CATEGORIES Hot Topic, Oscars
Oscar Acting Awards
Every year's Oscar race has at least one sure thing among nominees in the four acting categories. Last year, the late Heath Ledger was a lock for Best Supporting Actor from 'The Dark Knight.' The year before that, It was Javier Bardem in the same category for 'No Country for Old Men.' And the year before that, Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren were the preordained Best Actor and Actress winners from 'The Last King of Scotland' and 'The Queen.'

This year, only the Best Actress race is in doubt; and in that one, you'd be a fool to bet against 'The Blind Side's' Sandra Bullock. In fact, if we weren't being constantly reminded that it's been nearly three decades since 16-time nominee Meryl Streep last won an Oscar, Bullock might be the biggest lock of all. Oscar Acting Awards
Every year's Oscar race has at least one sure thing among nominees in the four acting categories. Last year, the late Heath Ledger was a lock for Best Supporting Actor from 'The Dark Knight.' The year before that, It was Javier Bardem in the same category for 'No Country for Old Men.' And the year before that, Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren were the preordained Best Actor and Actress winners from 'The Last King of Scotland' and 'The Queen.'

This year, only the Best Actress race is in doubt; and in that one, you'd be a fool to bet against 'The Blind Side's' Sandra Bullock. In fact, if we weren't being constantly reminded that it's been nearly three decades since 16-time nominee Meryl Streep last won an Oscar, Bullock might be the biggest lock of all.

This is crazy boring and likely to get worse next year, and the next. Academy voters are like everyone else. When consensus has been reached -- by critics and other organizations whose awards are, in some cases, televised -- that Christoph Waltz's performance in 'Inglourious Basterds' is one for the ages and that comedian Mo'Nique is a revelation in a dramatic role in 'Precious,' who are they -- as a chorus of nearly 6,000 voices -- to disagree?

If the Academy hopes to ever get its TV Oscar ratings back up, it will have do something more dramatic than having Miley Cyrus and Taylor Lautner present awards. It needs to move the show up, way up, to mid-January, at least. That would create chaos among other organizations and awards schedules, but so what? All the earlier awards -- whether given by critics, industry guilds or fan clubs like the National Board of Review -- are parasites that draw the blood out of Oscar's body long before it's ready for its close-up.

So here we are, two days before the Big Night, talking about awards that have been decided for weeks, if not months.

Best Actor

Jeff Bridges in Crazy HeartThis category was decided in mid-December when Fox Searchlight, seeing an opening, moved its release of 'Crazy Heart' forward and put Jeff Bridges in the spotlight. If there were ever a time when an actor, a role and an Oscar year were aligned, this was it. The popular 60-year-old Bridges had gone 0 for 4 in his previous nominations and his likeliest rivals this season -- George Clooney ('Up in the Air') and Morgan Freeman ('Invictus') -- have won Oscars recently. (The other names on the ballot are first-time nominees Colin Firth, from 'A Single Man,' and Jeremy Renner, from 'The Hurt Locker.')

The Academy occasionally gives "make-up" awards to actors who've had multiple nominations but no wins, and that has produced some odd triumphs. Paul Newman had given six far better Oscar-nominated performances before the one in 'The Color of Money' that gave him his first win. But that's not the case with Bridges. His performance as broken-down country singer Bad Blake is a career-capper, and no one will call his Oscar a gift.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock in The Blind SideIf Sandra Bullock wins, as expected, she will be an anomaly in the record book. I can't find another example of an actress with as little career gravity as Bullock winning the top award. I know that both she and 'The Blind Side' have ardent fan masses, and that hers and its nominations greatly pleased Academy officials fretting over the Oscars' sliding TV ratings. But her performance is a simple star turn, and the movie is as formulaic a crowd-pleaser as there is.

As great as she is, Meryl Streep is the star of just one of the alternating halves of 'Julia & Julia.' For a time, the movie's studio considered campaigning her for Supporting Actress. Her Julia Child is not a supporting role, but losing so much screen time can diminish an actor's chances. Still, her performance has the distinction of being the best on the ballot. It would be an upset if she wins, but only upsetting to fans of Bullock.

The other nominees are Helen Mirren ('The Last Station'), a recent winner for 'The Queen,' and newcomers Carey Mulligan ('An Education') and Gabourey Sidibe ('Precious').

Best Supporting Actor

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious BasterdsAs the sadistic, multilingual Nazi charmer Col. Hans Landa in 'Inglourious Basterds,' Austrian actor Christoph Waltz may, in fact, have given a performance for the ages. Certainly, we haven't seen many more engaging bad guys on the screen, and Academy voters like engaging bad guys. This would mark the third year in a row for a sadistic villain to produce an Oscar in this category, following the wins of Javier Bardem as a ruthless assassin in 'No Country for Old Men' and of Ledger as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight.'

Whether it's because Waltz's win has been a foregone conclusion for more than six months, his rivals on the ballot have not received much attention. For the record, they are: Matt Damon ('Invictus'); Woody Harrelson ('The Messenger'), Christopher Plummer ('The Last Station'), and Stanley Tucci ('The Lovely Bones').

Best Supporting Actress

Mo'Nique in PreciousAll the heat generated for 'Precious' between its Sundance premiere and its commercial release in November has been channeled to the performance of Mo'Nique, as Mary, the worst mother in screen history and perhaps the worst character ever named Mary. She's a marvel of evil, wound up in the body of a ghetto welfare cheat whose abuse of her teenage daughter runs from the bedroom to the frying pan. The insanely profane speech she gives to a social worker about her own victimization is a clip for the archives of Hell.

No one else need apply for this Oscar, but the ballot lists four others -- two from 'Up in the Air' (Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick), Penelope Cruz from the musical 'Nine' and 'Crazy Heart's' Maggie Gyllenhaal, who rode Jeff Bridges scruffy coattails to her first nomination.