PopcornBiz Sizes Up Oscar Field

The 5,777 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have cast their votes and there's nothing to do between now and Sunday's Oscars telecast except to see as many of the nominated movies as possible and argue picks with friends and co-workers.

Popcorn Biz writers Scott  Ross, Bryan Alexander, Drew Magary and Sasha Perl-Raver weigh in below on which artists and films will garner trophies, followed by their picks for which ones should.

Best Picture (click on the title to watch the trailer)

"The Blind Side"
"District 9"
"An Education"
"The Hurt Locker"
"Inglourious Basterds"
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
"A Serious Man"
"Up in the Air"

This is one of those watershed moments when the Academy must look deep into its soul and decide if they're voting for great box office or great art. There's no question that "Avatar" is, in its way, a great film and it has already changed the way films are made, as evidenced by the sudden flood of 3D retrofits. But "The Hurt Locker" is the most complete piece of art among the 10 nominees -- a gripping story, a visceral experience, great acting, directing, editing... And hats off to screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow for having the guts to make an Iraq War movie without taking sides. While watching "Locker," it never occurred to anyone, "Man, if only they'd spent another $200 million making this movie, they might have something." - S.R.

Ross: "The Hurt Locker," "The Hurt Locker"
Alexander: "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker"
Magary: "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker"
Perl-Raver: "The Hurt Locker," "The Hurt Locker"

Best Director
James Cameron "Avatar"
Kathryn Bigelow "The Hurt Locker"
Quentin Tarantino "Inglourious Basterds"
Lee Daniels "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
Jason Reitman "Up in the Air"

Next year we look forward to the road movie around these five directors who have moved virtually intact into every major awards show. Seeing them backstage at these events, at least on the surface, is like watching friends meeting at a regular party. Through the group stuff, it's really been a two person race between amicable exes James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, with the odd run on the outside by Tarantino. In the end, the first female director will take the crown, deservedly. - B.A.

Ross: Bigelow, Bigelow
Alexander: Bigelow, Bigelow
Magary: Bigelow, Bigelow
Perl-Raver: Bigelow, Bigelow

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"
George Clooney in "Up in the Air"
Colin Firth in "A Single Man"
Morgan Freeman in "Invictus"
Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker"

The fourth time will be a charm for veteran Jeff Bridges, whose gave ago-for-broke performance as down-and-out ex-country legend Bad Blake. Love for "Up in the Air" has been weak this awards season, basically killing Clooney's chances. Firth's performance in "Single Man" is great, but the movie is too small. If "Invictus" had gotten any momentum at all, Freeman as Mandela would've been a classic self-congratulatory academy slam dunk. And as good as Renner was, he was only a small part of a truly great film. Bridges, meanwhile, took a paint-by-numbers story we'd all heard/read/seen, and made it worthwhile by sheer force and his talents as a musician. But what other actor showed the range that Sharlto Copley did this part year in "District 9," going from in-over-his-head buffoon to to hunted war criminal to action star to giant prawn? And what about Tahar Rahim of "A Prophet"? Where was his nomination for managing to climb from illiterate street punk to hit man to criminal mastermind, all while remaining wholly sympathetic? - S.R.

Ross: Bridges, Firth
Alexander: Bridges, Renner
Magary: Bridges, Bridges
Perl-Raver: Bridges, Renner

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock "The Blind Side"
Helen Mirren "The Last Station"
Carey Mulligan "An Education"
Gabourey Sidibe "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push" by Sapphire"
Meryl Streep "Julie and Julia"

Sandra Bullock's awards express train seems to have stalled before the big Oscar night and by most accounts this one is going to go right down to the wire. That doesn't bode well for Bullock who needs the sentimental vote to pull off this caper for the box office favorite that was generally ignored by critics. While Streep's performance in "Julie & Julia" was comedic and heartbreaking, it's no "Sophie's Choice," and she does have a reputation of pulling in the awards for every movie she touches. While Gabourey Sidibe has been virtually shut out of the major awards, her "Precious" role is clearly worthy and would highlight 2009's great talent discovery.
- B.A.

Ross: Bullock, Mulligan
Alexander: Bullock, Sidibe
Magary: Bullock, Streep
Perl-Raver: Bullock, Streep

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon "Invictus"
Woody Harrelson "The Messenger"
Christopher Plummer "The Last Station"
Stanley Tucci "The Lovely Bones"
Christoph Waltz "Inglourious Basterds"

Matt Damon might have hoisted the trophy over his head at the end of the rugby match, but that's as close as he's going to come to Oscar gold on March 7. This has been marked for "Inglourious" break-out Christoph Waltz from moment one for his chilling performance as the coldest Nazi (and that's saying something). Even Woody Harrelson all but threw in the towel at the Oscar luncheon, he's just going along for the party. - B.A.

Ross: Waltz, Waltz
Alexander: Waltz, Waltz
Magary: Waltz, Waltz
Perl-Raver: Waltz, Waltz

Best Supporting Actress
Penélope Cruz in "Nine"
Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"
Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart"
Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"
Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push'

In the immortal words of Jesse Jackson, the question is moot. Mo'nique already has more than 20 awards for her turn as Mary in "Precious." This race has been over for some time. - S.R.

Ross: Mo'Nique, Mo'Nique
Alexander: Mo'Nique, Mo'Nique
Magary: Mo'Nique, Mo'Nique
Perl-Raver: Mo'Nique, Mo'Nique

Mark Boal, "The Hurt Locker"
Quentin Tarantino, "Inglourious Basterds"
Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman, "The Messenger"
Joel & Ethan Coen, "A Serious Man"
Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, "Up"

Tarantino is gutsier and more imaginative than just about anybody else in Hollywood, and that alone will probably win him a second screenwriting Oscar, a companion to the statue he took home for "Pulp Fiction" more than a decade ago. That said, "the Hurt Locker" lurks as the lone major threat, a candidacy made stronger by the fact that Boal wrote it based on his experiences while embedded with a real bomb squad in Iraq. But the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man" was a brilliant piece of writing that had more going on under the surface -- questions about faith and god and man and destiny and race -- to say nothing of an exhausting tension and biting humor that pervade what is at first blush a quiet film. It's almost a relief when you see that hurricane on the horizon. - S.R.

Ross: Tarantino, Joel & Ethan Coen
Alexander: Tarantino, Boal
Magary: Tarantino, Tarantino
Perl-Raver: Boal, Boal

Best Adapted Screenplay
"District 9" Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
"An Education" Nick Hornby
"In the Loop" Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
"Up in the Air" Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

While most every Oscar engine has sputtered on "Up in the Air," the light is still on for best adapted screenplay. It would be a worthy commendation for the critical darling even while Reitman himself professed to being knocked out by the  brilliance of "District 9"'s radical screenplay at a Los Angeles screenwriting forum. This leaves the worthy British contingent out in the cold, namely Hornby's wonderful treatment for his passion project "An Education," while "In the Loop," the funniest movie no one ever saw, is decidedly in the happy-to-be-nominated queue. - B.A.

Ross: "Up in the Air," "An Education"
Alexander: "Up in the Air," "An Education"
Magary: "Up in the Air," "In the Loop"
Perl-Raver: "Up in the Air," "In the Loop"

Animated Feature Film
"Coraline" Henry Selick
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" Wes Anderson
"The Princess and the Frog"  John Musker and Ron Clements
"The Secret of Kells" Tomm Moore
"Up" Pete Docter

As Henry Selick noted to Popcorn Biz, we're enjoying a Golden Age of Animation right now. This comes through in both best picture ("Up" and arguably "Avatar") and this category. But while "Coraline" was blazing trails in 3D before anyone knew what an "Avatar" was, and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" was a critical darling, this is going one way "Up." It might not have the helium to take the Best Picture award, but this is going home with Pete Docter. It's Dug the Dog's world and we just provide the biscuits. -B.A.

Ross: "Up," "Up"
Alexander: "Up," "Up"
Magary: "Up," "Coraline"
Perl-Raver: "Up," "Fantastic Mr. Fox"

Foreign Film
"Ajami," Israel
"El Secreto de Sus Ojos," Argentina
"The Milk of Sorrow," Peru
"A Prophet," France
"The White Ribbon," Germany

Jacques Audiard's prison/gangster epic, which was as good as, if not better than, any American movie of 2009, made a star of the previously unknown Tahar Rahim and earned favorable comparisons to "The Godfather." Leave it to Armond White to hate it. S.R.

Ross: "A Prophet," "A Prophet"
Alexander: "A Prophet," "A Prophet"
Magary: "Ajami," "Ajami"
Perl-Raver: "The White Ribbon," "Ajami"

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