WIth less than three weeks to Oscar night, it looks increasingly certain that this will be one of the most predictable ceremonies in some time. Various theories to the contrary aside, "The Artist" is winning best picture. Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer might as well start heading to the podium now, too. And the artistic and technical categories should mostly be a split between "Hugo" and "The Artist," with a song from "The Muppets" thrown in for good measure.
Our full list of predictions is here, and we will continue to update them between now and February 26 (the night it all goes down). But given the circumstances, it would be nice to find some reason to conjur up just a little bit of excitement regarding who wins. And if you look hard enough, there's still a little suspense to be had.
1. Best Actor: A Four-Man Race?
While many are pegging a Viola vs. Meryl showdown in the best actress race, it seems after her SAG win and some very affecting speeches on the precursor circuit, Ms. Davis is looking more and more like an assured a win come Oscar night. Which leaves the only truly nail-biting acting race to the boys.
In the lead actor category, there's been a considerable split among precursors between George Clooney ("The Descendants") and Jean Dujardin ("The Artist"). Both won Golden Globes, while Clooney took a Critics Choice and Dujardin won the SAG. Either one of them could take home the Oscar, or feasibly two other scenarios could go down if they split a large portion of the vote: Brad Pitt's humble charm on the circuit could help him win an Oscar for "Moneyball" (it also helps he's never won, while Clooney has); or Gary Oldman could pull off a massive shocker and win for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy" despite not even being nominated at almost every precursor award (except the BAFTAs, where he could very well win).
It's truly anyone's (except Demian Bichir's) game, which will make it one of the most exciting envelopes to be opened February 26.
2. Best Foreign Language Film: Is "A Separation" Really a Lock?
Given its universal acclaim, strong box office, a nomination in the original screenplay category and the fact that it's won pretty much every other foreign-language film award this year, one would assume it's in the bag for Iran's "A Separation." But making any assumption in this category is ill-advised. After all, "The Secret in Their Eyes" beat "A Prophet" in 2010. "Depatures" beat "The Class" the year before. And back in 2002, "No Man's Land" beat "Ameile," even though it had four nominations in other categories.
That all said, given the political climate in Iran and the effect it's had on filmmakers from that country, sentiment is also on the side of "A Separation." So while betting against it is still not recommended, if there's any category where a favorite could fall, it's this one. Poland's "In Darkness" takes on standard Academy-friendly fare in its Holocaust theme, and would definitely be the one to beat it if anything does (they oddly share a U.S. distributor in Sony Pictures Classics -- as did "The Secret in Their Eyes" and "A Prophet"). We'll see come Oscar night.
3. Best Original Screenplay: Woody vs. "The Artist" (or "Paris" vs. France)
On his 23rd nomination (and 15th in this category -- a record), Woody Allen seems poised to take home his first Oscar since 1986 (for writing "Hannah and Her Sisters"). The Academy is likely to want to reward Mr. Allen one more time, and if there was ever an opportunity, it's now. "Midnight in Paris" is his first best picture nominee since "Hannah," and it's unlikely to win anything else.
Then again, Allen has never seemed interested in the Oscars (he's only attended once, and it was not when he was nominated but instead to pay tribute to New York after the 9/11 attacks) and he's up against a film that could very well sweep the night: "The Artist." The French-directed, U.S. set film is the night's big favorite, which could spell trouble for the American-directed, French-set "Paris." But is best original screenplay really a category for "The Artist" to win in? Michel Hazanavicius's screenplay is nearly dialogue free, which might turn off voters who don't realize it's arguably more difficult to write a screenplay without dialogue. Who knows, there's also the outside chance that a very fun curveball in the name of "Bridesmaids" could upset both of them. There's clearly support in the industry for the film, and after snubbing it for best picture this could be a very nice consolation prize.
4. Best Documentary Feature: As Wide Open As They Come
It's hard to find a favorite in a category where none of the initial favorites were even nominated. So in the wake of films like "The Interrupters," "Project Nim," "Senna," "Buck" and "Into The Abyss" all not making the cut, the best documentary feature category is the most wide open of them all (especially since it's so unpredictable to begin with).
Arguably, any of the five nominees -- "Hell and Back Again," "If a Tree Falls," "Pina," "Paradise Lost 3" and "Undefeated" -- could win. Though it seems it's more than likely a three-film race between "Pina," "Hell" and "Paradise." "Pina" would give the Academy the opportunity to reward Wim Wenders (nominated once before for directing the "Buena Vista Social Club"), not to mention it's a big hit and has received mass acclaim. But it's much more formally experimental than this category tends to reward, which could help the likes of "Hell and Back Again" (which takes on the post-traumatic stress disorder of a returning soldier from Afghanistan) and "Paradise Lost 3" (the third film in a series chornicling the arrest and imprisonment of the West Memphis 3).
Both timely and acclaimed in their own right, they both stand reasonable chances here. Though none of them -- or "Pina" -- have the backing of Mr. Harvey Weinstein, as does underdog-football-team doc "Undefeated."
5. Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing: If You Care, That Is
Grouped together as they tend to reward the same film (at least over half the time) and because, let's face it, does anyone really care whether these races are suspenseful or not? Either way, they are indeed far from locked up this year, with "War Horse," "Hugo," "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" all nominated in both categories and all standing reasonable chances at winning ("Drive" and "Moneyball" are the lone other nominees in editing and mixing, respectively). "War Horse" and "Hugo" have the benefit of prestige (3 of the last 5 winners in both categories have been best picture nominees, as both of them are), so perhaps its a two, uh, horse race here. Though "Dragon Tattoo" or "Transformers" could definitely surprise. So if you're into sound, there's a real race for you this year!