The 2011 Academy Awards season started out as a year of no sure things — not even the host.
Now infamously, after producer Brett Ratner got into some trouble with his mouth and resigned his post, host Eddie Murphy was right behind him. And that opened the door for Billy Crystal, the most reliable host since the legendary Bob Hope, to come in for the rescue.
With a little bit of poetic justice, that opened the flood gates for many unknowns to settle down a little bit, and we've been left with arguably the most predictable Oscars in eight years, since "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" went 13 for 13.
Of the 10 major categories this year, seven are considered to be near-locks by the experts, led by "The Artist" for Best Picture and Best Director for Michael Hazanavicius.
Of course, surprises are always possible, and we have three hotly contested major categories in Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay where anything could still happen.
But by and large, it feels like the year of "The Artist," Hazanavicius' love letter to the silent films of the 1920s — a black and white marvel featuring almost no dialogue other than title cards on the screen, just like the ones used in those pre-talkie motion pictures. Though Martin Scorsese's wonderful "Hugo" led with 11 nominations to 10 for "The Artist," it is likely to only win a small handful of technical awards, leaving the door open for a big night for "The Artist."
The nominees: The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse
What was once a two-horse race (no "War Horse" pun intended) between "The Artist" and "The Descendants" has turned into a runaway. "The Artist" has been convincing enough in the precursor awards to make the night's top prize nearly a sure thing. What's crazy is that if there were to be an upset, it would just as likely be from "The Help" as "The Descendants." Still, that's very much a longshot.
MattE's pick: The Artist
The nominees: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
"The Artist" is an incredibly unique work that is just that — art. And the artist behind "The Artist," writer/director Hazanavicius (who also is up for Best Editing) is likely to be one very happy Frenchman at night's end. The only spoiler could come from Scorsese, but at this point that would be one of the bigger upsets in Academy history.
MattE's pick: Michel Hazanavicius
The nominees: Demian Bichir (A Better Life), George Clooney (The Descendants), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Brad Pitt (Moneyball)
For a long time, it looked like Clooney would either walk away with this award or be in a dogfight with good buddy Pitt. Then Dujardin came along and won at the Golden Globes, SAGs and BAFTAs and became the front runner, if only slightly. With Pitt now a distance third, or maybe even fourth to Oldman, Dujardin and Clooney can duke it out. I believe Dujardin's dialogue-less performance (at least until the end) will ultimately have more voters checking off Clooney's performance, which is being called the best of his career. But don't be surprised if Dujardin hears his name called.
MattE's pick: George Clooney
The nominees: Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)
Just like Best Actor, it's a two-nominee race between Davis and Streep, who are good pals. Davis' win at the SAGs gives her just a slight edge over Streep, who won at the Globes and, not surprisingly, the BAFTAs for her turn as Margaret Thatcher. It's a shame, really, that Williams is a distant third — her embodiment of Marilyn Monroe was uncanny. Unfortunately for Streep, there are some who will assume her fairly constant status as a nominee means they should give Davis some love.
MattE's pick: Viola Davis
Best Supporting Actor
The nominees: Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn), Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Nick Nolte (Warrior), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close)
Four of these five can just sit back and enjoy the show. Plummer has been locked in for months with his widowed father who comes out of the closet at 75, much to the surprise of his son. Von Sydow speaks not a word in his role as "The Renter" in "Extremely Loud," but his performance is loud enough to be the best thing in a disappointing film that was a surprise Best Picture nominee. And Branagh was brilliant opposite Michelle Williams' Marilyn Monroe, but he's not real threat to Plummer.
MattE's pick: Christopher Plummer
Best Supporting Actress
The nominees: Bérénice Bejo (The Artist), Jessica Chastain (The Help), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), Octavia Spencer (The Help)
Oftentimes when a pair from the same film are nominated in the same category, there's a chance they split the votes. But not this year. This has been Spencer's year throughout awards season, and she'll have no major challenge from Chastain — just Bejo. And I suspect Bejo will lose a few votes, anyway, since her Peppy Miller role is really more of a lead than supporting.
MattE's pick: Octavia Spencer
The nominees: The Artist, Bridesmaids, Margin Call, Midnight in Paris, A Separation
When the most nominated screenwriter of all time is in your nominees field, look out. Woody Allen is the front runner for "Midnight in Paris," and deservedly so. "Margin Call" is out — it was great in that "Glengarry Glen Ross"-dialogue sort of way, but wasn't widely seen. "A Separation" is out — it'll win Foreign Film. The nomination for sorta-raunchy R-rated comedy "Bridesmaids" is its award. That leaves "The Artist," written by director Michel Hazanavicius, as the biggest challenge to Allen. With no real dialogue in "The Artist," enough voters will go straight to Uncle Woody.
MattE's pick: Midnight in Paris
The nominees: The Descendants, Hugo, The Ides of March, Moneyball, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
An amazingly tight race, the difference between No. 1 and 5 is more like 1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 2. "Hugo" looks to be running a "close" fifth. Alexander Payne's adaptation of "The Descendants" probably has the inside track, but Aaron Sorkin can't be counted out. He worked on "Moneyball" and won last year for "The Social Network. George Clooney's work on "Ides" will get some votes from the acting branch. And "Tinker" won at the BAFTAs. Still, "Descendants" is likely to pick up a lot of votes from members who want to see it rewarded, assuming it stands no chance for Best Picture.
MattE's pick: The Descendants
The nominees: A Cat in Paris, Chico and Rita, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Rango
The chances for Disney/Pixar to win five straight Oscars in this category went out the window when "Cars 2" failed to score a nomination. Ironically, the last time Pixar didn't win, the first "Cars" was upset by "Happy Feet." This year is all about "Rango," and it's deserving — tons of star voices, stellar reviews, big box office. It doesn't hurt its chances that most voters won't have seen "A Cat in Paris" or "Chico and Rita" (both of which are excellent and worthy nominees, just surprises).
MattE's pick: Rango
The nominees: Bullhead (Belgium), Footnote (Israel), In Darkness (Poland), Monsieur Lazhar (Canada), A Separation (Iran)
One of the surest things to a lock this year, "A Separation" has had this category sealed up for months, it seems. We said that last year about "Biutiful" and it was upset, but I don't see that happening this year.
MattE's pick: A Separation
The nominees: The Artist, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, War Horse
In my mind, "Hugo" should be the clear winner in this category. The lavish Paris train station, the intricacies of the inside of the clock, the automaton, the recreation of Georges Méliès' all-glass studio - everything was gorgeous. But "The Artist" is going to get its fair share of automatic votes from those giving it Best Picture, so this is a close category.
MattE's pick: Hugo
The nominees: The Artist, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, The Tree of Life, War Horse
Another close race. "The Tree of Life" won the top prize from the ASC, and deservedly so. Emmanuelle Lubezki's camera work is amazing and, many would say, the best part of a polarizing film that was either loved or hated. But the ASC award only carries over to the Oscars about half the time, so it's no lock. "The Artist" has a disadvantage being in black and white - but that black and white was so beautifully done to completely nail the look of vintage silent films that it could take the prize.
MattE's pick: The Tree of Life
The nominees: Anonymous, The Artist, Hugo, Jane Eyre, W.E.
"W.E." won the costumers' guild award, but it's been so widely unseen that asking it to follow up with an Oscar is far-fetched. "Jane Eyre" and "Anonymous" are probably the most deserving, but this seems like a race between "The Artist" and "Hugo," since they were seen by most everyone and beloved, while the other three got lukewarm reviews, at best.
MattE's pick: The Artist
The nominees: The Artist, The Descendants, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball
If "The Artist" is destined to win Best Picture, it's a good bet to win here, as well. The winner of the editors guild's ACE Eddie Award wins about 90 percent of the time at the Oscars. But this year, both "The Artist" (comedy/musical) and "The Descendants" (drama) took home Eddies - and when that happens, it's the drama that almost always wins with the Academy. This year may go against that grain.
MattE's pick: The Artist
The nominees: Albert Nobbs, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Iron Lady
How crazy is it that a "Potter" win here would be its first Oscar — surprisingly in the first time of eight films its been nominated for Makeup? WIth 12 total nominations over the course of the 10-year series, it would be ashamed for it to get completely shut out of Oscar history, especially when the final installment was by far the best of the bunch. But "The Iron Lady" could easily win here for its transformation of Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher over the course of most of her life.
MattE's pick: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
The nominees: The Adventures of Tintin, The Artist, Hugo, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse
"The Artist" relies almost exclusively on its score, which gives first-time nominee Ludovic Bource a distinct edge here. John Williams, the most nominated composer in history, competes against himself for "Tintin" (which has a similar sound to his score for "Catch Me If You Can") and "War Horse," so he probably knocks himself out. Bource's competition will come from "Hugo" composer Howard Shore, who has never lost when nominated.
MattE's pick: The Artist
The nominees: "Man or Muppet" (The Muppets), "Real in Rio" (Rio)
You're allowed to say two nominees is just plain weird. A total of 39 songs were short-listed, and 37 didn't get a high enough score from the music branch to be included. "Man or Muppet" is the clear front-runner here, but the surprise is that it wasn't even the best effort from the movie. "Life's a Happy Song" or "Pictures in My Head" (Kermit's number) are more deserving. Nonetheless, Bret McKenzie, one half of the Flight of the Conchords comedy duo, should get a golden man.
MattE's pick: "Man or Muppet"
The nominees: Drive, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse
The Motion Picture Sound Editors essentially split its awards between "Hugo," "War Horse" and "Super 8," which isn't nominated. "War Horse" won at the MPSE Golden Reels for its sound effects and "Hugo" won merely for music usage. But "Hugo" also won at the BAFTAs. So this is a tight one. The Sound Editing and Mixing winners match up half the time the last 14 years, but I think there will be a split this year.
MattE's pick: War Horse
The nominees: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse
Much success can come predicting the Oscars with knowledge of precursor awards. For instance, a Sound Oscar has never gone to a film that wasn't nominated in the Cinema Audio Society's awards. And "War Horse" was a not. "Hugo" was, and is presumed — by voters — to do well in the technical categories like this one. "Hugo" won at CAS. Case closed ... perhaps.
MattE's pick: Hugo
The nominees: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hugo, Real Steel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Transformers: Dark of the Moon
It's been more than 40 years since a Best Picture nominee lost in this category to a non-Best Picture nominee. That means "Hugo" has history on its side. This category doesn't have to be all monsters and explosions, and "Hugo's" chief effects guru won for "Titanic." But part of the "Apes" team, Joe Letteri, has a bundle of Oscar wins. And man, those apes looked amazing thanks to Andy Serkis and the motion capture crew.
MattE's pick: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The nominees: Hell and Back Again, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Pina, Undefeated
"Pina" is gorgeous and was shot in 3D. But "Paradise Lost 3," the (apparently) final chapter in the story of the West Memphis 3, who were freed from prison last fall, has the best shot. The WM3 always had lots of high-level support in the entertainment industry, including from Johnny Depp, and the doc, released by HBO, is especially well done.
MattE's pick: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Documentary Short Subject
The nominees: The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, God is the Bigger Elvis, Incident in New Baghdad, Saving Face, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Three of these stand out: "Tsunami" follows survivors of Japan's horrendous natural disaster of a year ago as they try to rebuild their lives; "Saving Face" is a gut-punch about Pakistani women who are victims of acid violence and a plastic surgeon who works on them; and "New Baghdad," about the accidental killing of two journalists in 2007 in Iraq. Of the three, "Tsunami" is the closest to uplifting.
MattE's pick: The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Animated Short Subject
The nominees: Dimanche, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, La Luna, A Morning Stroll, Wild Life
The temptation in Oscar pools every year is to find the Disney/Pixar entry here and check the box. This year, that's "La Luna." But the Disney and Pixar teams have been in a drought in this category since 2001's "For the Birds." Academy voters must attend screenings of these shorts, and for that reason a lesser-known, often better candidate emerges for the "upset." This year, that film without question is "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," a brilliantly animated 15-minute ode to the printed word — and a touching story, as well. Want proof? YouTube has the full film here: http://bit.ly/wOFmnz
MattE's pick: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Live Action Short Subject
The nominees: Pentecost, Raju, The Shore, Time Freak, Tuba Atlantic
Unlike the Animated Short Subject category, I actually really enjoyed all five of the nominees here. The two shortest, "Pentecost" and "Time Freak," hit the funny bone but probably aren't meaty enough for most voters' tastes. "Raju" had the kind of plot that would play wonderfully in a full-length feature — a mystery and morality tale wrapped into the backdrop of international adoption. And it could very well walk away with the prize. But "Tuba Atlantic," from Norway, hits on all the right notes.
MattE's pick: Tuba Atlantic
Matt Erickson is an award-winning journalist based in Northwest Indiana. He is the associate editor for HeavyMMA.com and his sports writing appears in The Times, Chicago Tribune, UFC Magazine and other publications around the country.