Times film critic Steve Persall makes his Oscar predictions

My head hurts, like someone went Inception on me or Micky Ward caught me with a left hook.

It happens every year around this time, from sorting through Academy Award nominees in 24 categories to guessing the winners. I'd like to believe I'll be perfect, but I have a better chance of sprouting black feathers and mastering a jete.

This year, 10 truly deserving best-picture nominees have a trickle-down effect on narrower and therefore highly competitive categories. Even in acting races with clear-cut favorites, a case can be made for an upset. In fact, I'm predicting one in a major category.

After all the awards shows and critics polls, with every filmmaking guild except caterers weighing in, picking the Oscars is still dicey. That's especially true as the academy's voting membership evolves into a younger, more adventurous entity.

Each major category features conventional films that the academy historically loves (The King's Speech, The Fighter), and a new wave of edgier excellence (The Social Network, Black Swan) finally gaining respect. Tonight's results will determine how youthful the academy's feeling these days.

Me? I'm feeling like Rooster Cogburn the morning after, head spinning with past awards results and current buzz. Caught between a rock and 24 hard places. Don't worry; the kid will be all right, if three-quarters of these predictions come true. Steve Persall, Times film critic

BEST PICTURE

127 Hours

Black Swan

The Fighter

Inception

The Kids Are All Right

The King's Speech

The Social Network

Toy Story 3

True Grit

Winter's Bone

Twelve nominations for The King's Speech are two more than any other movie, and the overall leader typically wins best picture. Late box-office momentum and an ensemble prize from the Screen Actors Guild confirm that hunch. That is, unless Oscar's quest for youthful relevance leads to The Social Network, although that's admitting that nearly every other awards show was right, and earlier. The academy will go its own way.Persall's pick: 'The King's Speech'

 ACTRESS

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone

Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Portman has everything in her favor: a sweep of previous awards, an iconic character in Black Swan, and a baby bump boosting her already inestimable charm. More people saw her performance than the other four combined (times two), so any other choice puts the academy at odds with mainstream moviegoers. Ignore the whispers about Bening being due; she'll only take home Warren Beatty again.

Persall's pick: Portman

 ACTOR

Javier Bardem, Biutiful

Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

Colin Firth, The King's Speech

James Franco, 127 Hours

Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Any selection besides Firth would be one of the most shocking upsets in history. Only Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy ever claimed consecutive best-actor Oscars, so odds are against Bridges. Eisenberg and Franco split whatever youth movement is building in the academy, and Bardem's entirely foreign language role is a handicap with some voters. Oh, and Firth was flat-out terrific.

Persall's pick: Firth

 SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christian Bale, The Fighter

John Hawkes, Winter's Bone

Jeremy Renner, The Town

Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right

Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

The academy makes nice with fans still griping about The Dark Knight not being nominated for best picture of 2008 by giving an Oscar to the guy who played Batman. Bale patched up his surly reputation with a succession of amiable acceptance speeches, while matching Firth and Portman's win streaks. Rush could win if there's a King's Speech landslide in the works.

Persall's pick: Bale

 SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams, The Fighter

Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech

Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

There must be one surprise in the acting races. I'm guessing it's here. Leo won nearly all previous awards, but splitting votes with a co-star seldom succeeds at the Oscars. The academy hasn't minded giving this prize to newcomers who aren't old enough to vote (Patty Duke, Anna Paquin, Tatum O'Neal). Steinfeld, 14, also plays the lead in True Grit, which doesn't seem fair among supporting roles but never hurts.

Persall's pick: Steinfeld

 DIRECTOR

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

David O. Russell, The Fighter

Tom Hooper, The King's Speech

David Fincher, The Social Network

Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

Since 1985, the Directors Guild of America presaged this winner 76 percent of the time. This year the group chose Hooper, and that's good enough for me.

Persall's pick: Hooper

 ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

127 Hours

The Social Network

Toy Story 3

True Grit

Winter's Bone

Persall's pick: Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network defined the now, and made intelligent dialogue sound cool.

 ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Another Year

The Fighter

Inception

The Kids Are All Right

The King's Speech

Persall's pick: David Seidler turned a childhood stammer into a decades-long labor of love. Winning an Oscar for The King's Speech is the perfect happy ending.

 ANIMATED FEATURE

How to Train Your Dragon

The Illusionist

Toy Story 3

Persall's pick: Toy Story 3, for completing the most consistently superb screen trilogy ever — and making $415 million domestically doing it.

 DOCUMENTARY SHORT

Killing in the Name

Poster Girl

Strangers No More

Sun Come Up

The Warriors of Qiugang

Persall's pick: Killing in the Name, about a Muslim antiterrorism activist whose family was murdered on his wedding day by a suicide bomber.

 ANIMATED SHORT

Day & Night

The Gruffalo

Let's Pollute

The Lost Thing

Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary)

Persall's pick: The whimsical fable Day & Night. Never bet against Pixar in this category.

 LIVE ACTION SHORT

The Confession

The Crush

God of Love

Na Wewe

Wish 143

Persall's pick: Na Wewe has the political edge voters admire, depicting an incident during 1994's Rwandan genocide.

 ART DIRECTION

Alice in Wonderland

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Inception

The King's Speech

True Grit

Persall's pick: Historical accuracy in The King's Speech trumps the fantasy elements of Inception.

 CINEMATOGRAPHY

Black Swan

Inception

The King's Speech

The Social Network

True Grit

Persall's pick: True Grit's Roger Deakins is the most highly regarded camera jockey who never won an Academy Award. Until tonight.

 COSTUMES

Alice in Wonderland

I Am Love

The King's Speech

The Tempest

True Grit

Persall's pick: Alice in Wonderland, for its sheer volume of trippy, imaginative designs.

 DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Gasland

Inside Job

Restrepo

Waste Land

Persall's pick: Charles Ferguson's Inside Job deserved to be a best-picture finalist.

 MAKEUP

Barney's Version

The Way Back

The Wolfman

Persall's pick: The subtle aging of Paul Giamatti, playing a loser through 40 years, makes Barney's Version a winner.

 FILM EDITING

Black Swan

The Fighter

The King's Speech

127 Hours

The Social Network

Persall's pick: Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter masterfully juggled both sides of the Facebook controversy in The Social Network.

 FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Biutiful (Mexico)

Dogtooth (Greece)

In a Better World (Denmark)

Incendies (Canada)

Hors la Loi (Algeria)

Persall's pick: Bardem's performance and Alejandro González Iñárritu's reputation (Babel, 21 Grams) make Biutiful an obvious choice.

 ORIGINAL MUSICAL SCORE

How to Train Your Dragon

Inception

The King's Speech

127 Hours

The Social Network

Persall's pick: Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross set a Red Bull pace for The Social Network with synth-rock urgency.

 ORIGINAL SONG

Coming Home from Country Strong

I See the Light from Tangled

If I Rise from 127 Hours

We Belong Together from Toy Story 3

Persall's pick: Four more choices. Seriously. Otherwise, I See the Light, only because the floating lanterns that accompanied it were gorgeous.

 SOUND EDITING

Inception

Toy Story 3

TRON: Legacy

True Grit

Unstoppable

Persall's pick: Even when the plot was indecipherable, the aural awesomeness of Inception was loud and clear.

 SOUND MIXING

Inception

The King's Speech

Salt

The Social Network

True Grit

Persall's pick: Another technical award for Inception sounds appropriate.

 VISUAL EFFECTS

Alice in Wonderland

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Hereafter

Inception

Iron Man 2

Persall's pick: Buildings flipping? A fight scene in a rotating hallway? Inception is the only nominee showing wonders we've never seen before.

Times film critic Steve Persall makes his Oscar predictions 02/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 4:24pm]

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