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A world of Hurt 

Will Avatar creator Camerons be blue on Oscar night?

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards will be held this Sunday, March 7, meaning we only have a few more days to mull over the possible outcome.

Will James Cameron's Avatar repeat the success of his Titanic, with a Best Picture Oscar coming hot on the heels of its designation as the top-grossing movie of all time? Or will his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow score big with The Hurt Locker, a critical darling but box office bust?

We'll see. For now, here are my predictions (and preferences) in the eight major categories. Last year, I went 8-for-8 in my prognostications. I think there's more chance of The Blind Side winning Best Picture than me repeating that feat so quickly, but I suppose in a year in which even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen could find room at the Oscar table, anything's possible.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

District 9, Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell; An Education, Nick Hornby; In the Loop, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Ianucci, Tony Roche; Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Geoffrey Fletcher; Up in the Air, Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner.

Prediction: Up in the Air. With 17 awards already in the bag (including the Writers Guild and Golden Globe prizes), this one's a near-lock. The upset special would be Precious.

Preference: Up in the Air. The terrific scripts for An Education and In the Loop would be deserving in other years, but Up in the Air earns its wings by merging great characters, smart dialogue and trenchant social commentary.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal; Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino; The Messenger, Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman; A Serious Man, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; Up, Bob Peterson, Pete Doctor, Thomas McCarthy.

Prediction: The Hurt Locker. It's War Movie vs. War Movie, as the screenplays by Boal and Tarantino are the only likely choices. Look for the Iraq War realism of Locker to squeak past the World War II fantasy of Basterds.

Preference: A Serious Man. The Coens have crafted a brilliant screenplay that works on so many levels, it's likely half of them will sail right over the heads of most Academy members.

BEST DIRECTOR

Kathyrn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker; James Cameron, Avatar; Lee Daniels, Precious; Jason Reitman, Up in the Air; Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds.

Prediction: Kathryn Bigelow. The Directors Guild award, the most accurate Oscar predictor, is just one of the 21 -- yes, 21 -- prizes Bigelow has won to date. Any questions?

Preference: Jason Reitman. I was this close to going with Tarantino, for the handful of stunning Basterds sequences which demonstrate that his love for the possibilities of cinema is infectious. But I'm also a fan of the less-is-more school, and Reitman's unfussy direction for Air resulted in a viewing experience that's pitch-perfect from start to finish.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Penelope Cruz, Nine; Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart; Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air; Mo'Nique, Precious.

Prediction: Mo'Nique. Mo'Nique has snagged so many awards to date that Academy members might feel it would be churlish to hand the victory to anybody else. Besides, Cruz just won last year, while the two Air women might cancel each other out. That leaves Gyllenhaal as the underdog: If, as expected, Crazy Heart wins for its other two nominations (Actor and Original Song), she might benefit from the goodwill directed toward that picture.

Preference: Vera Farmiga. Farmiga never really impressed me in her previous at-bats (including the Oscar-winning The Departed), so her smart, sly and sophisticated performance here completely caught me off guard.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Matt Damon, Invictus; Woody Harrelson, The Messenger; Christopher Plummer, The Last Station; Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones; Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds.

Prediction: Christoph Waltz. Like Mo'Nique, Waltz has been unstoppable on the awards circuit -- heck, he even won Best Actor all the way back during last spring's Cannes Film Festival. Plummer, a respected veteran enjoying his first career nomination, would stand a better chance had he appeared in a more high-profile title. The rest don't even figure in the competition.

Preference: Stanley Tucci. My favorite supporting performance of 2009 was given by Stanley Tucci ... in Julie & Julia. But his powerful turn as a murderous sex fiend in The Lovely Bones is also Oscar-worthy, and by the thinnest of slivers, he gets my vote over Waltz.

BEST ACTRESS

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side; Helen Mirren, The Last Station; Carey Mulligan, An Education; Gabourey Sidibe, Precious; Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia.

Prediction: Sandra Bullock. Streep hasn't won an Oscar in 27 years, and for the longest time, it appeared that she would easily swat aside newcomers Mulligan and Sidibe to claim her third statue. But inexplicably, folks started taking Bullock's performance seriously, and after she won both a Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award, the momentum shifted in her direction. This one's a real horse race, but I expect the Academy to reward first-time nominee
Bullock, mainly for making the industry so much money.

Preference: Meryl Streep. Let's get serious: Bullock's engaging but broad turn is the weakest of the five, and only Streep and Mulligan deliver performances deserving of an Oscar (although Sidibe comes close). For my money, Streep delivers arguably the best performance in any category, and it would be a crime to ignore her stellar turn.

BEST ACTOR

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart; George Clooney, Up in the Air; Colin Firth, A Single Man; Morgan Freeman, Invictus; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker.

Prediction: Jeff Bridges. Clooney copped a few awards for his work, but lately, it's been all Bridges all the time. Nominated on four previous occasions, this well-liked veteran seems to be peaking at the right moment. And, oh, yeah, he also delivers a strong performance.

Preference: George Clooney. Clooney's best role to date results in his best performance to date, as he employs his movie-star charisma to hook us before utilizing his considerable acting chops to draw us in.

BEST PICTURE

Avatar (20th Century Fox); The Blind Side (Warner Bros.); District 9 (TriStar Pictures); An Education (Sony Pictures Classics); The Hurt Locker (Summit Entertainment); Inglourious Basterds (The Weinstein Company); Precious (Lionsgate); A Serious Man (Focus Features); Up (Walt Disney Studios); Up in the Air
(Paramount Pictures).

Prediction: The Hurt Locker. Up in the Air won several major prizes in the early going but has faded in the stretch. Inglorious Basterds is the surprise pick of many prognosticators, but I think they're merely being swayed by Harvey Weinstein's big mouth (doesn't the king of Oscar campaigning always say his studio's films will win Best Picture?). No,
this is clearly art versus commerce, indy effort versus studio blockbuster, The Hurt Locker versus Avatar. Avatar seemed to have the upper hand after its Globe victory (to say nothing of its box office tally and its positioning as the future of motion pictures), but The Hurt Locker has racked up far too many Best Picture awards to ignore. I think its no-frills craft and topicality will allow it to sneak past the popcorn entertainment, but at the same time, I am also mindful that this is the group that picked Gladiator over Traffic and Crash over Brokeback Mountain.

Preference: Up in the Air. Up in the Air and A Serious Man were my only 4-star films for 2009, and An Education and Up also made my Top 5. But my number one pick remains Up in the Air, a film which didn't tap into the national zeitgeist as much as expected, but whose stature only deserves to grow over time.

 

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