CATEGORIES Hot Topic, Oscars
Avatar vs Hurt Locker
You've seen the movies, you've read the reviews, and you know the buzz. Now, it's time for you to fill out the ballot for your Oscars pool. Fear not, the Oscarologist has been doing this for 50 years -- 40 professionally -- and we'll get you through this.

First, the most important rule in the game, and one that is broken by the smartest and most confident among us: Do not let your personal feelings about nominees influence your choices. Nothing feels better than when the movie or actor you hope will win, that you bet will win, does win. But when that hope makes you bet on a long shot and you lose, well, there goes the pool and here comes the disappointment. Avatar vs Hurt Locker
You've seen the movies, you've read the reviews, and you know the buzz. Now, it's time for you to fill out the ballot for your Oscars pool. Fear not, the Oscarologist has been doing this for 50 years -- 40 professionally -- and we'll get you through this.

First, the most important rule in the game, and one that is broken by the smartest and most confident among us: Do not let your personal feelings about nominees influence your choices. Nothing feels better than when the movie or actor you hope will win, that you bet will win, does win. But when that hope makes you bet on a long shot and you lose, well, there goes the pool and here comes the disappointment.

Playing in an Oscars pool is both easier and harder than it was in the days before the explosion of pre-Oscar awards. Easier because at least 18 of the 24 categories are slam dunks; harder because those three short film categories that everybody except the filmmakers wish would go away on Oscars night are impossible to predict.

Academy voters, who tend to hide out in Hollywood and Beverly Hills while the rest of us are watching movies and arguing about them, become vested in the awards only at the end of the year. By then, the contests have all but been decided by the critics groups, foreign press, industry guilds and various parasitic hangers-on. All the Academy members need do is sort through the DVDs sent to them and watch the ones that have already won awards.

Whereas critics in major cities may watch 250 to 300 movies a year, the final arbiters of quality watch maybe 10 to 15 -- the same 10 to 15 that everyone's been raving about. Rarely do we see an Oscar nomination that truly shocks us, though the Best Picture nod last year for 'The Reader' came close. In fact, the Oscar nominations are more useful for what is left out than for what is in.

When the National Board of Review, a fan group based in New York, started off the awards season -- as it always does, with premature early December voting -- they had 'Up in the Air' as Best Picture and Clint Eastwood as Best Director for 'Invictus.' Since then, Clint and 'Invictus' have disappeared from the awards radar, and 'Up in the Air' will do well to win a single Oscar. Of the Board's "Ten Best Films," only five made the Academy's 10-deep Best Picture ballot. That these groupies didn't mention the yet-to-be-released 'Avatar' once underscores the importance of SEEING ALL THE MOVIES BEFORE YOU VOTE.

One more thing you need to do before forking over the fee for your Oscar ballot: insist that the host eliminate the three "short" categories. You can't pick 'em, I can't pick 'em, nobody can pick 'em. It's pure luck, and you have a 20 percent chance of being right in each of them. Tell them you're only interested in movies you can actually go to a theater and see.

With that, here are your best bets for the 82nd Academy Awards

Picture: It's a three-horse race with 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Avatar' neck and neck and 'Inglourious Basterds' moving up on the outside. 'The Hurt Locker' wins by a nose.

Director: Kathryn Bigelow ('The Hurt Locker') puts some hurt on her ex-husband James Cameron ('Avatar'). Don't even think about it.

Actor: Jeff Bridges ('Crazy Heart') wins one for the Dude.

Actress: Sandra Bullock ('The Blind Side'). See how my first rule works -- I really, really want Meryl Streep ('Julie & Julia') to win.

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz ('Inglourious Basterds'). In a ... waltz.

Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique ('Precious'). The hairy legs have it.

Film Editing: In a very tight race between 'Avatar' and 'The Hurt Locker,' 'Avatar' wins.

Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, if only because 'Inglourious Basterds' has so much writing in it.

Adapted Screenplay: Last chance for Jason Reitman and 'Up in the Air,' and he and co-writer Sheldon Turner will prevail.

Art Direction: Nothing did it up bigger or better than 'Avatar.'

Cinematography: The black-and-white German film 'The White Ribbon' won the award from the American Society of Cinematographers, but the Academy will go for one of the three front-runners: 'Inglourious Basterds,' 'Avatar' or 'The Hurt Locker.' I'm going with 'Avatar.'

Costume Design: I'd love to see the wild things that people wear in Terry Gilliam's 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus' be properly rewarded, but Academy voters almost always go with a period costume film when there's one on the ballot, and there is: 'The Young Victoria.'

Makeup: There are only three nominees here, including one that you -- and possibly most voters -- haven't heard of, 'Il Divo.' The others are 'Young Victoria,' which requires a lot of fussy facial makeup, and 'Star Trek,' which requires making faces that look alien. Again, voters appreciate period movies like nominated 'Young Victoria,' but is the imagined future is a period, too. I'm going with 'Star Trek.'

Original Score: Since the theme song from 'Avatar' failed to get a nomination, it seems that the Academy is not too impressed by the film's music. In any case, there is an obvious choice here, and that is the fabulous score for Michael Giachhino for 'Up.'

Original Song: Some people bemoan the lack of hit songs from movies these days. I say, it's harder to write a good song for a movie than take a generic commercial song and slap it over a movie's end credits. In that regard, Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett's 'The Weary Kind' from 'Crazy Heart' has the edge.

Sound Editing: Another 'Avatar'/'Hurt Locker' stand-off. 'Avatar' makes the most noise, which is usually good enough to win, but 'The Hurt Locker' has so many subtleties in its soundtrack. Have to go with the noise one.

Sound Mixing:
Here's where subtlety pays off and where 'The Hurt Locker' should prevail.

Visual Effects: Close your eyes and try to think of the movie that, more than any other, took you places you've never been. Hint: It's not 'Titanic.' OK, it's 'Avatar.'

Animated Feature: In what was one of, if not the greatest, year for animated films, one stood above the crowd, as Pixar movies often do. 'Up' will make it three wins in a row in this category for the CGI animation house.

Documentary: One of the year's strongest fields bodes well for the future of this oldest movie form, but the one I found most powerful -- and most infuriating -- was the expose of a Japanese fishing village's annual slaughter of dolphins, 'The Cove.'

Foreign Language Film:
German director Michael Haneke's 'The White Ribbon' is that rare foreign nominee that landed on another ballot, Best Cinematography. That suggests broader support, and that's my pick.