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Critic predicts Oscar winners

The Academy Award nominations were announced bright and early on Jan. 24, and just like every year, there were surprises, shocks, and snubs.

What’s pleasantly surprising about this year's nominations is that, for at least most of the categories, there isn't a clear winner. Sure, there are favorites (and the upcoming BAFTA awards usually help clear some of the fog), but awards are still up in the air.

This week I’ll be taking a look at the nominees for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress, analyzing the nominees and giving my predictions and personal picks.

Best Picture Nominations:

The Artist

The Descendants

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Help

Hugo

Midnight in Paris

Moneyball

The Tree of Life

War Horse

Last year, the Academy decided to increase the amount of nominees for Best Picture from five to 10. Their reasoning was ostensibly to make sure that all of the worthy films of the year received a nomination. This was seen as a response to the 2008 Oscars, where many critics decried the fact that critical darlings "The Dark Knight" and "The Wrestler" failed to receive nominations.

However, many (including myself) believed that this was merely a marketing tactic designed to please as many different studios as possible by giving more films nominations.

But, starting this year, the Academy decided to opt for a flexible nomination process: anywhere from five to 10 films could receive nominations. How many did they nominate? Nine. A drastic departure, for sure.

But what's even more infuriating than the Academy's miniscule departure from last year's process is the fact that they didn't even give the extra nominations to the actual best films. Where's "Drive?" Where's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?" Where's "My Week with Marilyn" or "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" or "A Separation?"

A very positive thing to see out of the Best Picture nominations is the inclusion of "The Tree of Life." My personal choice for best film of the year, the film was considered by many to be too polarizing to ever receive a nomination.

It's nice to see the Academy recognize Terrence Malick's most recent masterpiece. No film this year was as genuine, majestic, and conscious of the realities of the human spirit.

Prediction: "The Artist" (but watch for potential spoilers "Hugo" and "The Descendants")

Best Director Nominations:

Woody Allen – Midnight in Paris

Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist

Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life

Alexander Payne – The Descendants

Martin Scorsese – Hugo

A fairly expected group of nominees. Hazanavicius, Payne, Scorsese and Allen were essentially guarantees from the beginning of the Awards season. The only question mark was the fifth nominee.

For a while it seemed like Tate Taylor ("The Help") would take it, and it was always unwise to discount Spielberg, especially when he had two entries ("Tintin" and "War Horse").

Malick's nomination was essentially a complete surprise, but his inclusion is one of the brighter spots of this year's nominations. What's equally as interesting is that the nominees this year contain some of the greatest directors of all time: Allen, Malick and Scorsese.

If I had my way, Malick would walk away with Best Director and then, minutes later, his masterpiece "The Tree of Life" would take away Best Picture. Every element of "The Tree of Life" is a result of his virtuoso touch, and no one else is as deserving.

Prediction: With Malick's odds (sadly) being zero, I actually look for Scorsese to walk away with this one, and have Best Picture and Best Director split for the first time since the 2006 Oscars.

Best Actor Nominations:

Demian Bichir – A Better Life

George Clooney – The Descendants

Jean Dujardin – The Artist

Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Brad Pitt – Moneyball

Unlike last year, where the actual best actor of the year (Ryan Gosling for "Blue Valentine") was not even nominated and the eventual winner, Colin Firth, was clearly the best candidate of the nominees, this year sees all five nominees being equally deserving of not only the nomination, but also the potential win.

Bichir is the true dark horse, but he's luminescent in "A Better Life." Clooney and Pitt turn in excellent performances, both demonstrating why they are among the most respected actors working. This is Oldman's first nomination (which is mind-boggling), but his performance as George Smiley is steely and extraordinary. Dujardin is a revelation in "The Artist"; he's so good, you'd be forgiven to think he was an actual silent film actor.

This is not to say they weren't any snubs: Ryan Gosling gave two fantastic performances ("Drive" and "The Ides of March"), Michael Fassbender for "Shame" was considered a shoo-in, and Leonardo DiCaprio was really the only good thing about the muddled J. Edgar.

If I gave out the award, I'd award Pitt in a heartbeat. While every nominee this year was phenomenal, Pitt was nothing short of sublime. His subtle, nuanced and affecting performance in "Moneyball" ought to earn him his first Oscar.

Prediction: Clooney is the safe bet, but watch for Brad Pitt (who, in my personal opinion, is the most deserving of the nominees) and even Dujardin (who walked away with a Golden Globe).

Best Actress Nominations:

Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs

Viola Davis – The Help

Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady

Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn

Just like with Best Actor, this is an incredibly qualified and competitive group of nominees. Close is very good in the otherwise boring and dry Albert Nobbs. Davis and Streep, as always, are masterful and put on clinics for controlled, technical acting in "The Help" (a film I personally was not a huge fan of) and "The Iron Lady" (which was unsurprisingly a critical dud).

Rooney Mara (arguably the biggest surprise nominee in the lead acting categories behind Bichir) is a livewire of raw emotion and intensity in David Fincher's "Tattoo," and Michelle Williams plays Marilyn Monroe with a quiet beauty and tragic honesty – she reveals sides of Marilyn that are the stuff of legends.

The only noticeable snub in this category was Tilda Swinton for "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Personally, I'd swap her and Close, but "Kevin" was a very odd, disturbing film, and perhaps it simply didn't register with the Academy voters.

My personal pick for this award is Mara. From her first appearance on screen, Mara absolutely dominates the film, giving a complex, emotionally powerful performance that is as brave as it is incredibly mature for an actress so young. Unfortunately, her odds are next to zero, so she should take the nomination as a win in and of itself.

Prediction: My gut says Davis, my brain says Streep, and my heart says Williams (who is a close second for me behind Mara, and Williams actually has a chance). Any of those three could potentially win, but if I have to choose, I'm taking Davis.

Next week I'll take a look at the supporting acting categories, and the writing categories.

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