R-J columnist sets the chances for victory at Academy Awards

Everything old is new again. Or maybe it just feels that way.

After all, Billy Crystal’s back as host of tonight’s 84th annual Academy Awards.

And all nine best picture nominees — from such period pieces as the front-running "The Artist" and "Hugo" to more contemporary contenders, from "The Descendants" to "Midnight in Paris" — share a sense of yearning, an undercurrent of unease, reflecting the unsettling tenor of these uncertain times.

But enough critical reflection. After all, this is Vegas, baby — and we’ve got some Oscar handicapping to do before this evening’s big show.

So, without further ado, on with the show. And away we go …

BEST PICTURE

"The Artist"

3-to-2

As the opening title for Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 "The Kid" reads, "A comedy with a smile — and perhaps a tear." That perfectly describes this charming valentine to silent movies, and to Hollywood history. Its 10 nominations indicate broad support among Academy members, who understandably embrace its affection for, and belief in, the magic of the movies. And it’s built up such awards-season momentum that it seems poised to become only the second silent movie to win an Academy Award for best picture. (The first being 1927’s "Wings" — the very first best picture Oscar winner.)

"The Descendants"

5-to-1

For those who dismiss "The Artist’s" charms, considering it too lightweight and/or nostalgic for best picture honors, here’s an edgier, more thoughtful alternative, focusing on a variety of contemporary themes — from personal morality to public responsibility — in bittersweet fashion. With five nominations, it’s hardly an overall threat to "The Artist," but those nominations are all in major categories — including the key film editing category, almost always a key to a best picture win.

"The Help"

6-to-1

And for those who like their best picture winners heart-tugging and crowd-pleasing, here’s the ticket: an inspiring, if not exactly inspired, exploration of America’s segregated past, overflowing with homey homilies and broad-brush social commentary. Although "The Help" has only four nominations, three of them are in the acting categories — and, lest we forget, the actors’ branch represents the Academy’s largest voting bloc.

"Hugo"

12-to-1

Another love letter to the cinema, director Martin Scorsese’s fanciful first foray into 3-D — set in a magical 1930s Paris — wound up, a bit surprisingly, as this year’s leader of the pack with 11 nominations. Without any acting nominations, however, it’s a tougher sell as the best picture. But, as anyone who’s seen "Hugo" knows, just because something’s unlikely doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

"Midnight in Paris"

15-to-1

Another magical trip to Paris, from another master filmmaker. Woody Allen’s droll, deceptively perceptive study of restlessness and regret has only four nominations, but they’re all in major categories. Its lack of acting nods probably dooms its chances here, though. (Don’t worry, Woody — you’re still a favorite to collect tonight’s original screenplay Oscar.)

"War Horse"

25-to-1

On paper, "War Horse" seems like the perfect Oscar movie: a stirring, old-fashioned World War I epic designed for maximum emotional impact. But this is its only nomination in the "Big Six" categories; that, and director Steven Spielberg’s shutout in the directing competition, signals it’s probably going to finish out of the money.

"Moneyball"

40-to-1

This snappy, observant comedy — at least as much about the game of life as it is about the game of baseball — has nominations in key acting, screenplay and film editing categories. But the fact that director Bennett Miller wound up sitting on the bench, without a nomination, indicates that it’s not likely to win the pennant.

"The Tree of Life"

75-to-1

Lots of people — including judges at the Cannes film festival, who awarded it top honors — hailed Terrence Malick’s impressionistic, loss-of-innocence drama as a profound artistic triumph. But just as many found it ponderous, pretentious and (to borrow Woody Allen’s felicitous phrase from his Oscar-winning "Annie Hall") approaching "total heaviosity." Such love-it-or-hate-it movies rarely take home the gold statuette.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

100-to-1

Under the Academy’s new best picture rules, a movie needs 5 percent of the votes to earn a nomination. Despite its Oscar-bait subject matter (a little boy struggling to deal with his father’s death in the Sept. 11 attacks) and Oscar-pedigree team (including Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and three-time directorial nominee Stephen Daldry), it’s a mystery to me how anyone could cite this manipulative mediocrity as one of the year’s best movies.

BEST ACTOR

Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"

3-to-2

Chief among "The Artist’s" many charms: Dujardin’s deft portrayal of the title character’s riches-to-rags descent from matinee idol to Hollywood has-been. Dujardin’s so expressive and emotionally resonant it’s easy to forget the role’s technical-difficulty factor: that he’s doing it all without dialogue. And while he’s not a lock, he’s definitely looking like a winner.

George Clooney, "The Descendants"

3-to-1

Until "The Artist," and Dujardin, started to build momentum, this category looked like a Hollywood-hunk showdown between "Ocean’s Eleven" buddies Clooney and Pitt. Clooney’s already got one acting Oscar (a supporting one, for "Syriana"), but "The Descendants" provides an even better showcase for his sly, offhand mastery of mixed emotions; if an "Artist" backlash materializes, he could still sneak into the winner’s circle.

Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"

5-to-1

Considering the kind of one-two punch Pitt had in 2011 — "Moneyball’s" outwardly breezy golden boy, desperate to stay in the game, plus "Tree of Life’s" authoritarian, under-pressure 1950s patriarch — Pitt should have this Oscar all wrapped up. But fluky hits and bad hops aren’t limited to baseball; they also happen in the game of Oscar, and this year they’re definitely impacting Pitt’s game.

Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

50-to-1

Astoundingly, this is Oldman’s first Oscar nomination. Almost as astoundingly, it’s for a less-is-more performance of sly, spellbinding inscrutability; as master Cold War spy George Smiley, he doesn’t need to emote to convey emotion. Not that it’ll help Oldman win, but now that he’s scored an at-long-last breakthrough, at least he should be back in contention again.

Demian Bichir, "A Better Life"

100-to-1

And here’s an actors’ branch shout-out to hardworking Bichir (whose credits include cable TV’s "Weeds"), who humanizes "A Better Life’s" plaster-saint illegal immigrant with a combination of wary intensity and palpable goodness. He might not win an Oscar, but this nomination gives him a shot at more Oscar-worthy roles.

BEST ACTRESS

Viola Davis, "The Help"

2-to-1

Dramatic powerhouse Davis delivers another tower-of-strength portrayal as a maid in the segregated 1960s South, transforming (and transcending) stereotypes to create a flesh-and-blood portrait of grace under pressure. Some quibble that Davis plays a supporting rather than lead role, but anybody who’s seen "The Help" knows she’s the heart of the movie — and she’s the only nominee from a best picture contender. Sounds like a winning formula to me.

Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"

3-to-1

Another year, another Streep nomination. And while she already has two Oscars, it’s been 30 years since she won. Despite her uncanny impersonation of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, however, "The Iron Lady" is nobody’s idea of an Oscar-worthy movie; I’m betting voters will opt for Davis’ down-to-earth soul over Streep’s Biography Channel portrait.

Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"

15-to-1

In her second consecutive best actress nomination (following the harrowing, heartfelt "Blue Valentine"), Williams takes on the impossible task of embodying Hollywood goddess Marilyn Monroe and delivers an eerily persuasive portrayal that captures Monroe’s endless contradictions, from vulnerable little girl lost to manipulative star. If Davis and Streep split the vote (unlikely but not impossible), Williams could break through.

Rooney Mara, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

25-to-1

Nobody questions Mara’s commitment to, or explosive interpretation of, haunted hacker Lisbeth Salander in director David Fincher’s Hollywood version of Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster novel. But plenty of Oscar voters remember Noomi Rapace’s furious, Oscar-worthy (if unnominated) portrayal of the same character in the 2009 Swedish version — and are likely to steer clear of a second-time-around salute.

Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"

50-to-1

Three decades after winning an Obie Award for her off-Broadway performance, Close captures an Oscar nomination as the repressed Victorian-era title character, who masquerades as a man to earn her keep — and winds up trapped in a psychological prison of her own making. Against a weaker field, Close might stand a better chance for a career-salute Oscar, but not this year.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"

3-to-2

Supporting-actor Oscars are often career salutes. But Plummer, coming off last year’s best supporting actor nomination for "The Last Station," hits the trifecta here, delivering a rueful, poignant performance as a retiree who announces to his son that he’s got terminal cancer — and he’s gay. It’s definitely his Oscar to lose.

Max von Sydow, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

5-to-1

If anybody’s going to upset the veteran Plummer, it’s likely to be the legendary von Sydow, whose credits encompass Ingmar Bergman masterpieces and Hollywood hits from "The Exorcist" to "Minority Report." His delicate, restrained eloquence almost single-handedly counteracts the wretched excess of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" — which, lest we forget, is a best picture nominee.

Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"

15-to-1

Hill’s deliciously deadpan work as "Moneyball’s" resident Ivy League statistics whiz scores a deserved nomination, but the competition’s too tough to make him a likely winner. Besides, Oscar voters traditionally favor veterans, not youngsters, in this category — even when they’re in a best picture contender.

Kenneth Branagh, "My Week With Marilyn"

40-to-1

The fiendishly versatile Branagh — who’s been nominated in acting, screenwriting, directing and short film categories — strikes again, racking up his fifth nomination for his blustery portrayal of the legendary Laurence Olivier. If anybody’s going to win for "My Week With Marilyn," it’s not going to be Branagh.

Nick Nolte, "Warrior"

50-to-1

In another year, in a better movie, Nolte’s grizzled, desperate portrayal of a reformed drunk seeking redemption — by coaching his estranged son to the finals of a bruising mixed martial arts championship — might be his ticket to a career-salute Oscar. But not this year — and not this movie.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Octavia Spencer, "The Help"

2-to-1

The conventional Oscar wisdom used to be that two nominees from the same movie would split the vote and cancel each other out. But it didn’t happen last year (when "The Fighter’s" Melissa Leo beat, among others, co-star Amy Adams) and it doesn’t seem likely to happen this year; Spencer’s so refreshingly sassy, providing irresistibly outspoken contrast to co-star Viola Davis’ long-suffering stoicism, that she won’t need much "Help" to triumph.

Melissa McCarthy, "Bridesmaids"

3-to-1

Plenty of people thought "Bridesmaids" deserved more than the two nominations it received. (Not me, but never mind.) And while "Midnight in Paris" and "The Artist" are likely to duke it out for original screenplay honors, McCarthy’s still got a shot as the movie’s resident walking-id toughie, especially given her domination of "Bridesmaids’ " most jaw-droppingly outrageous scene. Spencer’s big scene also includes a scatalogical element, yet "The Help’s" has an underlying social-comment element accompanying its outrageousness — a major reason why McCarthy may be an Oscar bridesmaid.

Berenice Bejo, "The Artist"

15-to-1

If Oscar night turns into an all-"Artist" sweep — an unlikely prospect, but a prospect nonetheless — Bejo’s beguiling portrayal of a rising star, as touching as it is ebullient, will be swept along with it. Considering the competition, however, nobody should uncork the Champagne just yet.

Jessica Chastain, "The Help"

20-to-1

Chastain had the kind of year most performers dream of: four very different performances, from her expressive, almost wordless embodiment of motherly grace in "The Tree of Life" to her cheerfully bubble-headed ditz-with-a-heart-of-gold in "The Help." (To say nothing of equally vivid roles in "The Debt" and "Take Shelter.") Such versatility, and virtuosity, may work against her this year — but it seems safe to say that she’ll be back.

Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"

100-to-1

Literally and figuratively, the tough yet tender McTeer towers above co-star Glenn Close — and everybody else — in "Albert Nobbs." But the movie’s too low-profile to attract much attention in such a crowded field; this is one case where the nomination really is the award.

BEST DIRECTOR

Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"

3-to-2

Given "The Artist’s" best picture momentum, France’s Hazanavicius has to be the favorite — as much for his audacity as his artistry. After all, who in Hollywood would ever make a silent, black-and-white movie in 2011 — and wind up as an Oscar favorite in the process?

Martin Scorsese, "Hugo"

5-to-1

If anybody’s going to derail Hazanavicius in this category, it’s likely to be Professor Marty — who delivers his own captivating take on cinematic history. Besides, there are plenty of Oscar voters who still feel guilty for overlooking such classics as "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" — and might feel compelled to make it up to him here.

Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"

20-to-1

Payne’s patented ability to balance on the knife edge between laughter and pain is fully on display in "The Descendants," but his supple, subtle approach — recognized by the ever-observant director’s branch — doesn’t always play to the wider Academy membership.

Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"

25-to-1

With this nomination, and one for original screenplay, Allen passes the legendary Billy Wilder to become the most nominated writer-director in Oscar history. He’s more likely to win for his screenplay, but this nomination recognizes Allen’s offhand mastery of tone, timing — and life’s most rueful truths.

Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"

100-to-1

And here’s a directors’ branch tip of the hat to one of filmdom’s all-time mavericks, saluting Malick’s arresting, evocative imagery — which likely will prevail in the cinematography category, not here.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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