Time's Richard Corliss has figured out a clever way to write about year-end critics awards and tee up a clickable gallery of Oscar hopefuls, short and sweet. Trouble is, he gives way too much credit to the critics. They do help to clue the Academy voters into what films they should watch on their screener piles. But in the end, what the voters think when they watch the movies is what matters---as well as how passionate they feel as they vote for their top ten best picture candidates. The ones at the top of the list get more weight than the ones at the bottom. Thus, if most voters put The Last Station, Nine, The Messenger, Star Trek and District 9 at the bottom, they won't make it.
Then there's momentum. While Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique are front runners today, the question is, where will they be three weeks from now? I agree that it's probably Streep vs. Mulligan. Will the veteran who's been nominated way more times than she has won (15 noms, 2 wins, in 1980 and 1983) beat the upstart Brit ingenue?
Also, Up in the Air's George Clooney (who won best supporting actor for Syriana) is not a lock to win best actor: Crazy Heart's Jeff Bridges (four noms, no wins) could sneak up and steal it.
As for director, friendly ex-spouses James Cameron (Avatar) and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) will duke it out. (I'd like to see the Nancy Meyers remake of Adam's Rib with married filmmakers competing for the best director Oscar.) Oscar ballots went out today, December 28; voters will fill out their ballots throughout January; nominations morning is February 2. But late-breaking tech wonder Avatar has the momentum advantage: it's mowing down the competition at the box office, and may well do the same at the Oscars. But it's no Titanic.
Avatar and Titanic are very different. For one thing, Titanic was a romantic historic epic that earned fourteen nominations and eleven wins. Avatar is unlikely to match that. As a sci-fi (and largely CG) adventure, it will likely earn nine nominations: art direction, cinematography, director, sound effects editing, visual effects, film editing, original score, picture and sound. The noms that Titanic got but Avatar won't are costume, original song, actress, supporting actress and makeup. Avatar won't get any acting nominations at all.
Check out the latest findings on MCN's Gurus 'O Gold, by far the best aggregation of smart Oscar prognosticators (yeah, I'm in there). Must to avoid: Sijmin's Oscar Experiment, which uses a mathematical formula to predict the Oscars: his list of 13 doesn't include Avatar at all.