Winner: "The Hurt Locker"/ Kathryn Bigelow
Runner-up: "Avatar"/ James Cameron
There's little doubt that momentum has built up steadily over the long awards season behind Summit Entertainment's "The Hurt Locker" and its director, Kathryn Bigelow. The film swept all the critics' groups -- that never happens -- and many guild awards, missing only at the Golden Globes, which bears little relationship to the thinking of Academy voters.
So I'm out on no real limb to predict best picture and best director Oscars for "The Hurt Locker." Few filmmakers have accomplished conveying the sense of verisimilitude in a war movie that Bigelow does. Plus, we have the word of her friendly competitor and ex-husband, James Cameron, that she deserves it!
Her chief competition for best picture and director does come from Cameron. "Avatar" is the biggest blockbuster in movie history so this could sway enough Academy members. "Avatar" may afford Cameron a second chance to hoist a best picture statuette high in the air.
Winner: Jeff Bridges
Runner-up: Colin Firth
The best actor recipient is quite clear. Jeff Bridges will finally win an Oscar after four previous nominations. His work in Fox Searchlight's "Crazy Heart," where he plays a drunken country singer, is a shoo-in. Academy voters love to honor Hollywood veterans who have paid their dues and Bridges qualifies in spades.
I personally would love to see Colin Firth get the nod for his
Meryl Streep in "Julie and Julia"
extraordinary performance in "A Single Man." The scene alone where his character gets the telephone call about the traffic crash death of his longtime partner is breathtaking.
Winner: Meryl Streep
Runner-up: Sandra Bullock
The best actress winner presents a tougher call.
I say Meryl Streep gets another Oscar for her performance as America's top chef, Julia Child. Columbia Pictures' "Julie & Julia" borrowed from the late cookbook author and TV personality's memoirs about her life-changing experiences in postwar France. Streep again shows an ability with vocal mimicry, physical transformation and steady acting that reveals the inner life of her character. Bravo!
And yet Sandra Bullock seems to be a sentimental favorite for "The Blind Side." And I would love to see Gabourey Sidibe, who played the abused inner-city teen in Lionsgate's "Precious," get the nod. But I have to make a pick, so let's say Streep, with Bullock runner-up.
Winner: Christoph Waltz
Runner-up: Woody Harrelson
The supporting actor nod will go to Austrian-born Christoph Waltz. He has been in the spotlight ever since the Weinstein Co.'s "Inglourious Basterds" premiered in May at the Festival de Cannes. Everyone loves to hate this Nazi, who can be a swine in so many languages. Waltz, too, has made a clean sweep of other awards. My personal favorite, though, is Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger," whose performance is the perfect definition of a supporting role -- eye-catching yet fully integrated with the dramatic intent of a film.
Runner-up: Vera Farmiga
The best supporting actor categories are often where the biggest surprises come -- but not this year. Mo'Nique pretty much has had a lock on the awards for her gale-force performance in "Precious" ever since she swept the critics' groups and the Golden Globes. "Up in the Air's" Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, however, are quite wonderful. In another year, the Oscar would have come down between those two. I suspect Farmiga is the runner-up here.
Winner: "The Hurt Locker"/ Mark Boal
Runner-up: "Up"/ Bob Peterson, Pete Docter; story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy
The winning streak by "The Hurt Locker" may extend into one other area: original screenplay. It's an odd category this year, with Pixar's animated "Up" -- sure to win best animated feature -- and Joel and Ethan Coen's "A Serious Man" (Focus Features), which has divided audiences and critics. Anything can happen here, even a win for "Up." But Academy voters' general antipathy toward animated fare that wanders outside its own category will eliminate the film from too many ballots. So "Locker's" Mark Boal will take home the statuette.
Winner: "Up in the Air"/ Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Runner-up: "District 9"/ Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Adapted screenplay is a very strong category. Here Academy voters may look over their ballot and see no check marks for Paramount's "Up in the Air" and opt for it to win best screenplay. The script nicely balances satire and comedy with heartfelt moments, never an easy thing to achieve. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner will have to figure out how to deliver acceptance speeches, despite the former's reluctance to acknowledge the latter's contribution. Hell, maybe by now, at the end of awards season, they're best buddies.
The most original adaptation, however, belongs to Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell for "District 9," a ferociously inventive science fiction film. Let's bestow runner-up status on this South African film.
Winner: "The Cove"
Runner-up: "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers"
In an increasingly important category, I'll go with Louie Psihoyos' indictment of dolphin hunting in Japan, "The Cove," from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, for best feature documentary. Runner-up is "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers." In many ways, this is a tougher call than best picture.
Winner: "The White Ribbon"
Runner-up: "A Prophet"
I admit I'll have to guess at best foreign-language film. My personal favorite is Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," but Academy voters may favor the more accessible prison-gangster movie, Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet." Either way, Sony Classics will be celebrating.