Here is how I currently see the races shaping up:
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Clint Eastwood, "J. Edgar"
Michael Haznavicius, "The Artist"
Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life"
Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"
On the Outside:
Tate Taylor, "The Help"
Stephen Daldry, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Cameron Crowe, "We Bought a Zoo"
Is the "J. Edgar" trailer that bad? Personally, I don't think so. Di Caprio seems to be staying within a comfort zone, but that isn't surprising; it looks formal and business like, but that isn't surprising. When faced with political dramas it seems more likely to me that the Academy would choose "J. Edgar," a film about American politics and a prominent figure in particular, than the subtle aloof intricacies of Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," which is more arty and hard work. The odds on Eastwood's film being better are fairly slim, but otherwise nothing suggests to me that it isn't in a strong position going into the end of the season.
As the only one of these currently released "The Help" already has the mark of success, with decent critical praise, a ton of public approval, a handy mixture of light and shade to detail the Academy-friendly topics of race and prejudice. I really can't see it missing out given all of these collective factors. "The Artist" and "The Descendants" appear to be the titles exiting festivals with the biggest buzz, while Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" has the huge Pullitzer pedigree, a World War II setting, and a 'horse and his boy' story.
The wildcard pick here is "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," which reads on paper as fairly schematic and soapy, but it's written by Eric Roth of "Benjamin Button" approval and has an impressive cast. Lingering on the outside (this could be a list encompassing anything from five to ten nominees, remember) are the two aforementioned early-year releases by Woody Allen and Terrence Malick, both of which have many supporters and could emerge should some of those December titles falter.
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
Viola Davis, "The Help"
Felicity Jones, "Like Crazy"
Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"
On the Outside:
Charlize Theron, "Young Adult"
Keira Knightley, "A Dangerous Method"
Rooney Mara, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Elizabeth Olsen, "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
Kirsten Dunst, "Melancholia"
Beyond Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, who have been hogging most of the buzz even as few people have seen "Albert Nobbs" and almost nobody has seen "The Iron Lady," this category looks to be up-in-the-air. All of the perceived main contenders have detractors: in the case of Jones and Olsen being unknowns in small, critically well-received dramas, in the case of Mara a film and persona that looks too dark and off-putting for the Academy, and in the case of Knightley divisive reviews on whether her performance hits or completely misses.
I toyed with including Knightley and Theron, who at least have been here before, but with "A Dangerous Method" seeming to lose buzz and "Young Adult" a complete unknown quantity at this stage, I decided to leave them out for now. "Like Crazy" has been building word since Sundance and Felicity Jones is an extremely likable actress in a baity role, so I could easily foresee her campaign getting stronger through the Autumn. Michelle Williams' fate is more difficult to predict, since people don't seem to be on board with her or the film at all, but once the reviews start spilling out there could be a nostalgia factor with the media. Especially since Marilyn never got an Oscar nomination herself.
Best Actor in a Leading Role
George Clooney, "The Descendants"
Leonardo Di Caprio, "J. Edgar"
Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"
Gary Oldman, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter"
On the Outside:
Woody Harrelson, "Rampart"
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "50/50"
Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"
Matt Damon, "We Bought a Zoo"
Michael Fassbender, "Shame"
It'd take a significant departure from George Clooney's usual middling, wry charm for him to wow me in "The Descendants" but when you're an Academy favourite, you're an Academy favourite, and this is a sympathetic role for him. Ditto Di Caprio, who has to be favourite to win, if only because there's virtually no biopic competition, and the fact that he's regarded as overdue by quite a few. But maybe not quite as overdue as Gary Oldman (certainly if we're talking in the British quarters) and even if "Tinker, Tailor..." contains his most withdrawn and crafted performance it'll probably be enough to get him a nomination for a film that's universally-respected.
From there, Jean Dujardin has the buzz, and if "The Artist" turns out to be the real deal among arthouse audiences and the older demographic then this doesn't seem an unlikely get. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the guarantee of a well-liked film and the hugely advantageous topic of cancer on his side, but he's still relatively young in terms of Best Actor nominees, so they could easily oversee him for older men in more high profile films -- like Tom Hanks or Matt Damon. But instead I see the fifth nominee being someone like Michael Shannon, who falls somewhere in the middle of all this mix of respectability, prestige, and acclaim. It's still a game of guessing.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Jessica Chastain, "The Help"
Judi Dench, "J. Edgar"
Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"
Vanessa Redgrave, "Coriolanus"
Octavia Spencer, "The Help"
On the Outside:
Melanie Laurent, "Beginners"
Jessica Chastain, "Take Shelter"
Carey Mulligan, "Drive"/"Shame"
Marion Cotillard, "Midnight in Paris"
Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"
Maybe I'm overestimating "The Help" a touch but I'm still confident about its chances across the board. Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain both have roles as the funny, caretaking black woman and the ditzy white woman who confounds common stereotypes of her race. Chastain has too many films out this year when you consider how difficult it is for a new-on-the-scene actress to build an awards campaign with one film these days. But the performances themselves have been so well-liked, and this film is so well-liked, that this could legitimately happen for her.
Vanessa Redgrave's continued great notices for Shakespearian drama "Coriolanus" and Judi Dench's surprisingly prominent presence in the newly-released "J. Edgar" trailer both suggest that these perennial women of awards discussion can reappear for (perhaps) final nominations/wins. It's been twelve seasons since Janet McTeer managed her sole nomination for "Tumbleweeds" but a role opposite Glenn Close's cross-dressing butler has since renewed hopes of a second Osar outing. It's a difficult pick to be confident about given that nobody particularly liked "Albert Nobbs" and McTeer's presence doesn't have the comeback factor of her co-star. She could easily be completely overshadowed.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Jim Broadbent, "The Iron Lady"
Albert Brooks, "Drive"
Armie Hammer, "J. Edgar"
Tom Hardy, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
On the Outside:
Nick Nolte, "Warrior"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Ides of March"
Ben Kingsley, "Hugo"
Christoph Waltz, "Carnage"
Kenneth Branagh, "My Week With Marilyn"
I nearly predicted the popular Christoph Waltz, since he's been singled out as the best of the "Carnage" ensemble and may be becoming known as one of those reliable 'supporting' players after his Oscar win in that category, but ultimately "Carnage" doesn't look as if it's going to be the major contender it promised to be. The only solid reviews so far have been for Albert Brooks, Christopher Plummer, and Nick Nolte - the latter of which could easily make the five but who is in a film which, ironically, doesn't look as if it's going to last the distance.
Tom Hardy gives the second best performance in Tomas Alfredson's slow-burning espionage thriller (no mean feat!), but faces internal competition from Benedict Cumberbatch; Jim Broadbent is surely going to be stellar as the baity husband of Meryl's Thatcher, and if that "J. Edgar" trailer emphasises anything, it's that Armie Hammer is going to get more to do than afforded him in "The Social Network."