Obviously there are now three certainties in life: death, taxes and Daniel Day-Lewis winning an Academy Award on Sunday for Lincoln. Any other prediction spoils your Oscar office pool perfection. Then again, any of the remaining 23 categories could do the same. The 85th annual Academy Awards (7 p.m. Sunday on ABC) contains a level of suspense that too many previous shows didn't, and all it took was leaving Ben Affleck off the best director list while every major pre-Oscar balloting went his way. The academy's snub created a domino effect of speculation: Will Affleck's Argo get enough sympathy votes to win best picture? If that happens, who wins the best director Oscar that historically goes hand-in-hand with the big prize, and other choices that often fall in line? A month ago, Lincoln appeared unstoppable, leading the pack with 12 nominations.
Anything seems possible this year. (Except for host Seth MacFarlane behaving himself on stage.) For the 20th time in this job I'm offering calculated guesses about what's inside those envelopes. I've never picked every category correctly, which should make me as hesitant as Mary Todd Lincoln going to see a play. But even being wrong is part of Oscar night's fun. Besides, I can count on Daniel Day-Lewis to keep me from being shut out entirely. Right?
Amour; Argo; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Django Unchained; Les Misérables; Life of Pi; Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; Zero Dark Thirty
Persall's pick: The academy is already embarrassed by leaving Ben Affleck off the best director list. Voters won't allow themselves to be the only major group not choosing Argo as the best picture of 2012.
Michael Haneke, Amour; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Persall's pick: The academy's snub of Ben Affleck (Argo) has been ridiculed for weeks while he picked up every directing prize. Now it's a question of whether Steven Spielberg will graciously hand over the Oscar when he wins for Lincoln.
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; Denzel Washington, Flight
Persall's pick: Are you kidding? If the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., ever needs a vacation they'll just put Daniel Day-Lewis on display.
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Persall's pick: There isn't a seasoned, overdue nominee like Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep on the list, so the academy resorts to its favorite pastime in this category: anointing a rising star. Step up, Jennifer Lawrence.
Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln; Robert de Niro, Silver Linings Playbook; Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Persall's pick: The past five winners of the Screen Actors Guild award in this category proceeded to win Oscars. Actors comprise the largest voting branch in the academy. Therefore, the logical guess in the acting competition is Tommy Lee Jones.
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master; Sally Field, Lincoln; Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
Persall's pick: Despite the rest of her movie and the equally tiresome hype, Anne Hathaway's single-take, sung live version of I Dreamed a Dream left me breathlessly convinced she'll win.
Before My Time from Chasing Ice; Pi's Lullaby from Life of Pi; Suddenly from Les Misérables; Everybody Needs a Best Friend from Ted; Skyfall from Skyfall
Persall's pick: It wouldn't be an awards show without Adele accepting a prize. Skyfall will become the first Oscar-winning Billboard Top 10 hit since Eminem's Lose Yourself a decade ago.
Animated Feature Film
Frankenweenie; The Pirates! Band of Misfits; Wreck-It Ralph; ParaNorman; Brave
Persall's pick: Anything but the boring Brave. I'll guessing Tim Burton (Frankenweenie) finally wins an Oscar, for expanding the short film that got him fired from Disney nearly 30 years ago.
Foreign Language Film
Amour (Austria); A Royal Affair (Denmark); Kon-Tiki (Norway); No (Chile); War Witch (Canada)
Persall's pick: Along with best actor this is the easiest category to mark on your Oscar ballot. Amour is a somber masterpiece, and four other nominations in major categories confirms the academy's admiration.
Amour; Django Unchained; Flight; Moonrise Kingdom; Zero Dark Thirty
Persall's pick: Best picture nominees are always favored in the category. However, Zero Dark Thirty's narrative is hotly contested and foreign language films won only twice in the past half-century. By process of elimination that leaves Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained) claiming his second Oscar.
Argo; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Life of Pi; Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook
Persall's pick: Chris Terrio (Argo) blended material from both a book and magazine article into a seamless narrative, part political thriller, part Hollywood satire.
Anna Karenina; Django Unchained; Life of Pi; Lincoln; Skyfall
Persall's pick: Claudio Miranda's camera work in Life of Pi revitalized an increasingly tiresome 3-D gimmick, much as last year's winner Hugo did, and Avatar before that.
Anna Karenina; Les Misérables; Lincoln; Mirror Mirror; Snow White and the Huntsman
Persall's pick: The ravishing fashions of Anna Karenina are closer to 1950s couture than 19th century Russian aristocracy but anachronistic chic should pay off with an Oscar.
5 Broken Cameras; The Gatekeepers; How to Survive a Plague; The Invisible War; Searching for Sugar Man
Persall's pick: Searching for Sugar Man, exploring the fate of a 1970s folk musician from Detroit, forgotten by nearly everyone except two South African fans.
Inocente; Kings Point; Mondays at Racine; Open Heart; Redemption
Persall's pick: Always a difficult category but solely on a personal whim I'll guess Open Heart, following Rwandan children on a journey to receive life-saving heart treatments.
Argo; Life of Pi; Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; Zero Dark Thirty
Persall's pick: Argo, since William Goldenberg essentially melded two genres set in three worlds (Tehran, Hollywood and Washington, D.C.) into a singular popcorn flick.
Makeup and Hairstyling
Hitchcock; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; Les Misérables
Persall's pick: No movie contained as much hair to design or makeup to apply than The Hobbit. Also, one of the movie's nominees is named Peter Swords King, which just seems right for a J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy.
Anna Karenina; Argo; Life of Pi; Lincoln; Skyfall
Persall's pick: Only one nominee doesn't have a distinctly "been there, heard that" quality: Mychael Danna's spiritual, mystical score for Life of Pi.
Anna Karenina; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; Les Misérables; Life of Pi; Lincoln
Persall's pick: Personally, I'd vote for Anna Karenina's ingenious use of a music box theater conveying the same 19th century scope as Les Misérables, the movie academy members will be compelled to reward.
Adam and Dog; Fresh Guacamole; Head Over Heels; Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare"; Paperman
Persall's pick: Paperman, a Disney production packing more romance into seven minutes than most feature-length films. The envelope should be folded into a paper airplane in its honor.
Live Action Short
Asad; Buzkashi Boys; Curfew; Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw); Henry
Persall's pick: Henry is thematically similar to Amour, which the academy clearly admires. Death of a Shadow is the most cinematically ambitious nominee with its steampunk design and trippy sci-fi romance. But Curfew is the lone English-language nominee, which should give it enough advantage with voters to clinch the Oscar.
Argo; Django Unchained; Life of Pi; Skyfall; Zero Dark Thirty
AND . . .
Argo; Les Misérables; Life of Pi; Lincoln; Skyfall
Persall's picks: Quick rules of thumb for predicting sound-related Oscars: "Editing" means integrating sound effects, and the award is typically won by loud action flicks. "Mixing" is the layering of those effects plus voices, music, etc., and that award often goes to movies with an abundance of melody, especially musicals. Therefore, we'll go with Skyfall's bombast in the sound editing category and Les Misérables' lack of lip-synched singing in the mixing competition.
The Avengers; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; Life of Pi; Prometheus; Snow White and the Huntsman
Persall's pick: For all the superheroes, sci-fi and fairy tales on screen in 2012, nothing surpassed Life of Pi's 3-D wonders and wildlife reproductions, especially that wondrously computer-generated Bengal tiger.