Right now it's looking like there's four movies competing for the win, four movies that look pretty safe for the nomination, and two open slots with little to fill them. I think we can all agree this was a bad year to expand to ten nominees, but it does make it a bit less predictable.
Competing for the Win:
1. Up in the Air
The probable best picture winner. It's timely, it's got top-notch acting, writing, and directing (all of which will likely be nominated), and it's got that old Best Picture feel. It would have less of a chance in a stronger year, but for 2009 it feels like a champ.
With super strong reviews and huge box office, Avatar will get people to watch the Oscars and stands a legit chance of winning. The Academy's general bias against genre movies combined with some weaknesses in the story may keep this from ultimately winning, but it's certainly a top contender.
3. The Hurt Locker
This may very well be the best movie of the year, and with more viewers it might stand a chance for Best Picture too. But having made only $12 million, a best picture win would be too big an insult to the moviegoing public. Still, a directing win for Kathryn Bigelow seems likely, and it should still manage nominations for picture, actor, and writing, among others.
Once a top contender, Precious has lost a lot of buzz and box office since its limited release surge into theaters. And having just seen it, I don't think people want to vote for the "feel miserable" movie during a recession. Still, Mo'Nique is the probable best supporting actress winner and Gabourey Sidibe should be nominated for best actress.
Likely to be Nominated:
5. Inglourious Basterds
People really love this movie, enough so that despite all its oddities it could probably even make a list of 5. I suppose residual embarrassment over Pulp Fiction's loss could put this into the front category, but I think this will have to stick with nominations for picture, directing, and writing.
Anti-animation bias may have kept Wall-E out of the top 5, but with ten nominees Up should be safe.
I haven't seen it, but it seems like the kind of populist feel-good movie people nominate and forget about. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon will likely score nods as well.
8. An Education
I thought the problem here would be that people liked it but didn't love it, hence leaving it vulnerable. But since it's actually dividing most of the people I know who have seen it, it may not even be able to count on the "liked it" vote. Still, Carey Mulligan for actress and Nick Hornby for screenplay seem more than safe.
The two open spots:
Originally, these spots would have gone to Nine and The Lovely Bones. But since Nine is inarguably awful, I can't imagine it getting on here unless people vote for it without watching it (which, to be honest, seems plausible). And The Lovely Bones is supposedly so bad they pushed the release date to mid-January. So what's that leave?
9. A Serious Man
This has been seriously dividing audiences, but since fans tend to be really passionate about it, enough #1-3 votes seem likely to give it slot #9.
Beyond that I'm less sure. The last slot could go to some other seriously Oscar-y movie like A Single Man, Crazy Heart, or The Messenger, but my bet is it goes to something a little more commercial. Which seems most likely?
Star Trek or District 9
Both have been mentioned as possible nominees, and both have their serious fanbases. But with Avatar likely to get most of the sci-fi love, and having to compete with each other as well, I'm skeptical either makes it through.
Julie and Julia or It's Complicated
Pretty sure It's Complicated's bad reviews cancel it out, but Julie and Julia seems like a legitimate choice, even if it may be too lightweight for the Oscars.
If people vote for what they love, maybe a group of younger voters could push this through, though I highly doubt it.
Where the Wild Things Are or Fantastic Mr. Fox
Both are huge critics' choices, but the former wasn't equally loved by the public, and the latter will fall into the same anti-animation bias that Up is already trying to overcome.
So what do I think will take the last slot?
10. (500) Days of Summer
Nobody's taking it too seriously as a contender, but in a weak year with ten slots to fill, why not? It mixes the comedy and drama enough that it doesn't feel lightweight, is creative enough with the storytelling to feel original, and those that like it love it.
So those are my picks. What am I leaving out? What am I overvaluing? Let me know in the comments.