Oscar remains the film industry's highest honor -- despite the fact that winners are often chosen by a seemingly arbitrary set of politics that overlook deserving winners in favor of convention.
This is why Kevin Costner got his Oscar nearly 20 years before Martin Scorsese, who patiently waited through each ceremony with gritted teeth since 1976's "Taxi Driver." Over the last decade, however, the Academy has gotten a bit wiser and rolled out some new tricks to keep viewers on their toes.
The last few years have seen some incredibly dark films earn gold, while strong character actors and middle-aged icons have been noticed for their careers' strongest work. This year is brimming with unbelievable films, writing and performances from a banner year.
While certain categories seem more locked than others, this is the first year in recent memory where all nominees have the legs to keep things neck-and-neck.
And if there is one thing that Arcade Fire proved at the Grammys two weeks ago, an upset (or upsets) might not be out of the question this time around.
* Best supporting actor
The rundown might go a bit like this: Geoffrey Rush has been here before and he'll likely be here again, but it doesn't look to be his night this time around. Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner have been reliably solid for years, and audiences finally seem to be realizing that, but Ruffalo rounded out a strong ensemble of equal talents, and Renner rose above "The Town's" mediocre script and overblown heist cliches.
It's going to come down to the dueling crackheads. John Hawkes was absolutely chilling as a meth casualty in the fantastic "Winter Bone," while Christian Bale dropped the Batman physique (and, thank god, the voice) for a freakishly charismatic turn as real-life ex-prize fighter turned freebase junkie Dicky Eklund. Hawkes, a veteran of the acclaimed "Deadwood" and star of the "Me and You and Everyone We Know," is an underdog with real bite.
Compared with Bales' method technique, Hawkes does feel the more authentic of the two. Still, Bale has more flash, and in every moment of "The Fighter," you can't take your eyes off him. Look for Bale to go home a winner and make everyone forget about that crappy "Terminator" movie.
* Best supporting actress
This year, the category of best supporting actress has been fraught with controversy, most notably for the nomination of 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Steinfeld, while absolutely Oscar-worthy in her superb role, is in nearly every scene of "True Grit." Logic should suggest that she get the best actress nod, but studio logic felt she would have a better chance in the supporting category.
Jacki Weaver is great in the Australian noir "Animal Kingdom," but many feel her nod canceled out "Another Year's" Lesley Manville, who was the critics' favorite. Helena Bonham Carter turned in another solid performance in "The King's Speech," but it's going to come down again to the supporting performances of "The Fighter." While Amy Adams is perfectly fine in her role as a drop-out bartender standing behind her man despite his dysfunctional family, Melissa Leo chews up everything in sight as that family's matriarch.
Having gotten a nod a couple of years ago for the chilly crime drama "Frozen River," expect Leo, a highly regarded veteran of both TV and independent film, to be given her due.
* Best original screenplay
This category is oftentimes an indicator of who will take top honors, but sometimes serves as a way to single out a much-admired smaller film and recognize it with a win. Mike Leigh's "Another Year" is a fine piece of work from a modern master, but with so much of the dialogue improvised, the nomination feels a little false.
If "The Fighter" had one fault, it was the somewhat uneven script, which is what tends to happen with too many cooks in the kitchen. Poor Christopher Nolan seems to be Oscar's new whipping boy, and this nomination feels more like a thrown bone and not much else. "The Kid's Are All Right" had a whip-smart, funny and real script, but Oscar hasn't properly awarded a comedy since "Annie Hall." Expect "The King's Speech" to start racking up awards starting here.
* Best adapted screenplay
Another category with a weird anomaly. How "Toy Story 3," with its innate ability to make grown-ups cry, landed up with an adapted screenplay nod is beyond logic. Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy did a bang-up job fleshing out a movie ("127 Hours) where the main character is stuck in the same spot for almost the entire film, but Boyle was a big winner a couple of years back with "Slumdog Millionaire." This, under Oscar politics, ruins nominees' chances the majority of the time.
Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini completely captured the essence of Daniel Woodrell's backwoods-noir, but "Winter's Bone" was such a small film in terms of the Oscars that it's bound to get passed up. Joel and Ethan Coen proved amazingly adept at capturing Charles Portis, but the duo's wins for "No Country for Old Men" put them in the same company as Mr. Boyle.
Deservedly, Aaron Sorkin's zeitgeist-defining script for "The Social Network" should take home the statue, and stands as one of the most perfectly crafted and undeniably brilliant scripts in years.
* Best actor
In a category mixed with actors representing the best of the old and the new generations, buzz is this category is pretty much locked. Javier Bardem, three years removed from his win in "No Country for Old Men," pretty much has zero chance in the little-seen and moderately received "Biutiful." Jeff Bridges was good enough in "True Grit" to make people forget John Wayne, but his win last year in "Crazy Heart" is going to guarantee the win to someone else.
Both Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco will most likely see another nomination if they continue to play their cards right, and Oscar tends to favor the older performer in the actor category. That's why Colin Firth is set to win with his inspirational turn as a stuttering king struggling to grasp his moment, in "The King's Speech." It's a great performance, the kind Academy voters tend to eat up.
* Best actress
In many ways, this category is a toss-up. Yes, many insiders think they have it all figured out, but here's how it might go. Michelle Williams' performance feels like an emotional cannonball to the chest, but "Blue Valentine" couldn't get the equally devastating Ryan Gosling nominated. Nicole Kidman getting nominated is getting to be as predictable as Meryl Streep getting the nod, so count her out this time. Jennifer Lawrence anchored "Winter's Bone" with her star-making turn, but the competition is too stiff.
So that means it's a stand-off between the young starlet and her middle-aged counterpart. In "Black Swan," Natalie Portman did for actors portraying ballet dancers what De Niro did for actors portraying boxers, so her devoted performance seems a shoo-in.
But consider this: Annette Bening has had numerous nominations, is one of Hollywood's most respected actresses, and is credited with keeping Warren Beatty off the market. Despite Portman being the front-runner, expect Bening's portrayal of the alpha female in a modern lesbian relationship (in "The Kids Are All Right") to finally give her the statue.
* Best director
Director of the year, again, often indicates what film will win best picture. However, that is not always the case. This year, you have directors like David O. Russell (for "The Fighter"). Yeah, he has an impressive track list of good to great films, but that online footage of him berating Lily Tomlin on the set of "I Heart Huckabees," his fistfight with George Clooney and his sleeper-hold party move on Christopher Nolan doesn't do his chances any favors.
Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" has a lot of steam behind it, but no one who matters knows who he is. Darren Aronofsky's skills led "Black Swan" to be more than it should have been, and Joel and Ethan Coen ("True Grit") again get cut off at the knees by their win three years ago.
So, it's Oscar time to honor Mr. David Fincher. This is the guy who made "Seven," "Fight Club" and "Zodiac" with hardly a proper nod from the awards-giving sect. "The Social Network" is this generation's "Citizen Kane," and Fincher's keen eye digs into the emotional subtext of the perils of the online frontier.
* Best picture
Again, the best picture category has been extended to include 10 films for the second year in a row. So, here we go. "Black Swan" is far too weird and bodes not to age well in the long turn. "The Fighter" is, at the end of the day, more about the individual performances and choice moments than the whole picture.
"Inception" is included for all of the flak the Academy got for excluding "The Dark Knight" in 2008. "The Kids Are All Right" falls into the comedy category, and as stated before, the Academy deems flawed anything that inspires more laughs than tears. "127 Hours" and "True Grit" are done in by the involved parties' previous wins, and "Toy Story 3" is done in by the fact that it has the best animated film category all but officially won.
"Winter's Bone" is as good as a film can get, but it is this year's little indie that could. That's why by the end of the night, Oscar is going to break with recent years' penchant for awarding darker films and give the inspirational and charming "The King's Speech" top prize come Sunday. It might be somewhat predictable, but look to Oscar to give the award to what inspires the most hope.
If it were up to me, it would be a three-way battle between "True Grit," "The Social Network," and "Winter's Bone," with "Winter's Bone" coming through as the worthy winner with its near documentary-like quality of the hidden lives of backwoods Missouri.