Every year, you enter your office's Oscar pool and carefully select the major categories while haphazardly guessing the minor ones (Animated Short, Makeup). Every year, you lose. Why? Because you've got it backward: Oscar pools are always decided on the margins, where information is sketchier and outcomes are harder to predict. You need to think like a gambler, not a movie-lover: If you can pin down the categories where everyone else is clueless, you'll have a distinct advantage. That's where we come in. We've seen all the Oscar-nominated shorts. We've done all the research. (Wikipedia counts as research, right?) And here are our picks for six awards that could finally make you a winner.
Best Sound Editing The Nominees: Drive, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse On a purely technical level, Transformers was probably the most impressive achievement in sound editing and design last year. But could you live with yourself if you were partly responsible for legitimizing the phrase "Oscar-winner Transformers: Dark of the Moon"? No wonder the series is 0 for 4 at the Academy Awards so far. So who wins? If Hugo gets on a roll with Academy voters, it could sweep through this category as well, but here's an interesting statistic: Since 1995, when a war film has been nominated for sound mixing, it has won every single time. Translation: Put it all on War Horse.
Best Sound Mixing The Nominees: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo, Moneyball, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, War Horse If War Horse wins Best Sound Editing, does that mean it's a lock for Sound Mixing, too? Not necessarily. The same film has won both sound awards. Oscar front-runners, though, seem to fare well: The Hurt Locker won Sound Mixing on its way to six awards in 2010; same for Slumdog Millionaire's eight prizes in 2009. In other words, The Artist would have this one locked up if only it had any sound to mix. That -- along with its supple balance of ticking clocks, roaring trains and Sacha Baron Cohen's terrible accent -- bodes well for the consensus Best Picture runner-up, Hugo.
Best Makeup The Nominees: Albert Nobbs, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Iron Lady If there's a dark horse in this category, it's Albert Nobbs for Glenn Close's always-tricky Reverse Doubtfire. Meryl Streep's prosthetics in The Iron Lady, though, are exactly the kinds of cosmetics that traditionally win at the Oscars: It's impressive in a overt, flashy way. But is it more overt and flashy than Close's transformation from woman to man? Yes, I'm trying to find a delicate way to say that it's harder to make Meryl Streep look really old than it is to make Glenn Close look like a dude. So far, no luck. The Iron Lady by a hair.
Best Documentary Short The Nominees: The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, God is the Bigger Elvis, Incident in New Baghdad, Saving Face, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom Ah, Oscar season. That special time of year when we trivialize legitimately important social issues by guessing which one will provoke the biggest reaction from an arbitrary group of people who live in Los Angeles. This should be a neck-and-neck race between Saving Face -- about the plight of abused Pakistani women -- and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, about the plight of grieving Japanese-tsunami victims. Both films are powerful, both offset harrowing footage of tragedy with inspirational messages about the enduring power of the human spirit, but give a slight edge to Saving Face. Its story of wives destroyed by husbands who threw acid in their faces (and, in many cases, got away with it) should resonate particularly strongly in Hollywood, where visible facial scarring is a fate worse than death.
Best Animated Short The Nominees: Dimanche (Sunday), The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, La Luna, A Morning Stroll, Wild Life Do you like quirky, animated films with no dialogue and weird characters doing nonsensical things? Then congratulations! The Best Animated Short category this year is for you. Improbably, animation juggernaut Pixar hasn't won this category in a decade, but 2012 looks to be the year to break the streak: Their work on the charming La Luna is on an entirely different aesthetic level than any of the competition. If the story is somewhat lacking, the character design is absolutely brilliant, right down to the way the protagonist, a boy being taught how to care for the moon, is drawn with pupils so big they turn the whites of his eyes into la luna-evoking crescents.
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Best Live-Action Short The Nominees: Pentecost, Raju, The Shore, Time Freak, Tuba Atlantic In a category dominated by one-joke comedies, two films appear to have the combination of heft, heart and humor that elevates contenders in the feature categories: Tuba Atlantic -- about a dying Norwegian man's contentious relationship with the teenage girl sent to care for him during his final days -- and The Shore, about an Irish man reconnecting with the best friend he left behind when he headed to the United States during "The Troubles." This should be a close race, but The Shore has a stronger pedigree (it was directed by Hotel Rwanda filmmaker Terry George) and a showier lead performance (from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Ciarán Hinds).
The Rest: Picture, The Artist; Actor, Jean Dujardin (The Artist); Actress, Viola Davis (The Help); Supporting Actor, Christopher Plummer (Beginners); Supporting Actress, Octavia Spencer (The Help); Director, Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist); Documentary, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory; Original Screenplay, Midnight in Paris; Adapted Screenplay, The Descendants; Animated Feature, Rango; Art Direction, Hugo; Cinematography, The Tree of Life; Costume Design, Hugo; Editing, The Artist; Foreign-Language Film, A Separation; Original Score, The Artist; Original Song, The Muppets; Visual Effects, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.