The nostalgia trend among this year's class has been much remarked upon, but it's still pretty crazy to realize that of the nine candidates, exactly one and a half—The Descendants and part of Midnight in Paris—are set in the present (though to be fair, Moneyball and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are set in the very recent past). I feel like a backlash against The Artist has been coalescing, but as with the anti-Romney backlash, no clear alternative has emerged. I'd suggest Hugo as a dark horse if it wasn't also a soft-focus valentine to the origins of cinema. It's hard to care all that much—even the most interesting fringey candidates, The Tree of Life and Moneyball, are flawed movies. I wish Warrior had been nominated—that movie kicked ass.
Will win: The Artist (pictured, left)
Should win: The Tree of Life (pictured, right)
I don't see any reason to predict a split here. Michel Hazanavicius, the director of The Artist, is the obvious frontrunner. Whatever your feelings about The Artist, can we talk about how amazing it is that a French filmmaker who'd previously made spy-movie parodies that no one in America saw now seems poised to beat out the likes of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Terrence Malick? Here again, Scorsese seems like the best candidate to surprise us.
Will win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist (pictured, left)
Should win: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life (pictured, right)
One almost wants to see Jean Dujardin tap-dance his way to the award simply to spare us the inevitable fellating of the other that Brad Pitt or George Clooney will do in his acceptance speech if he wins. And it's totally possible that Pitt and Clooney will split the vote among those inclined to vote for Pitt or Clooney. Of those three, I think Pitt is the most deserving for the weary rakishness he brought to Billy Beane, a role that saw all his strengths as an actor on display—though I'd still vote for Gary Oldman's cerebral Smiley.
Will win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist (pictured, left)
Should win: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (pictured, right)
When I saw My Week With Marilyn, I thought Michelle Williams was a shoo-in for this award for the lightness of touch she brought to this performance—she really brought Marilyn to her, rather than trying to mold herself to the contours of the legend—combined with the personal backstory that lurked in the shadows. Viola Davis may have won it, however, when she told Bryce Dallas Howard, "You're a godless woman," and however heavily The Help lays on the Jim Crow–era schmaltz, there's no getting around the fact that Davis is a serious badass in the movie. Williams will be back. (So will Rooney Mara. And Meryl Streep will probably still be nominated four or five more times.)
Will win: Viola Davis, The Help (pictured, left)
Should win: Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn (pictured, right)
The category this year consists of four guys vying for a lifetime-achievement award (including two octogenarians—Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow) and Jonah Hill. Plummer has always been the frontrunner for his delightful portrayal of a 75-year-old man who comes out of the closet after the death of his wife in Mike Mills' poignant Beginners—and deservedly so.
Will win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Should win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
All signs point toward Octavia Spencer after her impressive awards run so far (she's won a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and a SAG award, among others), but damn, how amazing was Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids?
Will win: Octavia Spencer, The Help (pictured, left)
Should win: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids (pictured, right)
It would be nice if the Academy voters removed the sticks from their asses and acknowledged what may very well have been the best original screenplay of 2011—and certainly of this field: Bridesmaids. They've certainly shown an inclination to recognize funny, unexpected stories that have become cultural phenomena in this category before (see Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But expect it and several other very strong contenders (Margin Call, A Separation) to lose to Woody Allen's affable exercise in mealy mouthed nostalgia.
Will win: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris (pictured, left)
Should win: Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids (pictured, right)
This is exactly the award that movies like The Descendants always win, only to be shut out of the major prizes—a consolation prize from Oscar voters who feel duty-bound to recognize the smart auteur in the field, even if they don't like him enough to give him Best Director. John Logan's Hugo script is the dark horse.
Will win: Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, The Descendants (pictured, left)
Should win: Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (pictured, right)
This category is often a crapshoot, but this year real consensus seems to have developed around the unflinching Iranian family drama A Separation.
Will win: A Separation
Should win: A Separation
Come on, a documentary about high-school football players overcoming adversity in inner-city Memphis—Undefeated—kind of has to win, right? Yes, usually, but this time there's another heart-wrenching Memphis area doc about overcoming adversity—the third installment of Paradise Lost, which chronicles the release from prison of the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers jailed 18 years ago for murders they didn't commit, who had become a cause célèbre among exactly the kinds of people who vote for the Academy Awards. It won't win, but don't miss Wim Wenders' Pina, a 3-D movie unlike any you've ever seen, and one that will change the way you think about dance forever.
Will win: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (pictured, left)
Should win: Pina (pictured, right)