When the Academy announced in early 2009 that the category for the Best Picture Oscar would be expanded from five nominees to 10, several months of bitching ensued. The fear was that this experiment would cheapen the value of a Best Picture nomination, or that the category would be stuffed with undeserving films.

But now that the new rule has actually been put into practice, the most logical complaint to make is that the Academy waited so long to do this &- our children’s children will never forgive us for awarding ‘The Blind Side” the Best Picture nomination that ‘The Dark Knight” never got.

Still, this new rule won’t do much to shake up the usual predictability of buzz for the ceremony on March 7. In fact, this year’s ceremony is looking to be one of the most wholly predictable ones in a few years. Here’s my thoughts on the major categories:

Best Picture: ‘Avatar,” ‘The Blind Side,” ‘District 9,” ‘An Education,” ‘The Hurt Locker,” ‘Inglorious Basterds,” ‘Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” ‘A Serious Man,” ‘Up,” ‘Up in the Air”

Considering that this is the first time the Best Picture category has featured 10 titles, the variety is surprisingly great.

Sure, ‘The Blind Side” snuck in and stuff like ‘(500) Days of Summer” and ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox” still get ignored.

But the inclusion of ‘Up,” and ‘A Serious Man” two of 2009’s very best movies, and ones that certainly wouldn’t have made it into the original five is enough to solidify this experiment as a great idea. Even the inclusion of the sci-fi blockbuster ‘District 9″ is such a surprising change of pace that I’ll forgive how mediocre that movie actually was.
Nonetheless, the actual race for Best Picture is still narrow as ever, and always will be the Best Director category dictates which are the ‘real” nominees. The race was harder to predict a few months ago, when ‘Up in the Air” and ‘Precious” both seemed to have front-runner status.

But by this point the race is between ‘The Hurt Locker” and ‘Avatar,” with neither especially having an advantage over the other.

If I had to guess, the award is going to ‘Avatar” ‘The Hurt Locker” has great buzz, yes, but the Academy awarded ‘smaller” movies for the past two years, and a spectacle as big, as hyped and as widely seen as ‘Avatar” is going to be hard to beat. Plus, the Academy’s move toward recognizing more ‘populist” movies this year helps, since ‘Avatar” is as populist as it gets.

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

Last year, the Best Actor award should have gone to an actor who portrayed a washed-up celebrity trying to get back on top, but instead went to an actor who portrayed a heroic homosexual character.

Just for irony’s sake, the exact opposite of that will happen this year. Colin Firth’s character in ‘A Single Man” is heroic for the grief and anguish he maintains under a cool demeanor his performance carries the film and deserves recognition.

But the award will almost certainly go to Jeff Bridges, who has the advantage of being a beloved veteran who has yet to win an Oscar.

Nevermind the fact that ‘Crazy Heart” definitely doesn’t represent Bridges at his best he plays country star has-been Bad Blake a little too obviously, frequently relying too much on slurred speech and bloated appearance to evoke inner despair. Which is not to say the role isn’t mostly effective, or that Bridges’ win will be a bad thing an actor like him does deserve to be awarded, even if it’s at the wrong time.

Best Actress: Sandra Bullock for ‘The Blind Side,” Helen Mirren for ‘The Last Station,” Carey Mulligan for ‘An Education,” Gabrourey Sidibe for ‘Precious,” Meryl Streep for ‘Julie ‘ Julia”

The Best Picture nomination earned by ‘The Blind Side” confirms some of the worst habits of the Academy: This bunch never fails to be taken by liberal pandering, conservative politics and cut-and-dry messages about race relations.

Bullock’s nomination, and supposed lock for this award, is also disheartening. Mulligan deserves the win for channeling adolescent uncertainty and angst in her star-making role in ‘An Education.” But even Meryl Streep literally, in this case can’t be more alluring to the Academy than a Nice White Lady role.

Best Supporting Actor: Matt Damon for ‘Invictus,” Woody Harrelson for ‘The Messenger,” Christopher Plummer for ‘The Last Station,” Stanley Tucci for ‘The Lovely Bones,” Christoph Waltz for ‘Inglorious Basterds”

Former unknown Christoph Waltz has picked up pretty much every award imaginable for his role as the Hans Landa, the ‘Jew hunter” in ‘Inglorious Basterds.”
It’s no small feat that he managed to create the most memorable and hilarious character in ‘Basterds.”

Otherwise, I can only point out two major disappointments in this category: Matt Damon’s nomination for his nothing role for ‘Invictus” is a sad compensation for his vastly superior work in ‘The Informant!,” and the only other performance that is equal to Waltz’s, if not greater was snubbed: Christian McKay, a dominating force as the titular legend in ‘Me and Orson Welles.”

McKay perfectly captures the intimidating bravo of Welles, and considering the Academy’s penchant for biopic acting, it’s surprising that a performance this great would be ignored.

Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz for ‘Nine,” Vera Farminga for ‘Up in the Air,” Maggie Gyllenhaal for ‘Crazy Heart,” Anna Kendrick for ‘Up in the Air,” Mo’nique for ‘Precious”

Mo’nique has been the front runner for so long for her role as the monstrous mother in ‘Precious” that an upset would seem plausible, if only anyone in the category seemed likely for one. Farminga and Kendrick are both excellent in ‘Up in the Air,” so much so that they’ll cancel each other out. Cruz’s odd nomination was enough of an award. That leaves Gyllenhaal, already an underdog for her surprise nomination, to score an upset. I wouldn’t bet on it.

Best Director: Catherine Bigelow for ‘The Hurt Locker,” James Cameron for ‘Avatar,” Lee Daniels for ‘Precious,” Jason Reitman for ‘Up in the Air,” Quentin Tarantino for ‘Inglourious Basterds”

It’s easy to let personal preference dictate opinions in this category. For the record, ‘Inglourious Basterds” is my favorite of the Best Picture nominees, and ‘Avatar” scrapes along toward the bottom. But it’s hard to deny the stature of Cameron’s directorial achievement.

True, it might be hard to side with Cameron he’s made the two highest grossing films of all time, he works with budgets most other directors dreams for fractions of, and he already won this award for ‘Titanic.” It’s easy to write him off on the belief that he’s already had more than enough recognition.

And surely by now you’ve heard a few people flaunting their cinematic expertise by proclaiming ‘Avatar” a rip-off of ‘Dances with Wolves” and ‘Pocahontas.” Congrats on figuring that one out.

But in terms of pure craft, Cameron can’t be topped. The innovation, passion and simple hard work he put into ‘Avatar” is admirable. The flaws in the film are blatant, but few can make a spectacle on the level of Cameron, a talent that gets taken for granted.
Catherine Bigelow has a strong campaign, and her win would be the first for a female director, which is nice. But best is best.

Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.



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