On and off target: From war-torn Baghdad to battles in outer space, what are the chances of success for this year's Oscar nominees?

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BEST PICTURE

The night's biggest battle has shaped into a two-horse-race between a big studio blockbuster and a small, independent war movie. In the "Goliath" role, you have the special-effects addict James Cameron's 3D epic Avatar, the most lucrative film ever made. In the "David" camp sits The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's lesser-seen but brilliant portrait of a bomb-disposal team in Baghdad.

Who will win?

Recent form suggests The Hurt Locker, by a whisker: it has triumphed in every major awards event of 2010, with the exception of the notoriously unreliable Golden Globes. Perhaps the first truly great film to have been inspired by the Iraq War.

My hunch is that Avatar will bring home the bacon: that would represent a bullish vote of confidence in Hollywood's commercial future and celebrate Cameron's pioneering special effects, which (if you buy the hype) have showcased the industry's aesthetic future and redefined the possibilities of the cinematic art form.

Could there also be an upset? Bigelow is Cameron's ex-wife, adding a degree of spice to the battle between the "big two," and with the eventual outcome decided by preferential voting, a split vote could conceivably allow an outsider into the running. Inglourious Basterds would be the most likely film to benefit: as Kate Winslet showed last year, Holocaust stories are like catnip to Oscar judges.

Who should win?

The apartheid allegory District 9 was perhaps this year's cleverest film, proving that science fiction doesn't need extravagant special effects to make the grade. In its first-time director, Neill Blomkamp, the thought-provoking man-versus-aliens saga has also heralded the arrival of a major new talent.

Fans of "message" films might make a case for Precious, which takes a long, hard, in-your-face look at abuse and urban deprivation, and Up in the Air, Jason Reitman's smart recession-era satire of corporate America, starring George Clooney.

Who won't win?

Hell will freeze over before the highbrow Oscar judges make a Sandra Bullock vehicle Best Picture, so you can count The Blind Side out of the running. Sadly, An Education, Nick Hornby and Lone Scherfig's entertaining and nostalgic adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir of 1960s London, is too quirky, esoteric and frankly too English to carry away the star prize.

BEST ACTOR

I doubt the endearingly shambolic Jeff Bridges will even try to look surprised when he is called up to accept his first ever gold statuette.

Who will win?

The momentum is all with Bridges, who turned in one of the finest performances of his career as the alcoholic former country music star Bad Blake in the touching independent movie Crazy Heart. For years best known as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, Bridges may have now found a more-productive alter ego. He has carried away every major "Best Actor" award so far in 2010 – and having been nominated for four Oscars without winning yet, there's a widespread feeling that this is his "turn" for the big one.

Who should win?

My heart says Colin Firth, who, after being typecast as Mr Darcy, proved that he's more than a one-trick-pony with a delicate, nuanced and brilliantly layered portrayal of bereavement that carried Tom Ford's stylish film, A Single Man. The year's other breakthrough performance belonged to Jeremy Renner, who has toiled for years without achieving mainstream success, but shone in The Hurt Locker.

Who won't win?

Morgan Freeman as Mandela sounded like a shoo-in. But his performance in Invictus attracted polite applause, rather than a standing ovation.

Clooney, meanwhile, is one of the most respected men in Hollywood, and his corporate hatchet man Ryan Bingham is up to his usual high standards. But Up in the Air's lead character seems too similar to Clooney's other roles, and to the actor's own persona, to get the nod.

Best Actress

Barring a staggering upset, 2010's Oscars will see one of Hollywood's great matriarchs stride purposefully to the podium. The shortlist includes Meryl Streep (60), Sandra Bullock (45) and Helen Mirren (64).

Who will win?

Meryl Streep last won an Oscar in 1983. Since then, she's been nominated no fewer than 11 times, without scraping a win. This fact alone should make her the favourite to get this year's nod for her magisterial (if over-stylised) portrayal of the TV chef Julia Childs in Julia & Julia.

Smart money, however, is on Sandra Bullock who has run a canny Oscar campaign, pitching herself as a hard-working career actress who has stumbled on the weepie role of a lifetime as a winsome Southern housewife in The Blind Side. If the Academy can hold its collective noses and ignore the many copper-bottomed stinkers in which Bullock has starred, I expect them to give a one-off gong to an actress who has succeeded in seizing the moment.

Who should win?

The youngsters: Carey Mulligan carried An Education effortlessly on her 24-year-old shoulders, conjuring an assured portrayal of a woman bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood in a society about to emerge from post-war austerity. Gabourey Sidibe was working in a call centre when she was hired to take on the role of Claireece "Precious" Jones. Despite her lack of acting experience or formal training, she appeared in almost every scene of Precious, the most hard-hitting and affecting film of the year.

Who won't win?

Anyone British. Away from the Baftas, where she had the home-field advantage, Mulligan has failed to trouble the scorers this Hollywood awards season. Helen Mirren has triumphed in this category before, but by her own lofty standards, her performance in The Last Station probably isn't in the very top drawer.

BEST DIRECTOR

Roll up, roll up! It's a battle of the exes, and the sexes, which will pit James Cameron against his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow and indicate the way the land's lying in advance of the Best Picture showdown between Avatar and The Hurt Locker.

Who will win?

Bigelow took a key victory at the Director's Guild of America awards, suggesting that she's on the verge of becoming the first ever woman to win a Best Director Oscar. Though her film remains a minority taste with the public, putting a tick next to her name offers Academy members the prospect of being able to feel a warm sense of history as they cast their ballot.

Who should win?

If you're a betting man, Cameron is good value. He's 5/1 second favourite in this category, which seems especially generous when you consider that his grands travails have a habit of carrying all before them: in 1997, Titanic won an astonishing 11 gongs, including this one. The scale of his achievement with Avatar ought to strike a chord with colleagues in the Academy. It won't hurt that to create it, Cameron arguably invented a new type of film-making; with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow merely demonstrated mastery of an existing one.

Who won't win?

The chance of being the title's first female winner makes Bigelow a solid favourite, but the chance of being its first black winner leaves Lee Daniels a relatively unfancied outsider. If you're looking to explain this apparent failing of Hollywood's supposed liberalism, blame the nature of the films: Hurt Locker and Avatar both, in their ways, rely on stylish direction. Precious, on the other hand, is a perfectly well-made movie, but owes its success to stellar performances rather than the creative flourishes of the director.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Arguably the weakest field in years: not one of the five nominees have ever won an Oscar for acting, though Matt Damon bagged one for Good Will Hunting's screenplay. This fact leaves Christoph Waltz looking like a copper-bottomed cert.

Who will win?

Pretty much unknown, outside his native Austria, before Inglourious Basterds came along, the 53-year-old Waltz's delicately balanced portrayal of Colonel Hans Landa has turned him into the overnight toast of Hollywood. His "Jew Hunter" effortlessly, and believably, veers from the sinister to the absurd, holding together a film that might otherwise fall apart.

Waltz's reward for creating one of the most original Nazi characters ever to appear in film has been to walk away with almost every major award this year. Sunday's Oscar looks like a formality.

Who should win?

Christopher Plummer is still going strong and at 80 years of age, steals the show as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. Given the length of his career, and the high regard in which the Shakespearean actor is held among his peers, it seems inconceivable that he has never previously been so much as nominated. But, given the underwhelming profile of The Last Station so far, Plummer is at best a long shot.

Who won't win?

Joe Public loves Matt Damon, but Oscar voters have a habit of steering clear of tabloid celebrities. In any case, his understated performance as the South African rugby captain François Pienaar in Invictus might have been competent, but it hardly brings the house down.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

It'll be fascinating to watch the crowd's reaction if Mo'Nique justifies the favouritism. In recent months, the comedian and chat-show host has walked off with almost every Best Supporting Actress gong going, despite having made only a half-hearted contribution to her film's lively Oscar campaign. Before Christmas, it was reported that Mo'Nique had refused to help promote Precious, and was demanding money from its producers to make red-carpet and media appearances. The star's apparent intransigence caused Tresa Sanders, her publicist, to quit. Since then, she's been more compliant. But voters have long memories and while Hollywood has never minded a diva, they expect them to make some attempt to enter into the back-slapping spirit of Oscar night.

Who will win?

In the wrong hands, the role Mo'Nique plays in Precious could have turned the film into a disaster. But she manages a stunningly effective performance as a woman who inflicts unthinkable abuse on her own daughter.

Who should win?

Maggie Gyllenhaal makes Crazy Heart fly as the sweetly vulnerable single mother who becomes the love interest of Bridges's Bad Blake.

Who won't win?

Anna Kendrick is perhaps the nearest thing the nominees have to an "it" girl, and her standout comic turn as George Clooney's alternatively naïve and opinionated sidekick in Up in the Air has shown there is depth to the Twilight star. But despite the momentum behind her, I predict she won't win. Here's why: Vera Farmiga, her co-star in the film, is also short-listed in the category, meaning its fans are likely to split their vote between the two.

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