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Not to get all Donald Rumsfeld about it, but considering how many pundits are approaching Sunday's ceremony with an air of blasé resignation, there are still an awful lot of known unknowns in this year's Academy Awards race -- more, I'd venture, than there usually are at this eleventh-hour stage in the game. A presumed weight of predictability has held down the nomination list for several weeks now, dulling speculation and analysis... yet when you actually sit down to cast final predictions in all 24 categories for whatever pool you're playing in, you find yourself pausing, or even stalling, for thought far more often than you thought you might.
Of course, the blind spots in this year's race aren't where most observers would like them to be. Yes, Best Picture for "The Artist" is a done deal, and honestly, has been so for the better part of the season -- to such a degree that even picking an alternative for my final predictions list proved as difficult as it is surely futile. When the runners-up in a marathon aren't even visible from the winners' position, it can be hard to distinguish between them.
People will inevitably grouse about such inevitabilities -- more so when they don't like the frontrunner in question -- but the truth is that they are par for the course in big-ticket Oscar races. There hasn't been genuine suspense over the Academy's verdict in the top category since "The Departed" claimed a presumably tight win five years ago. The manufacturing of other potential outcomes using a mixture of statistics, wishful thinking and dose of blind perversity is what keeps Oscar bloggers busy for the languid latter stretch of the season, but signs of dissent tend to reveal themselves in industry gestures, not journalists' musings, and we haven't had any this year.
"People don't want 'The Artist' to win," stated Sasha Stone earlier this week, temporarily defining "people" as a small but vocal band of weary industry-watchers, rather than any clearly defined sect of Academy voters -- most of whom don't pay much attention to the chorus of media analysis surrounding the awards, and would be rather surprised to hear that "people" don't like the charming French outsider that struck them as so fresh and novel when they saw it comparatively recently. Yes, I said outsider: thanks to its nationality, lack of star names and formal dissimilarity to anything else in theaters, "The Artist" is the rare Best Picture contender that has managed to remain both an underdog and a behemoth for months on end.
How far that unbeatable formula can trickle through the lower categories, however, is hard to gauge. This time last year, "The King's Speech" was bathing in an equivalent glow of industry goodwill and secure Weinstein support, and was therefore predicted by many to run the table. It wound up winning where it counted, sure, but with only four trophies from 12 nominations, it clearly wasn't so unanimously adored as to blind voters to other achievements.
"The Artist" could find itself in this position. With his newcomer status against four previous nominees more a help than a hindrance with voters seeking fresh options, Best Director for Michel Hazanavicius seems a given; Jean Dujardin for Best Actor marginally less so, but his star power is so integral to the film's success that it seems unwise to bet against him, particularly with George Clooney's case for becoming a two-time Oscar winner, atop an already elegant sufficiency of success, a reasonably resistible one.
But move down to Best Original Screenplay and the question marks begin to pop up. Writing wins have gone hand-in-hand with Best Picture ones for six years running, and it's easy to imagine besotted voters checking off Hazanavicius's name in that category too -- for every dim-bulb voter who wonders if a silent film even has a script, there'll be another who's tickled by that very irony. Will there be enough of them to override the sentimental pull of a third win for the verbally advantaged Woody Allen? Or will they find little appeal in rewarding someone everyone knows couldn't care less what they decide?
We're now firmly in the area of known unknowns, and many of them do involve "The Artist" -- including Best Costume Design, one category where no nominee can be counted out, and where the sway of a Best Picture nomination has recently counted for a lot less than the visual spectacle at hand. The reverse might apply in Best Cinematography, the category in which the precursors have most overwhelmingly instructed the Academy to vote for a single candidate -- Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" -- and in which it's all too easy to imagine voters instead bumping up the statue count of a less polarizing Best Picture nominee.
These are just two of many categories I've hemmed and hawed over in compiling these final predictions, and where I reserve the right to change my mind between now and Sunday afternoon. Others include Best Visual Effects, where Best Picture momentum for "Hugo" could well see it erase an early lead for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," despite the comparative negligibility of its FX work; the sound awards, which statistics reliably suggest will both go to one film, though I'm damned if I know whether that film is "Hugo" or "War Horse," and Best Documentary Feature, another five-way free-for-all where the only rationale behind my prediction is that I picked it back in October, and I'd feel awfully silly if I jumped ship now and it went on to win.
Meanwhile, I'm not optimistic that I'll repeat last year's feat of correctly calling all three short awards: the documentary short category, in particular, came down to coin-toss between two equally convincing possibilities. And who knows, maybe it's neither of those.
I'm not going to bore you with further back-and-forth reasoning; we've already hashed this all out in our Oscar Guide series, and I've already wasted more words than should sensibly spent on saying, "Well, I'm sure about some things, but I'm less sure about others." It may not be scintillating journalism, but sometimes, a simple predictions list should suffice. And here is mine.
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