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Oscar Preview: Your Winning Ballot (Plus the Best Movies Of 2011)

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OK, the Academy Awards are Sunday night. It will be long, a little dull, people will be glad to have Billy Crystal back after a long break and the big awards will go mostly to the movies that everyone expects. But someone has to win the Oscar pool and why shouldn't it be you and me?

As with most years, it comes down to a few key categories where the winner is in doubt. Here's my ballot, followed by a description of your options in the races that are too murky or too close to call.

I cap it off with my list of the best movies of 2011. Good luck!

MY OSCAR BALLOT

BEST PICTURE -- The Artist
BEST DIRECTOR -- Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
BEST ACTOR -- George Clooney for The Descendants
BEST ACTRESS -- Viola Davis for The Help
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR -- Christopher Plummer for Beginners
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS -- Octavia Spencer for The Help
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY -- Midnight In Paris
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY -- The Descendants
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE -- Rango
BEST FOREIGN FILM -- Monsieur Lazhar
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE -- Undefeated
BEST ART DIRECTION -- Hugo
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY -- The Tree of Life
BEST COSTUME DESIGN -- The Artist
BEST EDITING -- The Artist
BEST MAKEUP -- The Iron Lady
BEST SCORE -- The Artist
BEST SONG -- "Man Or Muppet" from The Muppets
BEST SOUND EDITING -- Hugo
BEST SOUND MIXING -- Hugo
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS -- Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT -- Saving Face
BEST LIVE ACTON SHORT -- Raju
BEST ANIMATED SHORT -- A Morning Stroll

MY OSCAR BALLOT -- BREAKING IT DOWN AND NAMING THE POTENTIAL SPOILERS

BEST PICTURE -- The Artist

It's hard to believe a B&W foreign film with modest box office success in the U.S. is the front-runner but that has to be admitted at this stage. A film from overseas should have won the Best Picture Oscar many years ago. (I'm still gutted that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon didn't pull it off.) But for those who find this movie shallow, it could have been worse -- the first foreign film to win Best Picture could have been Life Is Beautiful. The Help did so poorly in everything but acting, it's not the factor here it might have been. If there's an upset, it will be The Descendants. But there won't be an upset.

BEST DIRECTOR -- Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist

The Best Picture and Best Director awards don't always go hand in hand, but they probably will here. Hollywood loves a Valentine and they love a gambler who places their own money on a passion project and succeeds. Plus Michel and his star/wife Berenice Bejo are charming as heck and have that great dog in tow everywhere they go. The Academy clearly loved Hugo as well, but not enough to nominate any of its actors. Still, Martin Scorsese is the only potential upset here and it's not out of the question.

BEST ACTOR -- George Clooney for The Descendants

Here's one of the tightest races of the night. Jean Dujardin is the frontrunner for his wonderfully appealing, George Clooney-like work in The Artist. He won the SAG award for Best Actor and the smart money is on him. But I keep thinking the Academy is passionate about The Descendants (far more than The Help and Hugo). TV ads for the movie with Clooney breaking down in tears at his wife's bedside are reportedly running nonstop in LA and the movie has been one of the great success stories at the box office this year. I think they want to reward the movie with more than Best Adapted Screenplay and this is the place to do it. If you want to win your Oscar pool you have to do well in the tech categories and pick an upset in the big races. If you like to play it safe, go with Jean. I'm going with George.

BEST ACTRESS -- Viola Davis for The Help

Meryl Streep is such a good actress she had us all convinced that her performance in The Iron Lady was going to finally win her another Oscar after decades of being an also-ran... even though the movie was poorly reviewed, did poorly at the box office and annoyed the liberal sensibilities of Oscar voters by soft-soaping such a controversial figure. She's very good as always, but the movie just doesn't stay with you. More to the point, The Help is one of the big hits of the year and Viola Davis is the heart of the movie (even though in typical Hollywood fashion it deals with the plight of maids in the racist Deep South by telling the story of a white woman who risks her social standing to tell their story). Davis is a terrific actress and Streep will have to give an even better performance when her name isn't called and she tries to look delighted.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR -- Christopher Plummer for Beginners

A career award, though his role in the little-seen Beginners does press a number of Oscar buttons. The only question is if he'll make some allusion to his most famous film role in his speech, something like "Your applause feels like the sound of music to me." Not likely.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS -- Octavia Spencer for The Help

Like Davis, she's won every guild award in sight. For a while, it seemed like Spencer would be carrying the banner for the film come awards time, but Davis fought off Streep again and again so they both get to win. For all its flaws, thank goodness people have the taste to reward the maids and not the white ladies they worked for. Is there a possible upset here? Melissa McCarthy caused a stir in Bridesmaids but I think the movie is too vulgar for Academy voters. Still, this category is often a spoiler and I wouldn't be surprised to see McCarthy or even Jessica Chastain of The Help being named. Chastain's win would be an anointing of a new star and recognition for her excellent work in The Tree Of Life, Take Shelter, The Help and several other films this year. Not out of the question but I believe they'll feel it's in bad taste given The Help's story and avoid this.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY -- Woody Allen for Midnight In Paris
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY -- Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for The Descendants, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I'm still a little surprised that the biggest box office success of Woody Allen's career didn't snag his usual clutch of acting nominations. But the Academy loved this movie -- like The Descendants, another major word of mouth hit, especially for the middle-aged voters that dominate the Academy (the media age is roughly 62). I think the major threat is The Artist. If it wins here and for Costumes, the movie is sweeping and Clooney can stop worrying about what speech he'll give. For Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants will win. I have a nutty idea that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might upset, but that's nutty. Stick with the frontrunner.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE -- Rango

How is it that director Gore Verbinksi turned to animation for the first time and made by far the best film of his career? Rango looks great, makes clear and repeated nods to classic movies like Chinatown and the spaghetti western genre, it stars Johnny Depp and made money at the box office. As if that's not enough, Pixar didn't make a good movie this year and wasn't even nominated. A lock.

BEST FOREIGN FILM -- Monsieur Lazhar

I hope I'm wrong and that A Separation wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Heck, it should have been nominated for Best Picture as well. Do not miss this gripping, exceptionally well-made Iranian film that was good enough to snag a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a rarity for foreign films. (The screenwriters have great taste and often make smart nominations like this.) But the "obvious" choice is rarely the one that wins in the Foreign Film race, for reasons too complicated to go into right now. My original choice to upset was In Darkness because it's about the Holocaust. But that movie is a little too caustic in its approach. So the nutty, leftfield, WTF were they thinking pick is this heartwarming Canadian film about a schoolteacher. The smart money is on A Separation.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE -- Undefeated

Another exceptionally difficult category to call. Do they reward Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory for being such a committed project that helped bring justice by shining a spotlight on a remarkable case of railroading teens in a murder case? Do they celebrate Wim Wenders' beautiful 3-D accomplishment and the career of the late, great Pina Bausch? Do they go all feel-good with Undefeated, a real-life Blind Side? (Though The Blind Side was based on a real story.) I've been thinking the media attention for the case would tip the scales in favor of Paradise Lost 3. I'd pick the one movie I saw in this category, Pina, simply because it's so lovely. But you can't go wrong with the unexpected crowd-pleaser so I'm rather randomly picking Undefeated. Your guess is as good as mine.

BEST ART DIRECTION -- Hugo

Assuming The Artist doesn't sweep and that Hugo gets some love in the tech categories it dominated, this one goes to Scorsese's love-fest for the movies.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY -- The Tree of Life

Again, The Artist could sweep and win for its gorgeous black and white look. But the work on The Tree Of Life was SO stunning that it should be undeniable. War Horse had the worst cinematography of the year. If the Academy confuses its kitsch overkill with artistry, the howl of despair you hear will be coming from my apartment.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN -- The Artist

Another very tricky category. The traditional pick would be Anonymous, because it's a lavish period piece. My friend Howard calls this the Most Costumes award. But that movie truly was anonymous in every sense and has been so thoroughly forgotten it seems unlikely. And when you think of Hugo, the costumes do not come to mind. That means it's down to the glamour of The Artist versus the realism of Jane Eyre. Glamour wins every time. Mind you, the Costume guild gave it to Madonna's movie W./E., which is also period and very glamorous. And this category has been willfully offbeat for the past 10 years. Still, that's not how voters think when they're voting; that's just how we think when we're trying to predict how voters think. Michael O'Connor of Jane Eyre won before and that never hurts. But I'm sticking with the "obvious" choice of The Artist.

BEST EDITING -- The Artist

Sometimes an action film or editing-heavy special effects movie can win here. But there's no tech heavyweight here. It's down to The Artist versus the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker and her work on Hugo. I think it's a toss-up myself because The Artist might sweep, but Schoonmaker is a powerful name who has won three times already. Like Scorsese, I think they'll feel she's won enough already and stick with their heart and go for The Artist.

BEST MAKEUP -- The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep really did do a marvelous job as Margaret Thatcher and all due credit to her makeup team for giving Streep the tools to deliver that performance. Watch her smile with delight when they win while she's secretly wondering if the Academy thinks the makeup delivers the performance and not her. The work on Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs was too subtle to win. If the final Harry Potter had been nominated for Best Picture I would have seen this as its consolation prize. It still might pull off an upset, but The Iron Lady should win.

BEST SCORE -- The Artist

This branch should be ashamed of itself for giving the great John Williams not one but two Oscar nominations for his rote work on two disappointing movies. The Artist does face some controversy for its use of extended passages from Vertigo but that was an artistic choice, not a cheat. The movie is wall to wall score so I think it will triumph. If not, Howard Shore might sneak in with Hugo.

BEST SONG -- "Man Or Muppet" from The Muppets

The biggest disappointment of the night for me is that we don't get to see Jason Segal and the Muppets perform this charming tune. The song from Rio is a group sing-along I can't imagine winning, though voters may be swayed by the name of Sergio Mendes. Still I doubt it. And why the heck did they only nominate two songs? I still haven't heard a good explanation of why. And here's hoping the brilliant idea of having the Muppets host the show some year comes through. Heck, it airs on ABC which is owned by Disney which owns the Muppets, so that should be a no-brainer, especially since their movie was a commercial success. Animal intros the Best Song, Miss Piggy flirts with actors and tries to hog the spotlight, Kermit is gracious and unassuming...the jokes practically write themselves and actors would love to be paired with muppets while presenting awards. Do it!

BEST SOUND EDITING -- Hugo
BEST SOUND MIXING -- Hugo

One of the most mysterious categories of all for Oscar voters, who have a vague idea of how editing and other tech specialties work but really don't understand sound. Heck, neither do I, particularly. Movies like Transformers: Dark Of The Moon often dominate here, but not this year.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS -- Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Here's the most obvious spot for the final Harry Potter to get a pat on the back. But I believe the Oscar push for actor Andy Serkis really educated voters on the amazing technical achievement of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It was a ground-breaking leap forward in using motion capture to let an actor create a genuine performance and I think the Apes will triumph. If you're really aggrieved HP7P2 wasn't nominated for Best Picture, you may want to plug for it here because you think Oscar voters will be embarrassed by that omission. But Oscar voters don't really do "embarrassment," so I' sticking with Apes.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT -- Saving Face

This seems the clearest winner to me in the shorts categories. it happens to be the best of the shorts, but that's rarely the point. It also juggles several stories gracefully: you get women's rights, a court battle and the charity work of a plastic surgeon all wrapped up in one tale about the horrifying practice of men in Pakistan throwing acid on the faces of wives and women they want to punish. I'll be shocked if this loses.

BEST LIVE ACTON SHORT -- Raju

Often, at least two of the three shorts categories are easy to pick if you've seen them. The crowd-pleasers just jump out. Not this year. We've got three light comedies, one serious drama and one muddled effort with the only name actors and name director (The Shore with Ciaran Hinds and Terry George). George has been nominated in major categories before so he seems like a frontrunner. But Raju has a noble tale of adoption, kidnapping and features white people in India. It's a dead heat but since The Shore is pretty lightweight throughout, I'm going to give it to the most "serious" movie on the list. But the name recognition of The Shore could be a serious draw for Oscar voters.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT -- A Morning Stroll

Another very hard category to call. Many people are predicting the warm but rather long tale The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore and there's no question the elderly crowd I saw it with oohed and aahed over it. On the other hand, Pixar's entry La Luna was short and sweet and much punchier with a nice Italian air that makes it feel very different from their many other winners in this category. But A Morning Stroll was the cleverest and most ambitious in its tale of a chicken that goes for a morning stroll, revealing the changes in the world via different animated styles and by jumping forward in time by 50 years each time it goes out for a walk. I just wish the "button" at the end were stronger. And Dimanche had the most distinctive animation. I'd be surprised by absolutely none of them except the weak Wild Life. My heart says La Luna, my brain says go with the top pick of others and choose Fantastic Flying Books but my gut says this category has been very envelope-pushing in recent years and that A Morning Stroll will continue that trend in the absence of a clear front-runner.

So that's my Oscar ballot. Good luck with your pool! Now here are my picks for the best films of 2011.

THE BEST MOVIES OF 2011

1. The Tree Of Life
2. A Separation
3. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
5. The Time That Remains
6. Project Nim
7. Meek's Cutoff
8. Take Shelter
9. Pina
10. Arthur Christmas
11. Tuesday, After Christmas
12. The Artist

Honorable Mentions

Win Win
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
The Sleeping Beauty
The Black Power Mixtapes
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Bombay Beach
The Muppets

Early Favorites For 2012

The Kid With A Bike
Attenberg
The Footnote
The Fairy
Michael
I Wish I Knew
(dir Zhang Ke Jia; no release date set)

Hopefully you'll use this list to check out some movies you haven't seen yet. What were your favorite films of 2011?

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.

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