The Academy Award ballot, whether for a work pool or for kudos at your Oscar party, is at tricky beast: If you’re paying enough attention, you’ve probably picked up the favorites in the major acting categories, for Best Picture, maybe Best Director. But who’s going to win Best Sound Editing? Best Documentary Short Subject? It used to be that you could just use your trust Entertainment Weekly as a cheat sheet (and it’ll still do just fine for that purpose), but there are now so many sites predicting the winners that a clear consensus seems mostly impossible. That’s right: we have to predict the best predictors.
To help you put together the ultimate Oscar ballot, we’re weighing the predictions of one aggregate (Movie City News’ “Gurus of Gold,” which weighs the votes of 14 terrific critics) and four individuals not included in that poll. Melena Ryzik, aka “The Carpetbagger” of The New York Times, has been paying plenty of attention to this stuff, and offers some pretty reasonable predictions. Also at the Times, election guru Nate Silver has offered up his predictions, based more on critics awards and other bellwethers than intangibles like “buzz.” This is his third time on the Oscar beat; in previous years, he had a 75% success rate. We also threw the predictions of Indiewire’s Peter Knegt into the mix.
And while Roger Ebert’s tendency to pick his favorite instead of the likely winner has made him less than reliable at guessing accurately (in 2011, he got Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress wrong), he frequently pulls one out (he was about the only one who called that 2006 win for Crash), and his headline trumps his belief that “I may have them all right.” (He probably doesn’t.)
So let’s kick through the categories, and figure out what your safest bets might be.
BEST PICTURE: Argo
It’s not even close. All but two of the “Gurus” have picked it to win; so do Knegt, Ebert, and Ryzik. Silver has it more than three times as likely to triumph as its closest competitor. The way conventional wisdom has turned on this one is all but unprecedented in recent Oscar-watching; when the nominees were announced last month, your film editor and just about everyone else figured Argo didn’t stand a chance, since it wasn’t up for Best Director (and no film has won Best Picture without at least a nomination for its director since Driving Miss Daisy, back in 1990). But then Argo started winning everything, almost in spite of its chances, and now everyone is betting the bank on it taking the big prize. It’s a safe bet; Hollywood loves making fun of itself, it loves actors-turned-directors (ask Clint Eastwood, or 1990’s Best Director/Best Picture winner Kevin Costner, or 1995’s, Mel Gibson), and if Argo doesn’t get people passionate, most can at least agree that it’s pretty good.
BEST DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
This one’s tougher to peg. The Gurus’ aggregate pick is Life of Pi’s Ang Lee, but it’s a squeaker — Lincoln’s Steven Spielberg is very close. Ryzik also bets on Lee. But Ebert and Knegt are predicting Spielberg, and Silver’s statistical model has Spielberg out front (but just barely). So it’s a toss-up, but we say to bet on Spielberg; it’s going to be seen as a consolation prize for initial Best Picture front-runner Lincoln, just like the Best Director award he won in 1999 for Saving Private Ryan.
BEST ACTRESS: Jennifer Lawrence
Early on, particularly in the critics’ awards, it seemed like this was Jessica Chastain’s prize, but Zero Dark Thirty’s unfortunate status as a political football appears to have weakened her chances (which stinks). Ebert, Ryzik, and Silver also guess Lawrence, while Knegt thinks Emmanuelle Riva takes it, as “a rare case where she’s both a sentimental choice and the most deserving winner.” The Gurus all picked Lawrence and Riva as first and second most likely, with just a few more predicting Lawrence. We say, never underestimate Oscar voters’ lack of interest in watching movies with subtitles.
BEST ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis
The only safer bet than Argo is Academy fave Day-Lewis as the title character in Lincoln; it barely seems to have occurred to anyone that he might not win it. He’s the top pick for every single Guru, and all four of our additional prognosticators. Day-Lewis takes this one in a walk.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Anne Hathaway
Hathaway’s unbroken-take, up-real-close, live-singing performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” made her such a clear favorite for this one that they might as well have given her the statue during the movie. First choice for all of the Gurus, and all of the other prognosticators as well.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Robert De Niro
Ebert and Silver both think Tommy Lee Jones is the winner for Lincoln — the former because it’s actually the best performance of the bunch (which it is, but that almost assuredly means it doesn’t win), the latter because Jones won it at the SAG Awards. But neither of these take into account the ickily important factor of “Oscar campaigning,” which grumpykins Jones is patently uninterested in but De Niro has proven surprisingly amenable to. Add in everyone’s relief that De Niro actually seems to have shown up for Silver Linings (instead of sleepwalking through yet another paycheck role), and it seems that the award is his.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Argo
Ebert thinks Lincoln will win here, but (as Ryzik points out) Argo’s Chris Terrio already beat most of his competition at the Writer’s Guild Awards — and they’re an even more reliable bellwether for this one than the fact that Best Picture usually wins whichever Screenplay prize it is up for.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Django Unchained
This is one of the tougher calls of the night. Ebert and the Gurus think Michael Haneke will win for Amour, but the margin between him and Mark Boal (for Zero Dark Thirty) in the latter poll is pretty slim. Ryzik thinks Boal takes it, but has Quentin Tarantino a strong second for Django Unchained — which is Knegt’s guess. So this is kinda anybody’s ballgame. We’re gonna go out on a limb and say to go with Django — it was the number one pick for three of MCN’s Gurus, and seems like a semi-safe bet, in the interest of fairness (the last time Tarantino and Boal faced off, in 2009, Boal got the Oscar) and with the presumption that voters will prefer to let Haneke be satisfied with his Best Foreign Film win.
BEST FOREIGN FILM: Amour
Speaking of which, yeah, no way this film’s four other nominations (including Best Picture) don’t translate to a win here.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Wreck-It Ralph
Once was the day when a Pixar movie automatically equaled Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but you just can’t bet on voters not seeing the goofy mess that was Brave. As many, many others pointed out, this was the year where the Disney movie (Ralph) felt more like a Pixar movie, and the Pixar movie (Brave) felt more like a Disney movie. Whatever the reason, all of our predictors (save outlier Knegt, who’s betting on Frankenweenie, and Silver, who only guessed at Picture, Director, and the acting awards) say to bet on Ralph.
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Life of Pi
There’s more to cinematography than just awe-inducing purty pictures, but Claudio Miranda’s luminous photography of Life of Pi is staggering (and actually makes inventive use of 3D, unlike too many of its studio brethren). It’s the top pick for the Gurus, Ebert, and Indiewire.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Searching for Sugar Man
The wonderful Sugar Man, the tale of a forgotten singer/songwriter rescued from obscurity and given an honest-to-God Hollywood ending, is both a great story and great documentary filmmaking. It handily wins the Gurus’ poll, and is Knegt and Ryzik’s top pick as well.
Ebert and the Carpetbagger didn’t make picks for the rest of the categories, so we’ll refrain from commentary from here on out and present the best bets based on the Indiewire predictions and the “Gurus of Gold” poll, with our own intuition breaking ties:
VISUAL EFFECTS: Life of Pi
COSTUME DESIGN: Anna Karenina
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Anna Karenina
MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: Les Miserables
SCORE: Life of Pi
SONG: “Skyfall” (from Skyfall)
SOUND EDITING: Life of Pi
SOUND MIXING: Les Miserables
ANIMATED SHORT: Paperman
LIVE ACTION SHORT: Curfew
DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Inocente
Place your bets accordingly. We’ll be live-tweeting the ceremony, so follow us on Twitter and let us know how much you win.