Perhaps I should have given each of these categories its own piece, but I don't think you can separate them, and also, we're running out of time here. Let's take cinematography first.
I think any of the nominees has a solid argument, in theory: The Artist for its unusual film format (okay, that's kind of a reach), Dragon Tattoo for the palpable cold and consistent blue palette, Hugo for the dreamlike design and extra credit for 3D, War Horse for that saturated look and a handful of gorgeously orchestrated shots. But this one belongs to The Tree of Life (and this alone). And rightly so.
I don't see anyone on the list who doesn't belong, although The Artist's nom is kind of cheap, but I'd have liked to see Tinker Tailor get some photography/art recognition. You could practically smell the Soviet tobacco, even watching it on a screener.
Should win: The Tree of Life
Will win: The Tree of Life
Best Directing is a more difficult call, at least for me, because the tendency is to both praise and blame the director for anything and everything, even if we have no real information on what s/he could control inside the production. On the plus side, we really only have to consider three of the five directors on the list. Payne will win elsewhere for The Descendants, but I didn't see him doing anything above and beyond with the structure or the look of the story. Woody Allen could direct this picture in his sleep -- and may have, with The Purple Rose of Manhattan tucked under his pillow. It's The Artist, Hugo, and The Tree of Life.
I can't say whether it's more challenging to direct actors with no audible dialogue. Hazanavicius may get extra credit for that, and various other quirks of the production. Again, that's rewarding the concept, not the execution, and I liked the execution well enough -- but Hugo's is, well, harder, and as I've said elsewhere, the results are more universally appealing. The Tree of Life…I can see the argument. It's very ambitious, it gets good performances (out of children as well), it's gorgeous, and the issues I had with it are probably at the script/editing levels. But you can say the same things about Hugo, without as many problems. But I would watch TToL again, and I don't think I would "need" to revisit Hugo. So, as always, it depends on what we think should be rewarded here. I'd be very surprised if Malick won, but encouraged at the same time.
Woody Allen shouldn't have made this list, nor Payne -- not if they're taking a spot from David Fincher, Asghar Farhadi, or another director who wasn't so by-numbers.
Should win: Hugo
Will win: The Artist
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.