And the Oscar goes to ... "District 9."
We need a best-picture shocker like that Sunday at the 82nd annual Academy Awards. Truth is, a major upset of that magnitude won't happen. Even with 10 movies duking it out for the top spot, this year's ceremony is hampered by the fact that key contests, especially in the acting categories, seem like done deals. But that sly Oscar can be unpredictable every now and then (remember Tilda Swinton's win for "Michael Clayton"?). It's fun when Oscar goes a little wacko. With that in mind, I hope my picks for what should win and what will win prove to be more wrong than right. At least then we'll be watching a better show and have something interesting to talk about Monday morning.
The Contenders: "Avatar," "The Blind Side," "District 9," "An Education," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious," "A Serious Man," "Up," "Up in the Air."
Let's dispense with the contenders that stand no chance of winning: "District 9," "An Education," "Precious," "The Blind Side," "Up" and "A Serious Man." Two other nominees have party-crasher potential. "Basterds," most notably its taut opening sequence, is bold, brassy moviemaking, but Oscar will ignore it because that loudmouth Tarantino made it. "Up in the Air," which tapped presciently into our angsty anti-corporate mood, could prevail, but it's fallen off everyone's radar. So it comes down to the cinematic marvel "Avatar" vs. the intense war drama "The Hurt Locker."
What Will Win: "The Hurt Locker." Hollywood simply won't bestow its top honor on a film that features digital characters that hog the screen from flesh-and-blood actors. Voters, many of whom are actors, are too vain to go for that.
What Should Win: "The Hurt Locker." Yes, "Avatar" lacks a perfect script, but it exuberantly brought magic back to filmmaking, more so than any other film in the past decade. "Locker," on the other hand, is a stunning piece of filmmaking, period. It delves into modern warfare without any of the heavy-handed polemics that have marred past war flicks. And unlike "Avatar," "Hurt" represents what a true Best Picture is — from the acting to the script to the editing to the directing. That's why it should win over "Avatar."
The Contenders: Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker," James Cameron, "Avatar," Lee Daniels, "Precious," Jason Reitman, "Up in the Air," Quentin Tarantino, "Inglourious Basterds."
This is the battle between the exs — Bigelow and Cameron — plain and simple. In any other year, Tarantino would be giving an Oscar acceptance speech, but "Basterds" has been unfairly dismissed as pulp fiction fare. Cameron created a classic wonderland with Pandora, while Bigelow embedded audiences onto the battlefield.
Who Will Win: Bigelow. Please, Hollywood, spare us another "King of the World" speech. Or any of that Na'vi speak.
Who Should Win: Bigelow. "Hurt Locker" is flawlessly directed.
The Contenders: Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart," George Clooney, "Up in the Air," Colin Firth, "A Single Man," Morgan Freeman, "Invictus," Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker."
Except for British Film Awards, nearly every major award has gone to Bridges. As a drunken has-been country singer, the versatile Bridges physically and emotionally inhabited his Oscar jackpot role. The terrific Clooney will be skipped over since he is — quote — playing himself — unquote — whatever that means. In the overlooked "A Single Man," Firth gracefully became the embodiment of grief as a depressed gay professor. It was a layered performance that Hollywood will shun because it's subtle, not showy. Always an awards magnet, Freeman painted a convincing portrait of Nelson Mandela, but it's hardly a blow-your-socks-off turn. Renner, on the other hand, was dynamite as a nervy war junkie/bomb detonator who isn't immune to the battlefield's emotional casualties.
Who Will Win: Bridges. He sings, he drinks to excess, he even flashes us a pot belly. Oscar loves that. Plus, Bridges has never won, a travesty considering how consistently excellent he's been.
Who Should Win: If you're judging it based on the performances alone, Renner should be up at that podium Sunday. His is a raw, unnerving performance, one that switches from macho bravado to palpable desperation with the lightning-flash of an explosion.
The Contenders: Sandra Bullock, "The Blind Side," Helen Mirren, "The Last Station," Carey Mulligan, "An Education," Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious," Meryl Streep, "Julie & Julia."
As Leo Tolstoy's melodramatic wife, Mirren made great hay out of playing a temperamental and hysterical character — but few hitched a ride on "Station." The waifish Mulligan lit up the screen as a precocious teen seduced by an older man with questionable motives, but hers wasn't a meaty role like the others here. With her beaten-down body language and mumbled speech, Sidibe was marvelous in "Precious," but she suffers from being a freshman. Bullock stunned everyone at how wonderful she was at playing a determined and plucky Southern mom who prefers to think outside of the box. And then there's Streep, who cooked up the most deliciously buoyant and effervescent performance of the year as Julia Child.
Who Will Win: Bullock. Everyone's sweetheart wields some impressive acting chops.
Who Should Win: Streep. Doesn't matter that she's the most decorated in this bunch, it's the best performance.
The Contenders: Matt Damon, "Invictus," Woody Harrelson, "The Messenger," Christopher Plummer, "The Last Station," Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones," Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds."
Silly Oscar. Two actors simply don't belong here. Damon's contribution to "Invictus" is insignificant. And Plummer's earthy and robust performance as Tolstoy is hardly a supporting role.
I'm ecstatic to see Harrelson here. As a tightly coiled and repressed deliverer of bad news to war dead's next of kin, he was a revelation in one of the year's best films. Tucci's sweaty performance was the best thing about "Bones." But is there any competition here? Anyone who saw Waltz as a polished and vainglorious SS officer in "Basterds" knows 2010 is his trophy time.
Who Will Win: Waltz.
Who Should Win: Waltz.
The Contenders: Penelope Cruz, "Nine," Vera Farmiga, "Up in the Air," Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Crazy Heart," Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air," Mo'Nique, "Precious."
Like best supporting actor, this should be a slam-dunk. Mo'Nique plays a horrifyingly manipulative Mommy Dearest who abuses her obese daughter. Her confessional monologue near the film's end fires off buckshots of pain, anger and desperation that socks you over and over in the gut.
Who Will Win: Mo'Nique.
Who Should Win: Mo'Nique. The best performance in all the acting categories.