The drama on Oscar night is looking as though it will come down to the final award and in terms of TV ratings the Academy couldn't ask for anything more.  After seemingly jumping ahead as the Best Picture frontrunner, box office blockbuster "Avatar" ended up with just as many nominations, nine, as critic's favorite "The Hurt Locker."  Logic would indicate a landmark epic which just became the highest grossing picture of all time worldwide with a staggering cume of $2.07 billion would easily trounce "Locker's" $12.6 million gross.  Upon closer inspection, however, there is much more of a race here than many prognosticators, including this one, initially thought.

"Locker" strength just doesn't come from its end of year accolades from critic's groups such as the NY Film Critic's Circle or the Los Angeles Film Critic's Association.  The film has won the Producer's Guild Award for Best Picture, the Director's Guild Award for Best Director and landed a SAG Ensemble nomination for Best Cast -- a feat "Avatar" did not accomplish.  So, while "Avatar" may have won the Best Picture - Drama at the Globes, those 80 or so voters in the HFPA don't mean much when you're looking at major guilds who have sided with "Locker."  More telling is that "Avatar" didn't land an Original Screenplay nod (being pushed out by "The Messenger" and "A Serious Man") and even more significantly not one acting nod.  The last film to win Best Picture without an acting nomination?  "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" six years ago.  Before then? "Braveheart" in 1996.  It's a rare, rare occurrence.

On the other hand, "Locker" winning would make it the lowest grossing Best Picture winner since "A Man for All Seasons" reportedly made $20 million in the U.S. and U.K. way back in...1966 (obviously it would be a lot more with inflation).  Shoot, even "Annie Hall" made $38 million in 1976-77.  So, what wins out?  Historical trends, box office or guild support?  It's just too close to call right now.  However, momentum seems to be on "Hurt Locker's" side.  And for now, you go with your gut and "Locker's" starting to kick.

With that in mind, here's a rundown of all the major categories on the line for the 82nd Academy Awards.

 

Best Picture

1 "The Hurt Locker"
2 "Avatar"
3 "Inglourious Basterds"
4 "Up in the Air"
5 "Precious"
6 "An Education"
7 "Up"
8 "The Blind Side"
9 "District 9"
10 "A Serious Man"

Lowdown: See above.  It'll be down to the wire.
 
Performance by an actor in a leading role

1 - Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart"
2 - George Clooney in "Up in the Air"
3 - Colin Firth in "A Single Man"
4 - Morgan Freeman in "Invictus"
5 - Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker"

Lowdown:  Clooney seems to have no interest in making this a race and none of the other nominees could really challenge Bridges in finally landing the golden statue. 
 
Performance by an actor in a supporting role

1 - Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"
2 - Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger"
3 - Matt Damon in "Invictus"
4 - Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station"
5 - Stanley Tucci in "The Lovely Bones"

Lowdown: If any acting category is ripe for an upset it could be this one, but the competition may not be strong enough to kick Waltz from the top slot.  There doesn't seem to be sentiment around either Harrelson, Damon or Plummer to lead to an Oscar night surprise. And time is running out to start building it.

Performance by an actress in a leading role

1 - Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side"
2 - Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia"
3 - Helen Mirren in "The Last Station"
4 - Carey Mulligan in "An Education"
5 - Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"

Lowdown: Bullock is clearly in front after her SAG and Golden Globe wins, but this race ain't over.  February may be the shortest month of the year, but its one long anxious streak for the Bullock and Streep camps.  Can Streep make a comeback?  In theory, yes.  Unfortunately, it may take some blunt campaigning on the overall quality of "Blind Side" to do it. 

Performance by an actress in a supporting role


1 - Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
2 - Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"
3 - Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air"
4 - Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart"
5 - Penélope Cruz in "Nine"

Lowdown: Upsets have occurred in this category in the past, but not this year.  Mo'Nique will represent "Precious" in the winner's circle. And boy does she deserve it. 

Achievement in directing


1 - "The Hurt Locker" Kathryn Bigelow
2 - "Avatar"James Cameron
3 - "Inglourious Basterds" Quentin Tarantino
4 - "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" Lee Daniels
5 - "Up in the Air" Jason Reitman

Lowdown:  No matter what the call in the Best Picture race, its hard to imagine Bigelow losing the Oscar after her historic DGA win. 
 
Adapted screenplay

1 - "Up in the Air" Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
2 - "In the Loop" Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
3 - "An Education" Screenplay by Nick Hornby
4 - "District 9" Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
5 - "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher

Lowdown: "Air" should win, but "Loop" has an excellent shot of pulling off an upset.  If its supporters can get enough members to see the film it could make some noise on Oscar night.

Original screenplay

1 - "The Hurt Locker"  Written by Mark Boal
2 - "Up" Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy
3 - "Inglourious Basterds" Written by Quentin Tarantino
4 - "The Messenger" Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
5 - "A Serious Man" Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Lowdown:  This is another hotly contested category with "Locker," "Up" or even "Basterds" taking the prize.  Right now, "Locker" seems the best bet.

 Best animated feature film of the year

1 - "Up" Pete Docter
2 - "Coraline" Henry Selick
3 - "Fantastic Mr. Fox" Wes Anderson
4 - "The Princess and the Frog" John Musker and Ron Clements
5 - "The Secret of Kells" Tomm Moore

Lowdown: "Coraline" will have its supporters, but the Academy showed their love for "Up" by placing it in the traditional Best Picture race.  The Pixar blockbuster should easily win.
 
Best documentary feature

1 - "The Cove"
2 - "Food, Inc."
3 - "Burma VJ"


4 - "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers"
5 - "Which Way Home"

Lowdown: "The Cove" is the frontrunner here and if Roadside can get more members to see it before voting closes it won't even be a contest.
 
Achievement in art direction

1 - "Avatar" Art Direction: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg Set Decoration: Kim Sinclair
2 - "Nine" Art Direction: John Myhre Set Decoration: Gordon Sim
3 - "Sherlock Holmes" Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
4 - "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" Art Direction: Dave Warren and Anastasia Masaro Set Decoration: Caroline Smith
5 - "The Young Victoria" Art Direction: Patrice Vermette Set Decoration: Maggie Gray

Lowdown: When you create an entire world you get rewarded. "Avatar" easily.
 
Achievement in cinematography

1 - "The Hurt Locker" Barry Ackroyd
2 - "Avatar" Mauro Fiore
3 - "Inglourious Basterds" Robert Richardson
4 - "The White Ribbon" Christian Berger
5 - "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" Bruno Delbonnel

Lowdown: This is really a toss up between Ackroyd, Fiore and Richardson, but we're going with "Locker's" Ackroyd for now.
 
Achievement in costume design

1 - "Nine" Colleen Atwood
2 - "Bright Star" Janet Patterson
3 - "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus"  Monique Prudhomme
4 - "Coco before Chanel" Catherine Leterrier
5 - "The Young Victoria" Sandy Powell

Lowdown: We're betting two-time winner Atwood goes for her third, but four-time nominee Patterson could finally break through and cap off a very impressive career.
 
Achievement in film editing

1 - "The Hurt Locker" Bob Murawski and Chris Innis
2 - "District 9" Julian Clarke
3 - "Avatar" Stephen Rivkin, John Refoua and James Cameron
4 - "Inglourious Basterds" Sally Menke
5 - "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" Joe Klotz

Lowdown: This category can be an early indicator of who will win Best Picture on Oscar night.  If either "Avatar" or "Locker" prevail it could be a strong signal it will take the top prize.
 
Achievement in makeup

1 - "Star Trek" Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow
2 - "Il Divo" Aldo Signoretti and Vittorio Sodano
3 - "The Young Victoria" Jon Henry Gordon and Jenny Shircore

Lowdown: How many Academy voters do you think have seen "Il Divo" and "the Young Victoria"?  Now, factor in how many have most likely seen "Star Trek."  There ya go.
 
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)


1 - "Up" Michael Giacchino
2 - "Sherlock Holmes" Hans Zimmer
3 - "Fantastic Mr. Fox" Alexandre Desplat
4 - "Avatar" James Horner
5 - "The Hurt Locker" Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders

Lowdown: Giacchino has already won the Globe and two Grammys this past Sunday for his memorable score.  Hard to see him losing here.

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)


1 - "The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)" from "Crazy Heart" Music and Lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett
2 -  "Almost There" from "The Princess and the Frog" Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
3 - "Down in New Orleans" from "The Princess and the Frog" Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
4 - "Take It All" from "Nine" Music and Lyric by Maury Yeston
5 - "Loin de Paname" from "Paris 36" Music by Reinhardt Wagner Lyric by Frank Thomas

Lowdown:  "The Weary Kind" should win, especially considering the two "Princess" songs will most likely cancel each other out.

As for Foreign Language Film, "White Ribbon" is the frontrunner, but we're semi-abstaining until we've gotten a chance to see all the candidates (same with the shorts).  Visual Effects is the biggest lock of the night -- "Avatar" and the Sound Mixing/Editing awards?  Sigh.  Always the toughest.  We'll ponder...

What do you think of this year's Best Picture battle?  Can "Hurt Locker" overtake "Avatar"?

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