The Oscars previewed: Lincoln or Argo, who will triumph? Place your bets

It's that time again: the tearful winners' speeches, the losers' rictus grins. Geoffrey Macnab makes his expert picks for the Academy Awards

We're all set. The venerable Barbra Streisand is performing at the ceremony for the first time in 36 years. We are promised a tribute to movie musicals of the past decade, with nods in the direction of Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Misérables. The Bond movies will be feted on their 50th anniversary. John Travolta will be presenting an award as will Mark Wahlberg and his teddy bear co-star, Ted. It's all part of the annual cavalcade as the 85th Academy Awards, which take place on Sunday, try to woo a global audience.

This year's Oscars look as hard to call as the average Grand National. The British bookies seem unusually confident about the Best Picture. Ben Affleck's Argo is a very strong favourite. Only Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is considered any sort of competition for an award that 282 feature films were originally vying for. The bookies have also offered such ludicrously short odds for Daniel Day Lewis winning the Best Actor award for Lincoln that they will look very foolish indeed if the award goes elsewhere. Anne Hathaway looks a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress for her short-lived turn in Les Misérables. In the other categories, though, the field is wide open.

For a British TV audience, the Oscars can seem remote and irritating. They take place in the middle of the night. They don't have the same kitsch appeal as the Eurovision Song Contest. They come at the end of an inordinately long awards season. The same faces who've picked up Golden Globes and BAFTAs will appear on screen again, delivering variations on speeches they've already given several times before.

Even so, these are the statuettes that everyone really wants to win. For all the idiosyncrasies and oversights of the Academy voters over the years, the Oscars remain one of the most reliable measures of quality in mainstream cinema. They also defy cynicism. Yes, we will be subjected to the unusual inanity: the exhaustive analysis of the stars' designer dresses, the gloopy, tear-filled speeches, the excruciating comic schtick of the presenters and the heavy-handed cut-aways to the faces of the losing nominees (all wearing rictus-like smiles as their rivals scoop the glory). Nonetheless, the awards really still do reward excellence.

As the organisers themselves proclaim in typically pompous language, the winners are "determined by some of the world's most accomplished motion picture artists and professionals". In other words, this isn't the small cabal of less than 100 foreign journalists in LA (the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) who vote for the Golden Globes, it's 6,000 industry insiders. Winners are chosen by their own peers. The rules are far more stringent than those governing most national elections. The members use secret ballots that are then tabulated by a leading accountancy firm.

As Harvey Weinstein recently proclaimed, 2012 has been "a stupendous year". The list of Oscar contenders is unusually rich and varied, running the gamut from Michael Haneke's Amour (a bleak art-house fable about love, old age and death) to thrillers (Argo and Zero Dark Thirty), comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), Westerns (Django Unchained) and such outlandish fare as Life of Pi and Beasts Of The Southern Wild.

And the winners are... your guide to this year's Oscar contenders

Actor in a leading role

Who is likely to win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Who deserves to win: Daniel Day-Lewis

As Abraham Lincoln battling to pass the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress and thereby ban slavery, Day-Lewis shows an extraordinary grace and thoughtfulness. There are many scenes in which he is on screen, simply listening or talking. Look at the subtlety of his gestures (he is one actor who always knows what to do with his hands) and listen to his lilting, slightly high-pitched delivery. It's an entrancing and entirely believable portrait of a historical figure who has invariably been caricatured whenever he has previously been shown on screen. Not many other actors could wear that beard and the Dr Seuss-like stove pipe hat without lapsing into the grossest caricature.

Actress in a leading role

Who is likely to win: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)

Who deserves to win: Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts Of The Southern Wild)

The admirable Chastain is a Julliard School-educated virtuoso with extraordinary range. Last year, she was Oscar nominated as Best Supporting Actress for playing a Southern femme fatale with a hint of Marilyn Monroe about her in The Help. This year, she stars as the young CIA agent in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. It's in-your-face acting. She doesn't even try to make her character ingratiating but shows her as iron-willed, ruthless and often objectionable to her colleagues. Like Meryl Streep before her, Chastain looks bound to go on racking up the Oscar nominations in wildly different films for years to come. However, for all its craft, her performance seems just a little contrived by comparison with that of child actress Wallis in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. As the wide-eyed, innocent but very resourceful Hushpuppy, trying to make sense of events around her after a huge storm, Wallis (now nine) has an uncanny quality that simply couldn't be taught in any drama school.

Best Picture

Likely to win: Argo

Deserves to win: Django Unchained

Ben Affleck is a beneficiary of his own misfortune. To the dismay of many observers, he was snubbed for Best Director and Best Actor Academy Award nominations for Argo (above). Then came the Golden Globes last month when he won both Best Director and Best Picture. The momentum swung behind him. Giving Argo the Best Picture Oscar now seems like a simple matter of good manners and a chance to redress the injustice of Affleck being overlooked in the other categories. This is the most prestigious award. Given the way the campaigning has gone, Argo is very short odds to take it. By contrast, Tarantino's Django Unchained is a rank outsider. The film has become embroiled in the debates about guns and violence that are again raging in the US. Its treatment of slavery has proved contentious. Producer Harvey Weinstein acknowledged to online film magazine Deadline Hollywood that he had been too slow to send out DVD screeners. Very few Westerns have won Best Picture Oscars – and certainly none with the exploitation elements found in Django. At least, Tarantino can console himself that his boldest movie has been a big box-office success. That's not something that can be said of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, a critics' favourite that didn't even make the cut for a Best Picture nomination. Audiences simply didn't warm to the film and without their support, Academy voters weren't swayed either.

Best Director

Likely to win: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Deserves to win: Benh Zeitlin, Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Ang Lee is credited with re-invigorating 3D (fast becoming a discredited form in Hollywood in the years since Avatar) with his adaptation of Yann Martel's novel, Life Of Pi. Critics have warmed to the artistry and delicacy with which he used visual effects in the film. If anyone does beat Spielberg to the Best Director award, Lee is the most likely usurper. However, the freshest contender in Best Picture and Best Director categories is surely Benh Zeitlin's low budget debut feature Beasts Of The Southern Wild, which plays like a Maurice Sendak story re-imagined by William Faulkner. It may be too offbeat to win but it's an extraordinary achievement for newcomer Zeitlin to be in the running at all.

Best Supporting Actress

Likely to win: Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables)

Deserves to win: Anne Hathaway

Even those many critics who loathe Les Misérables acknowledge that Anne Hathaway shines. As the unfortunate Fantine, who sells her teeth and hair to raise money for her daughter, she brings an intensity that the film otherwise lacks. Her febrile, emotion-laden rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream" is bound to melt Academy voters' hearts. The pity is that her role is really just a cameo. If she had been in the film a little longer, she'd almost certainly have won the Best Actress award itself. On a less flamboyant note, Sally Field – a double Best Actress Oscar winner – gives a very moving and understated performance in Lincoln as the President's neglected wife. Sadly, from the point of view of her awards prospects on Sunday, she didn't have the benefit of having any show-stopping songs to improve her case.

Best Supporting Actor

Likely to win: Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)

Deserves to win: Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

As Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones evokes memories of Charles Laughton's equally pompous and imposing senator in Otto Preminger's political drama Advise & Consent. He plays the politician as a blustering old-timer with a very savage tongue. It's not the most subtle piece of acting that Jones has done but he is a commanding presence and is favourite to win a second Supporting Actor Oscar (after his first one for playing the US Marshal in The Fugitive 20 years ago.) Christoph Waltz gives a far more complex performance as a German bounty hunter/dentist in Django Unchained. Waltz won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his equally clever turn as the Nazi villain in Inglourious Basterds but is likely to be overlooked in favour of Jones this time round.

Best Foreign-Language Film

Likely to win: Amour

Deserves to win: A Royal Affair

The Foreign Language award is a category that often throws up surprises. Voters have tended to choose middlebrow, mainstream fare in preference to more adventurous films. (That's arguably why unsung Dutch films like Antonia's Line and Character have won awards and why searing Brazilian crime drama City Of God was overlooked.) Austrian director Michael Haneke's Cannes Palme D'Or winner Amour isn't exactly feelgood entertainment – it's a stark tale about an old man coping with his dying wife. The film, shot in French, has also been nominated for Best Picture while its 85-year-old lead actress Emmanuelle Riva is competing with Jessica Chastain and co. for the Best Actress Oscar. As a non-English language film, Amour has little chance of winning the big prizes but is favourite for the Foreign Language award if only because of the accolades and other nominations it has already received. Its main threat comes from the Scandinavians in the shape of epic adventure Kon-Tiki (which Britain's Jeremy Thomas helped produce) and Danish director Nikolaj Arcel's underrated costume drama, A Royal Affair.

This article appears in tomorrow's Radar magazine

 

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