to take Supporting Actress, for Octavia Spencer, and could even pull a surprise win for Best Picture.)
Second most likely to win is Christopher Plummer as the Ewan McGregor’s late-blooming gay dad in the delightful Beginners — and it’s a victory all but assured by the shocking exclusion of Albert Brooks, who basically split the critics’ awards for Best Supporting Actor with Plummer. If anything, you’ll come away from this one wondering why Plummer’s was its only nomination.
7. The Descendants
Alexander Payne’s seriocomic drama is probably (probably) too subtle and low-key to win Best Picture — but it’s up for four other awards, including George Clooney’s nomination for Best Actor, a race that’s still fairly competitive at this point. Payne is also a pretty safe bet for Best Adapted Screenplay, having one previous win (for Sideways) and another nomination (for Election) in the category.
8. A Better Life
The biggest surprise on nomination morning was the Best Actor nomination for Demian Birchir (aka “Esteban” on Weeds) for A Better Life, director Chris Weitz’s excellent East LA riff on The Bicycle Thief. With that film’s low profile (and box office), he’s the very definition of a dark horse nominee — which is all the more reason why you’ll dazzle your friends at the Oscar party by going on and on about how great Bichir is in it, and how he’d totally win if the Oscars weren’t corrupt and political, etc., etc.
9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
But if there is a surprise Best Actor winner, it will probably be Gary Oldman for Tinker Tailor — he’s something of a sentimental favorite (grinding it out for years, actor’s actor, no previous nominations, atypically subdued performance), and he’s been doing a fair amount of campaigning for the prize. It’s also up for Best Adapted Screenplay, and may very well land that award, if for no other reason than the impressive feat of compressing le Carré’s dense book into a reasonably streamlined narrative.
10. The Tree of Life
It’s not winning Best Picture, and probably not Best Director either. However, it will almost definitely win Best Cinematography (and deservedly), and even if it doesn’t, every time a clip pops up during the show, any Oscar viewing with more than three people in the room will immediately break into a fierce argument between those who loved it, and those who “didn’t get it.” So you might as well see it and formulate your argument.
11.-12. Midnight in Paris, Moneyball
Both of these are very good films with multiple nominations — six for Moneyball, four for Midnight, with Best Picture noms for both. The latter might win Best Original Screenplay, maybe (if there’s not an Artist sweep), but both of them could go home empty-handed, so prioritize accordingly.
13. War Horse
And here we have a not very good film with multiple nominations — six again, including Best Picture and, most inexplicably, a nomination for John Williams’ subtle-as-a-shovel-to-the-face score. It looked like a film tailor-made to win Oscars (prestigious director, acclaimed source material, handsome production, so on), but chances are it’s not winning any either.
14.-15. Albert Nobbs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
As mentioned above, Best Actress is a pretty fierce two-way race between Streep and Davis, with Williams a possible surprise winner — leaving Glenn Close and Rooney Mara as also-rans. Janet McTeer is also nominated as Supporting Actress for Nobbs, but she’s a long-shot there too.
Speaking of long-shots: we can say with a fair amount of certainty that there’s no way Nick Nolte wins Best Supporting Actor. Also, Warrior is a woefully predictable and bewilderingly over-praised Boxing Movie Clichés mixtape. So there’s that.
Well, we’re just kind of assuming you’ve seen this one by now. I mean, c’mon, it came out like eight months ago. And no, it probably won’t win Original Screenplay, though Melissa McCarthy could feasibly pull a Best Supporting Actress win (it’s one of the few categories where Oscar voters seem comfortable honoring comic performances; past winners include Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and other people who weren’t in Woody Allen movies).
18. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Two nominations, for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor — pretty impressive, for a movie nobody liked. Steer clear, kids.