Granted, there were no universally adored films this year, like Slumdog Millionaire in 2009 or The King's Speech last year, and only a few of the Best Picture nominees -- namely The Help, The Descendants and Midnight in Paris -- managed to resonate with audiences. But that doesn't mean that there aren't some excellent, award-worthy efforts in this year's Oscar hunt. ( Hugo, anyone?) And the lack of a consensus favorite should make for a more exciting telecast, with at least three of the top prizes still up for grabs. Here's our take on this year's top categories, along with a familiar caveat: Remember, if you predict with your heart (as I usually do) instead of your head, you're bound to get at least a few things wrong.
The nominees: The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse
What will win: The Artist
While there could be a late-breaking upset from The Help -- the only one of the nine nominees to gross more than $100 million -- support seems to have coalesced around Michel Hazanavicius' charming silent comedy that pays homage to Hollywood's past. Call it the Mitt Romney Phenomenon: No one seems to love the idea of The Artist being the winner, but in the absence of any especially compelling alternatives, it ends up carrying the day.
What gets our vote: Hugo
The year's most enchanting surprise, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a 1920s-set fable about a little boy who stumbles upon a once-famous film director working in a Paris train station. With its mixture of absorbing drama, gorgeous visuals and dazzling effects, Hugo is about as good as contemporary Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking gets.
What was ignored: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
It's not easy to sustain an eight-film franchise, and the feat of the Harry Potter films is that they just kept getting better. The academy should have given this one-of-a-kind cinematic achievement its due with a Best Picture nomination.
The nominees: Demián Bichir, A Better Life; George Clooney, The Descendants; Jean Dujardin, The Artist; Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Who will win: Jean Dujardin
Front-runner George Clooney seems to have aggressively overplayed his hand -- voters by now are probably sick of him. Brad Pitt, on the other hand, didn't campaign enough, or do anything to dispel the (foolish) notion that his Moneyball performance is too low-key for an Oscar. That appears to have left the door wide open for the lovable star of The Artist.
Who gets our vote: Brad Pitt
It's not easy making long, chatty sequences about baseball stats compelling. It's even harder to portray the anxiety and self-consciousness of a one-time Golden Boy coming to terms with his failings in life. Pitt managed the seemingly impossible, delivering a performance of quiet grace and poignancy.
Who was ignored: Michael Fassbender, Shame
Voters were no doubt turned off by the fearlessly graphic Shame, a portrait of a sex addict whose life begins to unravel. But that's no excuse to ignore a performance as raw, brave and anguished as Fassbender's.
The nominees: Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs; Viola Davis, The Help; Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady; Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
Who will win: Viola Davis
The awards prognosticators would like you to think that this one is a coin-toss, and that Streep, long overdue for a third Oscar, might actually be the front-runner for her turn as Margaret Thatcher. Don't believe the hype. Streep's performance may be spot-on, but The Iron Lady is one of her weakest films. Davis, meanwhile, is steely and moving in the biggest hit of the Oscar bunch. It's her year.
Who gets our vote: Viola Davis
You can argue about the racial politics of The Help all day, and whether it uses the Civil Rights-era struggles of black Americans as fodder for a feel-good chick flick. But there's no denying the fierce dignity and intelligence, as well as the moments of sweet, gentle humor, that Davis brings to the part of a long-suffering maid in Mississippi in the 1960s.
Who was ignored: Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground
With her beautifully rendered, full-bodied portrait of a woman struggling to make sense of her religion, Farmiga did the finest work of her career thus far. That she also directed this underappreciated drama makes her achievement all the more impressive.
Best Supporting Actor
The nominees: Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn; Jonah Hill, Moneyball; Nick Nolte, Warrior; Christopher Plummer, Beginners; Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Who will win: Christopher Plummer
This one's easy: Plummer is a showbiz vet who has never won the Oscar, and he gave a moving, funny and wholly unexpected performance as an elderly man who comes out of the closet late in life.
Who gets our vote: Christopher Plummer
The competition is all fine -- I particularly liked Jonah Hill's stats nerd in Moneyball -- but no one here comes close to achieving what Plummer did, which was to convey the complexities and contradiction of a man's entire life with just a handful of exquisitely realized scenes.
Who was ignored: Kevin Spacey, Margin Call
A great actor delivered one of his subtlest performances as an investment-bank executive trying to hold it all together as his firm is pushed to the brink of collapse. Come to think of it, Jeremy Irons, who plays the firm's CEO, also deserved a nod.
Best Supporting Actress
The nominees: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist; Jessica Chastain, The Help; Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids; Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs; Octavia Spencer, The Help
Who will win: Octavia Spencer
Although this race initially seems wide open, Spencer -- playing the sassy maid who exacts a glorious comeuppance on her white ex-employer (Bryce Dallas Howard) in The Help -- has won the lion's share of pre-Oscar prizes, including the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild award and the BAFTA. At this point, an Oscar seems inevitable.
Who gets our vote: Jessica Chastain
Nothing against Spencer, but for me the unexpected heart of The Help was Chastain, who portrayed a woman exiled within her own community, who develops an unlikely friendship with the maid she doesn't want her husband to know she has hired.
Who was ignored: Anjelica Huston, 50/50
As the mother of a young man diagnosed with potentially terminal cancer, Huston isn't on-screen for long in 50/50. But she still manages to convey a whirlwind of emotions -- pride, exasperation, selfishness and fierce, fierce love for her boy -- and make her character one of the most memorable movie matriarchs of recent years.
The nominees: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist; Alexander Payne, The Descendants; Martin Scorsese, Hugo; Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris; Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Who will win: Martin Scorsese
Smart money says that an Artist sweep will carry Hazanavicius to victory, but I'm betting that overriding respect for Scorsese -- who won on his last go-round with The Departed, but whom a lot of folks think deserved many other Oscars over the years -- will result in an upset.
Who gets our vote: Martin Scorsese
Just because he's famous for brutal, bloody thrillers like Taxi Driver and GoodFellas doesn't mean Scorsese doesn't have a soft side, which he revealed to lovely effect in this sumptuously staged, deeply heartfelt fantasy.
Who was ignored: Steve McQueen, Shame
The British visual artist created the year's most formally daring effort, using a series of immaculately composed images and entrancingly long takes to bring us deep inside the mind of a sex addict struggling (and failing) to hold it all together.
Best Original Screenplay
The nominees: The Artist, Bridesmaids, Margin Call, Midnight in Paris, A Separation
What will win: Midnight in Paris
Even though Woody Allen always refuses to attend on Oscar night, the academy can't get enough of the guy -- this year he earned his 22nd and 23rd nominations. That said, he also hasn't won since he picked up the Best Original Screenplay prize for Hannah and Her Sisters in 1987, an oversight voters will be eager to correct this year.
What gets our vote: Bridesmaids
The academy rarely takes movies about women seriously, and it's even more disdainful of comedy, which makes it something of a miracle that Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo's screenplay was even nominated. It deserves the gold, for managing to be both disarmingly intelligent about the plight of unmarried 30-something women, and raucously, joyfully funny.
What was ignored: Weekend
Andrew Haigh's romantic drama about two gay men who meet and sort of fall in love over the course of a weekend is much too edgy and indie to ever secure a nomination from the stodgy academy. But no movie this year proved as frank and intelligent in asking deceptively big questions about life, love and sexuality.
Best Adapted Screenplay
The nominees: The Descendants; Hugo; The Ides of March; Moneyball; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
What will win: The Descendants
Moneyball arguably was a trickier adaptation; transforming a wonky, stats-obsessed book into an exciting, witty movie is no easy task. But the academy often uses the screenplay Oscars as a consolation prize, so Alexander Payne's dramedy -- which looks to be the runner-up for Best Picture -- will likely grab this one.
What gets our vote: Hugo
Brian Selznick's heavily illustrated, movie-obsessed young-adult novel could have easily ended up being an arch, esoteric film, but John Logan's screenplay effortlessly located the story's heart and humanity.
What was ignored: Coriolanus
Logan wrote this one, too, reimagining one of Shakespeare's least-known plays as a bloody, rapid-fire political thriller. The film, which failed to catch on with critics and still hasn't had a North Texas release, deserves a much wider audience.
Best Foreign Film
The nominees: Bullhead (Belgium), Footnote (Israel), In Darkness (Poland), Monsieur Lazhar (Canada), A Separation (Iran)
What will win: A Separation
It's hard to vote against any artist working under the watchful eye of a highly oppressive regime. That Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi also managed to turn out one of the year's most gripping dramas makes him a slam dunk.
What gets our vote: A Separation
There's much to be said for the wonderfully weird Bullhead, a violent thriller set in the black market for cattle steroids. But that movie ultimately runs out of steam. And while I have my quibbles with A Separation -- it's too long and a tad contrived -- there's no denying the film's passion and urgency.
What was ignored: The Forgiveness of Blood
Despite having an all-Albanian cast and a mostly Albanian crew, the academy rendered this powerful drama about a blood feud ineligible because it was directed by an American, Joshua Marston (who previously made another foreign-language film rendered ineligible in this category, Maria Full of Grace). But in an age of globalism, such geographic parochialism misses the point -- and denies a potentially wider audience to a terrific movie.
Best Animated Film
The nominees: A Cat in Paris, Chico and Rita, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Rango
What will win: Rango
This oddball collaboration from director Gore Verbinski and his Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp is nobody's idea of a great movie. But its mixture of visual whimsy and quirky comedy puts it over the top in a weak field.
What gets our vote: Chico and Rita
If only to end the grip that computer-animated children's films have on this category, this hand-drawn, Spanish-language love story -- made very much for adults -- would be my pick.
What was ignored: Rio
This tale of a rare blue macaw on the loose in Brazil isn't the most original movie in the world, but its bright colors and bouncy songs make it far worthier of inclusion here than such nominees as Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2.