It's Oscar time, time to reward the most celebrated, if not the best, movies of 2011, a year yielding little agreement among critics and no clear masterpieces. "The Help" was too lowbrow, "The Tree of Life" too highbrow, "Moneyball" too fictional, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" too confusing and "The Artist" too ... quiet. Here are our predictions and preferences in the major categories.
Will win: "The Artist"
Should win: "The Tree of Life"
“The Artist” isn't bad. Yet the enjoyable trifle is a distraction that doesn't deserve consideration among the year's best and is riding on a juggernaut of hype that cannot be stopped. The Weinstein Company drove similar trifles "Shakespeare in Love," "Chicago" and "The King's Speech" to Best Picture wins in similar circumstances, and the studio will do it again this year. Meanwhile, "The Tree of Life" will live on, and continue to haunt – and divide – moviegoers for decades.
Will win: Jean Dujardin
Should win: Brad Pitt or Gary Oldman
Write-in: Brendan Gleeson, "The Guard"
French-speaking Dujardin is a shoo-in, although “The Artist” looks to be the peak of his career; he'll probably never be seen in the U.S. again. Evoking the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, he gets by. But Pitt is a real movie star, who in "Moneyball" conveys the sheer joy of acting and being the center of attention. He manipulates his aura to amazing and unpredictable effect. But in terms of sheer acting, Oldman is one of the best, and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is one of his very best performances.
Will win: Viola Davis
Should win: Michelle Williams
Write-in: Kirsten Dunst, "Melancholia"
At first, it seemed like Glenn Close had the best angle: With five prior nominations and no win, in “Albert Nobbs” she plays a woman in drag, with a tricky Irish accent besides – a combination that’s like candy to Oscar voters. But Davis – previously nominated for a great performance in "Doubt" – has become the front-runner for her work in “The Help.” Meanwhile, Williams’ expert performance cannily combined her own strengths and personality with those of Marilyn Monroe.
Will win: Michel Hazanavicius
Should win: Terrence Malick
Write-in: Nicholas Winding Refn, "Drive"
The Academy is famous for getting this category wrong: Hitchcock, Fellini, Kurosawa, Kubrick and other greats never have won. Hazanavicius, a one-shot director of a flavor-of-the-month movie, is up against four heavyweights, four master filmmakers – and he will win for “The Artist.” And it's likely he'll never be nominated again. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese have won before, and Alexander Payne will probably be up again. But this might be Malick's last chance.
Will win: Christopher Plummer
Should win: Max von Sydow
Write-in: Albert Brooks, "Drive"
Plummer’s impressive career – including great films with Hollywood legends – goes back to the 1950s. Yet his first and only Oscar nomination came just two years ago for "The Last Station." If he wins this year, it will be like a lifetime achievement award, coupled with bonus points for playing a lovable gay character in “Beginners.” Strangely, von Sydow is the same age as Plummer, also a cinema legend, and also with one previous nomination. A safe bet: Jonah Hill will not win.
Will win: Octavia Spencer
Should win: Melissa McCarthy
Write-ins: Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"; Vanessa Redgrave, "Coriolanus"
Front-runner Spencer is very broad in "The Help," but she makes audiences cheer. Bérénice Bejo in “The Artist” is cute and Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs” is another actress in drag. Jessica Chastain is being noticed for her work in several movies, not just “The Help,” and likely will be nominated again someday. McCarthy, in “Bridesmaids,” is a true oddball in the category, a unique "best friend" character in a comedy, one with soul and gusto. It would be great to see such an unusual win.
Will win: "The Artist"
Should win: "Midnight in Paris"
Write-in: Will Reiser, "50/50"
Woody Allen made a great comeback with "Midnight in Paris," and it's a wonderful screenplay, but voters know Woody does not attend Oscar ceremonies and that he already has three Oscars. Though "The Artist" momentum likely will continue into this category, it’s great to see a comedy ("Bridesmaids"), an overlooked indie ("Margin Call") and Iranian film ("A Separation") nominated.
Will win: "The Descendants"
Should win: "Moneyball"
Write-in: Hossein Amini, "Drive"
The year's best screenplays were based on books. "Moneyball" has dialogue so dazzling that it's like a dance, and a structure that turns a true story into a baseball fantasy worthy of "Field of Dreams." And "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" condensed a complex spy novel into a visual, cerebral thriller. But the front-runner is "The Descendants," a collection of strong scenes that doesn't quite add up.
Will win: "Rango"
Should win: "Rango"
Write-in: "The Adventures of Tintin"
Here, the Academy has the chance to reward one of the great movies of 2011: "Rango," a bizarre, whip-smart Western about finding one's true self among a community of creepy-crawlies. "Puss in Boots" and "Kung Fu Panda 2" made more money, and "A Cat in Paris" and "Chico & Rita" are artier, but "Rango" stands above all of them. Question: Where was Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking "The Adventures of Tintin"?
Foreign Language Film
Will win: "A Separation"
Should win: "A Separation"
Write-in: "Certified Copy"
As usual, weird rules in this category have eliminated most of the year's best choices ("Certified Copy," "Mysteries of Lisbon," "Poetry”). But one nominee, "A Separation," got spectacular reviews, and also is nominated for best screenplay, making it the front-runner. Yet the category is notoriously unpredictable. Among dark horses are acclaimed Polish director Agnieszka Holland for "In Darkness” and Israeli director Joseph Cedar for "Footnote," both nominated for the second time.
Will win: "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front"
Should win: "Pina"
Write-in: "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"
The year's most acclaimed documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is not here. Wim Wenders' dance movie "Pina" probably is the favorite, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a win. Wenders has been in this category before, with the much-loved "Buena Vista Social Club," and lost – not to mention that this award rarely goes to "entertaining" subjects. What smells most like a winner is "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front." It has an award-worthy title, and its maker was nominated before, for "Street Fight."
Will win: "The Tree of Life"
Should win: "The Tree of Life"
Write-in: Hoyte Van Hoytema, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
Though voters may be carried away by the lush, black-and-white look of "The Artist," fans of the art of cinematography know that Emmanuel Lubezki's work on "The Tree of Life" leaves all other contenders behind. (This is Lubezki's fifth nomination.) Besides, "The Artist" isn't the kind of large-scale epic that sweeps all categories. "The Tree of Life" could actually sneak in there and receive its only win in this category.