Associated Press Movie Writers David Germain and Christy Lemire agree with each other — and just about every other Academy Awards forecaster — that Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock, Mo'Nique and Christoph Waltz will walk away with the acting trophies.
Germain and Lemire also agree that Kathryn Bigelow will become the first woman to win the best-director Oscar on Sunday.
That just leaves one prize among the top six where they disagree — best picture.
Here are their predictions, with both sounding off on best picture and director, Lemire offering their take on best actor and supporting actress, and Germain giving their opinion on best actress and supporting actor.
Nominees: "Avatar," "The Blind Side," "District 9," "An Education," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," "A Serious Man," "Up," "Up in the Air."
GERMAIN: I think "The Hurt Locker" was not only the year's best film, but also one of the finest war films in years.
And when it comes to immersing us in an unknown alien landscape, I feel James Cameron did it better 24 years ago on "Aliens" — without today's 3-D technology, computer animation and other advances — than he did it now with "Avatar."
"Aliens" was not only visual but also tactile — it looked real to the touch as well as to the eyes. "Avatar," lovely as it is to look at, still has a cartoon quality like so many blends of live action and computer animation.
But I suspect "Avatar" will win the big prize for its candy-colored imagery, its photorealistic visuals that turned human actors into 10-foot-tall blue aliens, its enormous commercial success and its growing reputation as a truly pioneering achievement that other filmmakers will point back to for decades to come.
"The Hurt Locker" long will be remembered by its small but devoted legion of admirers. Yet when it comes to doling out the biggest prize Hollywood has to give, how can Oscar voters not want to make a game-changer such as "Avatar" the one to remember as 2009's awards champ?
Cameron may have proclaimed himself king of the world when "Titanic" won best picture 12 years ago. This time, Cameron can bray that he's king of the cosmos.
LEMIRE: Sorry, Dave. I know you love being right, but "The Hurt Locker" wins.
Yes, Cameron's film is a tremendous technical accomplishment, the product of years of painstaking, obsessive effort. It's groundbreaking — unlike anything that's come before it. But Bigelow's film, with its intimate intensity, has more of an emotional impact. There's not a single dishonest moment among the performances. And it's the first Iraq war movie that gets it right, while at the same time refraining from beating us over the head with any platitudes about the war.
Really, the addiction to adrenaline on which Jeremy Renner's bomb-expert character thrives could probably be found in any combat situation. And in a larger, more philosophical sense, "The Hurt Locker" isn't even about war: It's a character study about the passions that define and drive us.
"Avatar," meanwhile, is all spectacle — beautiful and wondrous and alive, yes, but bereft of deeper meaning. With its hollow, sometimes corny script, it rips off countless other films, including Cameron's own, and it's a good half-hour too long, with a final battle scene that feels as if it will never end. A billion-dollar crowd-pleaser, but it won't sway enough Academy voters to win best picture.
Nominees: James Cameron, "Avatar"; Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"; Quentin Tarantino, "Inglourious Basterds"; Lee Daniels, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"; Jason Reitman, "Up in the Air."
GERMAIN: Bigelow and Cameron were married for two years from 1989-91, and from their chumminess through awards season, you can see how amicable the split was.
This seems like one of those Oscar shows where voters will settle on an amicable split between best picture and director, allowing Academy members to share the love between two highly regarded films.
"Avatar" gets best picture, Bigelow gets best director for "The Hurt Locker," becoming the first woman to win Hollywood's top award for filmmakers.
Bigelow doesn't like to discuss the gender matter, saying at the Directors Guild of America Awards, where she won the top honor, that "I suppose I like to think of myself as a filmmaker" — not a female filmmaker.
Cameron won the directing honor at the Golden Globes, but among all the ceremonies on the long buildup to Academy Awards night, it's the DGA prize that is one of the most accurate gauges for how the Oscars will play out.
Bigelow's film is gutsy, suspenseful, masterfully constructed, relentlessly paced.
From its opening image as a remote-controlled robot hurtles toward a suspected bomb, "The Hurt Locker" is simply riveting. Bigelow has created an unforgettable portrait of a bomb-defusal ace who's so good at his job — and so out of step with the life back home he's sworn to protect — that he cannot imagine existing away from the battlefield anymore.
Whether it was made by a woman, a man or one of Cameron's big blue Na'vi aliens in "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker" deserves to claim this award for its director.
LEMIRE: Well, at least we can agree on Bigelow winning best director. Just as Cameron has set a visual precedent with "Avatar," Bigelow is a pioneer in her own right, a rare woman who's made her name directing action films. "The Hurt Locker" has plenty of thrilling, suspenseful scenes — she really makes you feel the claustrophobia and anxiety of her characters' daily lives, and she brings you up close for visceral battle scenes — but it can be just as powerful in its quieter moments.
Perhaps the most surprising part of "The Hurt Locker," though, is that it ends on an uplifting note. Seeing "The Hurt Locker" win best picture with Bigelow becoming the first woman to win best director — after only a handful have been nominated — would be a great way to end Oscar night.
Nominees: Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"; George Clooney, "Up in the Air"; Colin Firth, "A Single Man"; Morgan Freeman, "Invictus"; Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker."
LEMIRE: Dave is more enthusiastic about Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart" than I am, but we both agree he'll win. Bridges gives a lived-in, down-and-dirty performance as alcoholic country singer Bad Blake, and he makes it look effortless, as always. He also suggests a lifetime of pain, loneliness and hard living in his rasp of a singing voice. But he's essentially doing a Kris Kristofferson impression — albeit a very good one — in a tale of redemption that's really rather formulaic.
Bridges will be victorious on Oscar night, though, as an acknowledgment of a long, consistent and versatile career. He's been nominated for an Academy Award four times before without having won, and so the "it's-time" sentiment will prevail. Actually, it's more than time: An Oscar for Bridges is long overdue. That he's already won nearly every other award and critics prize imaginable leading up to the Oscars, including Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, suggests the whole industry is on his side.
Personally, I love Colin Firth in "A Single Man." He subtly suggests so much suffering as a college professor mourning the death of his longtime partner and brings gravitas to a film that might have been a show-offy exercise in style over substance. Jeremy Renner is magnetic in "The Hurt Locker," George Clooney turns on the charisma in "Up in the Air" and who else but Morgan Freeman could play Nelson Mandela in "Invictus"? But Sunday is Bridges' night.
Nominees: Sandra Bullock, "The Blind Side"; Helen Mirren, "The Last Station"; Carey Mulligan, "An Education"; Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"; Meryl Streep, "Julie & Julia."
GERMAIN: Christy and I would be thrilled to see either of the category's fresh faces, Carey Mulligan or Gabourey Sidibe, pull an upset. Two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep again shows why the Academy might want to reserve a nomination for her any year she has a film out. And Oscar winner Helen Mirren continues to vie with Judi Dench for the title of grandest dame on the big-screen.
Yet Sandra Bullock will win for doing what she does best, far better than she's ever done it before.
As a wealthy white woman whose family takes in homeless black teen and future NFL star Michael Oher, Bullock is commanding, funny, high-minded, fearless, saintly — but with a sharp-tongued edge.
The most one-sided role among all the nominees, her character is a movie-of-the-week idealization of the perfect mom nobody has ever had. But Bullock inhabits it with every grain of the estimable charm she possesses.
Audiences love Bullock. They adored her in "The Blind Side." And so did Academy voters, who will show their love with a little gold statue.
SUPPORTING ACTORNominees: Matt Damon, "Invictus"; Woody Harrelson, "The Messenger"; Christopher Plummer, "The Last Station"; Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones"; Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds."
GERMAIN: When "Inglourious Basterds" premiered at last May's Cannes Film Festival, you already could sense, nearly 10 months before the Oscars, awards watchers checking off this category in Christoph Waltz's favor.
I saw the movie there and came out saying, "I'd like to see the guy who beats him for supporting actor."
A veteran TV and stage actor in Europe, Waltz was virtually unknown in Hollywood when Quentin Tarantino cast him as gleefully wicked psycho-Nazi Hans Landa.
Waltz devours this role. He spouts the machine-gun patter of Tarantino's dialogue as naturally as the rest of us breathe, and he does it in four different languages. He creates one of the great screen heavies, a reprehensible man that you just can't help liking, even as you revel in his pain while Brad Pitt carves that swastika in Landa's forehead.
It's lovely to see some other veterans, Christopher Plummer and Stanley Tucci, nominated for the first time. But no one else has a prayer with Waltz's Hans Landa in the room.
Nominees: Penelope Cruz, "Nine"; Vera Farmiga, "Up in the Air"; Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Crazy Heart"; Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air"; Mo'Nique, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."
LEMIRE: How devastating is Mo'Nique in "Precious"? Calling her an abusive mother doesn't even begin to describe her character. She's fierce and furious, cold and cruel, a truly twisted monster — but as we eventually learn, she's also the victim of her own torments. The flashes of anger toward her teenage daughter are terrifying enough, but the vulnerability Mo'Nique reveals at the end of the film really seals a much-deserved Oscar win for her.
This is one of the most indelible villains in movie history. And much of the allure of the performance comes from the fact that we never knew Mo'Nique had this in her. She's made her name with raunchy comedy; director Lee Daniels had the foresight to see something deeper.
There's not much point in discussing anyone else's chances. But as a side note, it's unfortunate that Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick have to compete against each other in the supporting-actress category; Farmiga's part should be considered a lead because she's completely Clooney's equal, and up-and-comer Kendrick continues to display a smart, likable presence. Both women are great, and if Mo'Nique didn't exist here, either of them would be deserving of the prize.