In the early hours of Thursday, Jan. 10, Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone will take a stage to announce the nominees for the 85th Academy Awards. Most years, the process is the cap to a long season with the same three titles dominating every category, the final choices rarely surprises.
This year is a bit different.
Sure, there are frontrunners, but more so than in the last decade, most categories are anyone's to win — or even pop into at the last minute with a surprise nomination. With the amount of Best Picture nominees in flux, no clear leader to any acting pack, and a bevy of technical awards that could go to any of the prestigious films to roll out over the year, the 2012 Oscar nomination line-up is one big question mark.
To test our powers of prediction, we weighed the odds and ran down every category with our picks for who may walk away with a nomination at the end of tomorrow. If they do, we'll still be up for one of the toughest Oscar pool years in a long, long time….
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Who Could Break In? In 2009, the Academy opened up the Best Picture race from five to 10 nominees. In 2011, they changed the rules again to allow the potential number of nominees to change based on the vote (with a minimum of five and a maximum of 10). So we're going with nine movies from 2012 for Best Picture. What could sneak in? Thanks to the BAFTAs, it seems more possible that Skyfall could be James Bond's first time in the Best Picture ring. There's also the French drama Amour, which could transcend the Foreign Film confines to nab the 10th slot.
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone
Helen Mirren – Hitchcock
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Who Could Break In? Naomi Watts was a longtime favorite for her physically demanding work in The Impossible, but quiet buzz has us swapping her out for Hitchcock's Mirren. Foreign language favorites Cotillard and Riva also look like solid picks, but raves for Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild could bump the young actress into the top five.
Denzel Washington – Flight
John Hawkes – The Sessions
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Hugh Jackman– Les Misérables
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Who Could Break In? This is one of the only categories that looks locked, but voters may have erased Joaquin Phoenix's anti-Oscar rant from memory long enough to move him into Hawkes or Washington's slots. The dark horse is Jack Black, who has been garnering more and more love in the awards season push for his performance in Bernie.
Best Supporting Actress
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
Maggie Smith – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Nicole Kidman – The Paperboy
Who Could Break In? Best Exotic Marigold Hotel could take a second slot in this race, with Dame Judi Dench bouncing Kidman from the ring (or even replacing her costar Smith). Amy Adams also looks like a major contender, but the favorite from The Master has lost traction since the movie debuted in September.
Best Supporting Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Leonardo Dicaprio – Django Unchained
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Alan Arkin – Argo
Javier Bardem – Skyfall
Who Could Break In? Robert De Niro is still a major player for the Supporting Actor category, but he's more of a legend worth nodding to than a stand out in Silver Linings Playbook. With unexpected love from both the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs going to Javier Bardem for his villainy in Skyfall, he stands a good chance of taking the fifth spot. Or maybe the voters will realize the greatness of Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike….
Ben Affleck – Argo
Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Ang Lee – Life of Pi
Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained
Who Could Break In? Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) earned the fifth slot in the Director's Guild award nominations earlier in the race, but the stylish magic of Tarantino may outnumber him when it comes to the Oscars. Close-ups and canted angles versus zooms and whip pans to bloodshed — which does the Academy favor?
Best Original Screenplay
Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained
Rian Johnson – Looper
Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master
Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola – Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty
Who Could Break In? The Writer's Guild honored Flight writer John Gatins for his work on the alcoholism drama, but with Tarantino (who is not a WGA member and was ineligible for their nom) in the mix, his weaker work looks to be ousted. Writer/Director Michael Haneke's elegant work on Amour could also be honored if the Academy feels bad for not stepping up and giving it a Best Picture nomination.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Chris Terrio – Argo
Stephen Chbosky – Perks of Being a Wallflower
Tony Kushner – Lincoln
David Magee – Life of Pi
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Who Could Break In? If too few members of the Academy caught Chbosky's touching translation of his own novel, love for Beasts of the Southern Wild may be strong enough to bump it into this category (it was based on a short play called "Juicy and Delicious"). Enough Les Misérables support could also bump the musical into the category, replacing either Perks or The Master.
Best Animated Feature
The Rabbi's Cat
Who Could Break In? Sorry, Rise of the Guardians. Although you're a technical marvel, your holiday magic just didn't impact enough people this holiday season to make you an Oscar contender. We'll go with the relatively unknown (but highly-praised by those who have seen it) Rabbi's Cat.
Best Documentary Feature
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Mea Maxima Culpa
Searching for Sugarman
Who Could Break In? Jafar Panahi's astounding self-portrait This Is Not a Film is a whirlwind of emotion — that's also shot mostly on an iPhone. The low-tech feel puts it under the flashy documentaries above, but one hopes the Academy could see beyond the cinematography.
Best Foreign Language Film
A Royal Affair
Beyond the Hills
Who Could Break In? Amour is the one to beat, but watch out for Norawy's Kon-Tiki, which could rise all the way to the top if voters feel split over giving Amour Best Picture and Best Foreign Language love.
Drab prim and more than a little prudish Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) isn't a very good governess--her rigid personal beliefs keep getting in the way of her ability to hold a job. Homeless and hungry on the streets of 1939 London she's on the verge of despair when fate sends her to Delysia Lafosse's door. Flighty enthusiastic and impulsive Delysia (Amy Adams) is a club singer with aspirations of becoming a serious actress; to achieve her goals she'll literally charm the pants off of any man who can help her--even at the risk of losing her one true love forever. Equally shocked and fascinated by Delysia's sophisticated fast-paced colorful lifestyle Miss Pettigrew uses her brief time as the young woman's faux social secretary to try to save her from herself. At the same time she begins to let go of old fears and finds the way to her own happiness. Miss Pettigrew benefits immensely from the strengths of its two stars. McDormand is both funny and affecting as the title character; she plays a recurring gag in which Miss Pettigrew almost gets to eat with just the right notes of humor and pathos. The twinkle in her eye as she takes the measure of Delysia's world is convincingly conspiratorial and her scenes with co-star Ciaran Hinds who plays courtly lingerie mogul Joe are both sweet and realistic. Adams meanwhile is just as captivating as she was in Enchanted. Delysia's perky effervescence hides both determination and vulnerability and Adams mixes all three elements expertly. The ladies get strong support from their fellas particularly Hinds and Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace who plays Delysia's poor-but-ardent suitor Michael. And Shirley Henderson is perfectly poisonous as socialite/salon owner Edythe. Parts of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day have a distinctly screwball feel -- particularly the early scenes in which Miss P. arrives at Delysia's and must immediately juggle four or five different crises for her new client. The brink-of-World War II setting with its cocktail parties jazz clubs and dames in bright red lipstick encourages that association. But director Bharat Nalluri's movie is also a touching romance with scenes of true poignancy that centers on a complex mature heroine who knows life isn't all roses. His ability to balance the two yields a genuinely funny accessible comedy that has some real depth to back up its lighthearted romping. Even if like Delysia Miss Pettigrew is only a passing presence in your life you'll likely remember her quite fondly.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.