Should win: The Tree of Life. The most visionary and ambitious American film of 2011 was also, as an exit poll of any audience would show, the most divisive – thus it’s unlikely to take home the top prize.
Will win: The Artist [above]. On a Best Picture longlist mired in nostalgia – War Horse, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Help – Michel Hazanavicius’ sprightly silent-movie homage has done itself no awards-season harm whatsoever by focusing on Hollywood’s former glories.
Overlooked: Anything notably contemporary. Most glaring omissions: the apocalyptic Take Shelter, the American feature most in tune to the prevailing economic conditions, and Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, a rock ‘em-sock ‘em Saturday-night stormer straight out of the Rocky mould.
Should win: Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life – yet the elusive filmmaker, cinema’s own Pynchon or Salinger, is perhaps the individual least likely to big up his own achievements on the pre-Oscar talkshow circuit. If you don’t play, you don’t win.
Will win: Hazanavicius for The Artist. Impossible to rule out local affection for Messrs. Scorsese and Spielberg – no matter that Hugo and War Horse count among these directors’ weaker films – but all early indicators suggest this is the genial Frenchman’s year.
Overlooked: Lars von Trier for Melancholia – but then getting thrown out of Cannes and labelled a Nazi sympathiser helps nobody’s Oscar chances. Also: Bennett Miller, overlooked for his thoughtful, atmospheric handling of the otherwise amply nominated Moneyball.
Should win: An honourable mention for Demian Bichir and his understated work in A Better Life – but the award should go to Brad Pitt, delivering a career best (and a lesson in big-screen charisma) as the baseball coach learning to think outside the batter’s cage in Moneyball.
Will win: Home favourites Pitt and George Clooney (for The Descendants) may well split the ballot, allowing Jean Dujardin to romp through – and doubtless deliver another charmant acceptance speech – for his skilful pantomiming in The Artist.
Overlooked: Michael Shannon, whose despairing everyman in Take Shelter caught the tenor of the times better than anybody. Up against this lightning-rod performance, Clooney’s Descendants dad looks like a flabby refugee from a TV sitcom pilot.
Should win: With the Academy blinded by La Streep, and several key performances going unrecognised altogether, the actress shortlist looks weak even by Hollywood standards. Give it to Viola Davis, for remaining dignified in the middle of The Help’s often gelatinous confection.
Will win: This far into the awards season, Meryl as Maggie in The Iron Lady looks such a shoo-in everybody else may as well stay at home – if voters decide The Help deserves recognition somewhere, Supporting Actress nominee Octavia Spencer looks the more likely recipient.
Overlooked: Our own Olivia Colman, reinventing her screen persona with indelible work in Tyrannosaur; Kirsten Dunst, for Melancholia; and Anna Paquin, remarkable as a headstrong teenager in the half-buried Margaret, the post-9/11 movie Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close dreams of being.
Foreign Language Film
Should win: Two of the contenders remain unscreened here, but they’d do well to top Iran’s A Separation, one of last year’s strongest titles, which serves double duty as a gripping domestic thriller and a peephole into the bureaucratic and ideological snafus of a particular regime.
Will win: A Best Original Screenplay nomination would suggest the Academy also thinks A Separation as more than just easily ghettoised arthouse fare. Dark horses: Belgium’s reportedly punchy crime drama Bullhead, the Polish WW2 saga In Darkness.
Overlooked: This category remains a crapshoot: BAFTA got its overseas winner (the flimsily insincere The Skin I Live In) all wrong. Both Academies should have found a spot for Chile’s Post Mortem, a scalpel-sharp examination of Augusto Pinochet’s toxic legacy.