The Academy's screwy preferential voting system begins by separating ballots by movies listed first. Every ballot with 'Avatar' as No. 1, for instance, goes in one stack, every one with 'The Hurt Locker' first goes in another, and so on. That's no problem for those two movies, or for 'Inglourious Basterds,' 'Up in the Air' and 'Precious,' all slam-dunk Best Picture nominees. Call it bad luck or foolish optimism, but the decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to double the size of its Best Picture Oscar field from five to 10 nominees this year has put it at risk of not having a full ballot when nominations are announced Feb. 2. And it has given itself an absolute assurance of having nominees that don't belong.
The Academy's screwy preferential voting system begins by separating ballots by movies listed first. Every ballot with 'Avatar' as No. 1, for instance, goes in one stack, every one with 'The Hurt Locker' first goes in another, and so on. That's no problem for those two movies, or for 'Inglourious Basterds,' 'Up in the Air' and 'Precious,' all slam-dunk Best Picture nominees.
But to be eligible for a nomination -- to have its own stack -- a movie has to have at least one first place vote, and the movie with the fewest first-place votes is thrown out. (Huh, even if it's in the top 10?) With 5,777 voters, it's likely that there will be at least 10 stacks, but God help us, what can they be? Veteran Oscar watchers who normally bite their tongues rather than utter the name of a locker room comedy like 'The Hangover' or of a sci-fi action film like 'District 9' are, gulp, uttering them.
If there had been the traditional five spots on the Best Picture ballot, it would have been a snap to predict them, as I already have above. To fill out 10 slots, the voters had to consider doubling-down on 'Up' and 'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' a pair of fabulous animated features that are sure to be on the ballots for Best Animated Feature. If Michael Moore' latest documentary, 'Capitalism: A Love Story,' had been as popular as his 'Fahenheit 9/11,' it might have made the Best Picture list, too.
I'll return to the Best Picture category later in this forecast of the nominations. As you read through, bear in mind that nominations for individual craft awards -- acting, directing, writing, film editing, etc. -- are made by members of that branch of the Academy. Only for Best Picture do all members vote.
I've long believed that people choose their favorites here by closing their eyes and remembering actual scenes of great editing. I call it 'The Chorus Line' syndrome. In that film, there was a sequence showing auditioning dancers spinning on stage, and their upper bodies were so seamlessly edited, it had the effect of a whirling dervish. Nobody found much else to like about the movie, but it was nominated for Best Editing.
Of course, that's not all there is to it. A good editor shapes the narrative, as well, and that is why many directors say a movie is made in the editing room. That's also why the American Cinema Editors have nominated movies like 'It's Complicated' and 'Up in the Air' for their awards, as well as such obvious editing feats as 'Avatar' and 'Star Trek.'
'Avatar' -- A foregone conclusion if ever there was one.
'The Hurt Locker' -- The tension in its scenes of defusing bombs (or not) was largely created by the editor.
'Inglourious Basterds' -- Not for the Mexican stand-off scene (note to Tarantino: We're all sick of those), but for the way its long climactic sequence in the movie theater plays out.
'It's Complicated' -- Imagine the editing that went into the hilarious web-cam scene.
'Up in the Air' -- Its 'Chorus Line' sequence showed the reactions of employees being fired.
Normally, the Writers Guild of America would help Oscar voters make up their minds here, but the guild's rigid rules about eligibility kept some classy contenders off its lists of nominees -- among them: Quentin Tarantino's original screenplay for 'Inglourious Basterds,' which will be a serious contender for an Oscar.
The real mystery here is whether James Cameron will be nominated for his original screenplay for 'Avatar.' The script has been widely criticized for being anything but original, and his peers in the Academy snubbed his script for 'Titanic.' The Writers Guild, however, didn't deny 'Titanic'; nor have they denied 'Avatar.' I think it gets in.
The likely nominees:
'Avatar' -- Nobody will confuse James Cameron with J.R. Tolkien, but somebody created the strange world of Pandora and its lanky blue natives and that's writing, too.
'The Hurt Locker' -- Journalist Mark Boal scripted this tense drama about a bomb detection team's daredevil work seeking and destroying land mines in Iraq.
'Inglourious Basterds' -- Tarantino's popularity in Hollywood is largely a myth, but he did convert his one screenplay nomination, for 'Pulp Fiction,' into an Oscar win.
'A Serious Man' -- The Coen brothers strike again, this time with perhaps their quirkiest black comedy.
'Up' -- Pete Doctor and Bob Petersen share credit on this brilliant story about an old man's quest to fulfill his late wife's romantic fantasy.
If members of the Academy's writers' branch were required to read the source material as well as the screenplays, they might come up with a list that mirrors the USC Scripter Award, which does have that requirement. Without being familiar with the source material, you really have no idea how much work went into the adaptation or how well it was done. My list agrees with USC's list, with one exception: I have included 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' where they have 'District 9.'
'Crazy Heart' -- Actor-turned-writer/director Scott Cooper adapted Thomas Cobb's novel about an aging, alcoholic country singing star and then got lucky talking Jeff Bridges into playing him.
'An Education' -- Nick Hornby adapted Lynn Barber's memoir about a teenage girl lured into womanhood by a charmingly dishonest hustler in 1960s London.
'Fantastic Mr. Fox' -- It takes a great script to make a great animated feature and this hip, always funny adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's novel is a thorough delight.
'Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire' -- First-time screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher did yeoman's work turning Sapphire's graphic, idiomatic novel into a coherent and inspiring story about the journey of an abused Harlem teenager.
'Up in the Air' -- Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner turned Walter Kim's novel into a darkly comic commentary on the downsizing of corporate America.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
If the actress/comedian Mo'Nique has been impolitic in her comments about awards, she's more than made up for it with warmly sincere acceptance speeches at the televised Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe award shows, where she's notched her first two wins. The Oscar already has her name on it.
Vera Farmiga, 'Up in the Air'
Anna Kendrick, 'Up in the Air'
Diane Kruger, 'Inglourious Basterds'
Samantha Morton, 'The Messenger'
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christoph Waltz, who plays a sociopathic Nazi with a sense of humor, badly overwrote the acceptance speeches he gave at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. We can't wait to see how far he goes on Oscar night, because he'll definitely get another chance.
Alec Baldwin, 'It's Complicated'
Matt Damon, 'Invictus'
Alfred Molina, 'An Education'
Stanley Tucci, 'The Lovely Bones'
Christoph Waltz, 'Inglourious Basterds'
A minor movie becomes the vehicle for a major career move for Sandra Bullock, already named Best Actress by SAG and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. Her introduction to SAG's career achievement winner Betty White Saturday night might have been enough to seal the Oscar for her, but then, the speech she gave on her own behalf deserves repeating.
Sandra Bullock, 'The Blind Side'
Carey Mulligan, 'An Education'
Helen Mirren, 'The Last Station'
Gabourey Sidibe, 'Precious'
Meryl Streep, 'Julie & Julia'
Though Jeff Bridges has won the Golden Globe and SAG awards for his sublime work in 'Crazy Heart,' George Clooney's efforts on behalf of Haitian earthquake victims -- not to mention a very strong performance in 'Up in the Air' -- make this a genuine two-man race.
Jeff Bridges, 'Crazy Heart'
George Clooney, 'Up in the Air'
Colin Firth, 'A Single Man'
Morgan Freeman, 'Invictus'
Jeremy Renner, 'The Hurt Locker'
Historically, Oscar voters link their director choice with their favorite movie, but on three occasions in the last 10 years, they split the categories. I think they might do it again this year. But who and what will go where? The top four names on this list are guaranteed, and there is very little chance that Lee Daniels won't be there, as well.
Kathryn Bigelow, 'The Hurt Locker'
James Cameron, 'Avatar'
Quentin Tarantino, 'Inglourious Basterds'
Jason Reitman, 'Up in the Air'
Lee Daniels, 'Precious'
I don't like the idea of having animated features considered for Best Picture. Not because they can't be the Best Picture, but because actors -- who make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy -- tend not to vote for movies that only employ actors for their voices. So, even if 'Up' makes the expanded ballot (and if it belongs there, I would argue so does 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'), it won't have enough ultimate support to win.
In any event, it will be interesting to see how the voters -- whose ballots were in the mail before SAG named 'Inglourious Basterds' the year's best ensemble film on Saturday and the Producers Guild selected 'The Hurt Locker' as the year's best picture on Sunday -- came up with enough movies to fill out the official ballot. Here's my guess:
'The Hurt Locker'
'A Serious Man'
'Up in the Air'
Among others that could slip in thanks to the preferential voting system: 'The Hangover,' 'The Blind Side,' 'Star Trek,' 'A Single Man,' 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.'