Who will win? And are they deserving? Here's a look at where I think the Oscars are headed in the major categories ... and where I wish they were:
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
The Nominees: "Brave," "Frankenweenie," "ParaNorman," "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," "Wreck-It Ralph"
Will Win: Brave
Should Win: Who knows?
For the first time since the category was introduced, I've seen none of the nominees, all of which received complimentary but hardly glowing reviews and none of which seemed particularly compelling. But despite recent artistic competition, Pixar remains the heavyweight, especially with DreamWorks Animation shut out of the competition. Despite the lack of effusive adulation, "Brave" seems to have the lock.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Nominees: "Amour," "Kon-Tiki," "No," "A Royal Affair," "War Witch"
Will Win: Amour
Should Win: Amour
"Amour" won't win Best Picture, and its inclusion in both categories is strong indication the Academy membership thinks it's something really special (which it is). The one wrinkle is the voting procedure: Unlike other films, Academy members who vote in the Foreign Film category have to prove they've seen all of the films in a theater, a process which should be used for all categories. That means they've really been able to evaluate the strengths of the others, but few films have won the ardent admirers that "Amour" has -- and the voting bloc that has the time to watch five films in cinema tends to be older, making it more likely they'll relate to the themes in "Amour." It's the likely and deserved winner.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
The Nominees: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Life of Pi," "Marvel's The Avengers," "Prometheus," "Snow White and the Huntsman"
Will Win: Life of Pi
Should Win: Life of Pi
The Visual Effects branch goes to great lengths to educate voters about the work done on nominated films. Though it was easy to forget that Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi was almost completely a digital creation, nominees took pains to make it clear that, from start to finish, Life of Pi was a work of staggering artistic and technical accomplishment. Since it won't win Best Picture, the Visual Effects Oscar is a strong consolation prize. Its greatest competition comes from Marvel's The Avengers, but ILM's award nominations are fascinating to consider and frustrating for that visual effects house -- so many talented people have left it without the best of feelings, often leading to a backlash against its nominations that it has a hard time controlling -- despite 21 nominations since 1994, it has only won two Oscars.
BEST WRITING - ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Nominees: "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook"
Will Win: Lincoln
Should Win: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Lincoln is a film I found as exciting as ponderous Encyclopaedia Britannica 16-mm film, but others find exquisite. Despite the beautiful photography, meticulous performances and often inspired direction, Lincoln's fatal flaw for me was the inability of its screenplay to create characters, not waxworks. The screenplay, filled as it is with mellifluous Tony Kushner language, never springs to life, and tends toward a recitation of facts. Should it be nominated? For Kushner's efforts, for its laudatory ambition, yes. And given the difficulty Lincoln has had in convincing the Academy that it's Best Picture material, it will almost certainly win Oscars in this category, Best Director and Best Actor. But the adapted screenplay that created the year's most original character and most enveloping sense of time and place, that pushed the boundaries of what a screenplay can guide a director to achieve, is Beasts of the Southern Wild, adapted from, of all things, a stage play in which Hushpuppy was a boy.
BEST WRITING - ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Nominees: "Amour," "Django Unchained," "Flight," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Zero Dark Thirty"
Will Win: Django Unchained
Should Win: Amour
Django Unchained is a movie so bold and audacious it has to be acknowledged, and this is the category to do it. It has its detractors, who fault it (correctly) for being long, self-satisfied and offensive. It will be, nonetheless, a deserving winner -- but even more deserving would be Amour, the intelligent, thoughtful examination of a marriage that relies on precise language and nuance of character to take audiences on a bold exploration of a single theme. Problem is, too many people found Amour interminably slow and labored, forgetting just how thoroughly the film immerses them in a story that begins with two vibrant, creative people and ends with great sorrow and incapacitation. Amour and Django Unchained both took audiences on an unprecedented journey, but in very different ways.
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
The Nominees: Alan Arkin, "Argo"; Robert De Niro, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Master"; Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"; Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"
SAG has spoken. Tommy Lee Jones' hangdog indifference won't interfere with the Oscars the way it did with the Golden Globes, because the Globes are awarded by journalists, and the Oscars are, for the most part, voted on by actors -- who gave Jones their top honor for Lincoln. His performance in that film has all the hallmarks of an Oscar-winning role: a seemingly thankless role that leads to a rousing speech and a moment that reveals more depth about the character. It will almost certainly win the night, but at the expense of a mesmerizing performance by Christoph Waltz, already the recipient of an Oscar for a Tarantino film. Waltz's Dr. King Schultz will be the character people most remember 20 years from now, but as Oscar has proven so many times, quality is not always the final arbiter.
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
The Nominees: Amy Adams, "The Master"; Sally Field, "Lincoln"; Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"; Helen Hunt, "The Sessions"; Jacki Weaver, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Will Win: Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"
Should Win: Jacki Weaver, "Silver Linings Playbook"
She sings, she emotes, she cuts her hair, she wins an Oscar. No, it's not that simple, but it seems that way. Hathaway's Oscar is virtually the only sure thing in the entire lineup this year, and there's no doubt she was affecting. The technical difficulty of singing (live, at that) only helps clinch the deal. But Jacki Weaver's impeccable blend of concern, compassion and comedy in Silver Linings Playbook made hers the richest performances of the bunch. (Disclaimer: I've not seen The Sessions.)
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
The Nominees: Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"; Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"; Quvenzhan
Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Should Win: Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"
Jennifer Lawrence has the heat going into it, and the Academy wants to recognize her for the incredible breadth of her skill -- she's already an Oscar-nominated actress, and this year proved she's a top box-office draw. She's the 21st century Julia Roberts, and don't forget how they loved Julia Roberts, only Lawrence has the savvy to make better, riskier choices, and her performance in Silver Linings Playbook was indeed memorable. But not quite as memorable, rich, moving or risky as Naomi Watts, who took a role that at first seemed underwritten (rich, spoiled but loving mother) and took it to places most actors would never even attempt. Her performance was the centerpiece of the criminally underseen The Impossible, and deserves the Oscar.
BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
The Nominees: Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"; Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"; Hugh Jackman,"Les Miserables"; Joaquin Phoenix, "The Master"; Denzel Washington, "Flight"
Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Bradley Cooper, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Abraham Lincoln is a stunner, there's no doubt about it. He has the immense adulation of the entire actors' branch -- and just about everyone else. It's a "born to play" kind of role, like Ben Kingsley in Gandhi; the Academy won't be able to go any other way. But Bradley Cooper was equally alarming in Silver Linings Playbook, depicting a man desperate to change but afraid he won't be able to. His performance is full-bodied and daring, but almost certainly too light and rom-com-oriented for the Academy's taste. Not when Day-Lewis as Lincoln is on the ballot.
The Nominees: Michael Haneke, "Amour"; Benh Zeitlin, "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; Ang Lee, "Life of Pi"; Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"; David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook"
Will Win: Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Michael Haneke, "Amour"
Every one of this year's nominated directors helmed a passion project and on that level the commitment, artistry and accomplishment of each is deserving. Spielberg will win because, well, he's Steven Spielberg, and his decades-long effort to bring Lincoln to the screen paid off with a critical, commercial and artistic success. The Academy spent a long time denying Spielberg, and has never quite finished making amends for that. The enormous technical accomplishment, however, of Michael Haneke's Amour is the untold story of this year's Oscars. On the surface, Amour is a film almost overwhelmed by the insistence of its camera to remain static; and within each of those carefully crafted compositions, Haneke works as carefully as a painter filling a canvas, as assuredly as a director of a stage play moving his actors to just the right spot. Amour is a film so meticulously constructed, Haneke's richly deserving of the award.
The Nominees: "Amour," "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," ""Les Miserables," "Life of Pi," "Lincoln," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Zero Dark Thirty"
Will Win: Argo
Should Win: Argo
Argo deserves what it is almost certain to get. My sentimental favorite is Silver Linings Playbook, my emotional favorite is Beasts of the Southern Wild, but when it comes to putting the whole package together -- the screenplay, the acting, the direction, the editing, the production design (particularly impressive here), the whole kit 'n' kaboodle, no film did it with as much flair this year as Argo. It's the kind of film, unlike recent Oscar choices, we'll still be watching years from now. Some will see an Argo Best Picture win as a mea culpa for failing to include Ben Affleck in the Best Director category, but in reality, Argo will very likely walk home with the big prize for one big reason: It earned it.
So, now, let's see how this all pans out tomorrow, Oscar Night!