(The annual “Will Win/Should Win” of the Awards Circuit has been our most popular yet most challenging series where each writer let’s their final thoughts be known on the Oscar categories.  Each writer will reveal their choices everyday leading up to the Oscar ceremony.  Think you can do better?  Let your final thoughts be known in the comment section or by joining our Oscar Pool. -CD)

It’s here, the Big One.  The Oscars are finally upon us, generating a frenzy of excitement and a torrent of ever-changing predictions in its path to the big stage on Sunday.  This is the highly anticipated annual organized free-for-all when ideals shatter, frustrations bubble over, and sometimes (though not often) pleasant surprises challenge the odds.  The final results could go any which way, and especially in such a quality-loaded year, it’s been a dizzying process trying to peg the sway of Academy Voters.  Finally dashing aside unrealistically hopeful designs of one candidate over another, I’ve joined my Awards Circuit colleagues in settling on the probable winners, though not without putting up a fight for my preferred winners.  In the spirit of the games, here are my “Win Will/Should Win” Oscar Selections:

Best Picture

Will Win: Having already scooped up a healthy heap of major Awards Season swag, it’s nothing short of a sure thing to bet the big bucks on Argo taking home the highest honors at the grandest show.  What began as a Cinderella Run soon turned into a dominating path to glory by the year’s darling film, taking down other industry darlings like  Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.  Combining a tight, neat narrative laced with consistent suspense and a moderate dose  of Hollywood emotionality and dramatic conventions ensured Argo would be a hit with viewers and critics alike.  Its well-crafted feel-good message, delivered by the merits of its story, make it highly accessible and the least problematic film of the bunch to crown as the best of the best.

Should Win:  As almost a perfect foil–and superior film– to the frontrunner in the category, Zero Dark Thirty pulls the short straw in this match.  Touting itself in the accurate portrayal (as much as is possible for a cinematic production) of the “greatest manhunt in history,” Kathryn Bigelow’s latest venture into the theater of modern war and intelligence operations provides a thrilling summation of a decade wrought with anti-terrorism efforts.  More an impressive piece of investigative journalism than a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, Zero Dark Thirty breaks ground into a complexly hybrid form of filmmaking, sure to studied and emulated in the future.  Unfortunately drowned out by the media’s sensationalistic obsession with the torture sequences depicted, the film’s achievements are grossly undermined and its great depth simplified to a plebeian discussion on immoral war practices.  For all of Maya’s intensity and dedication to a historically monumental pursuit to fall by the wayside due to some harsh realities–not endorsements, mind you– and not to be awarded by the Academy is  a crying shame, though she won’t be crying over the loss.

Should Have Been Nominated: Another gross miscalculation by Academy voters is omitting Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master from contending with other Best Pictures nominees.  I mean, come on, there was a tenth spot open and everything–almost as a taunt, I’m convinced.  Sure it’s abrasive and widely inaccessible in its vastly art-house sensibilities and confounding narrative choices, so we’re not pushing for a win here, but a nomination in the very least is most definitely in order.  Anderson’s works are usually so few and far between that when he does come out with his latest, impeccably crafted cinematic marvel, it’s extremely difficult not to take notice, and I imagine it required a hefty effort on the part of the Academy to turn a blind eye this time around.  The offense is so serious that it’s one not likely to be forgiven until the auteur earns his over-due Best Picture win.  From one Anderson to another, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom was also easily another of 2012’s best pictures overlooked for a nomination.  As another auteur who selectively generates his works by adhering to a distinctive set of stylistic and narrative rules, Anderson’s put his stamps on his newest with a charmingly original story, offbeat characters, and beautiful production all around.  Finally, as an only-in-your-fanboy-dreams long shot, The Dark Knight Rises, as Christopher Nolan’s masterful culmination of the greatest comic book movie franchise ever made deserves to be in contention for Best Picture.  Expanding the scope of the universe, heightening the stakes, and progressing his beloved protagonist through a final realization of his dream to restore hope to Gotham champions this Nolan installment as a satisfying end to a classic trilogy.

Best Director

Will Win: In what will probably be a rare but inevitable split between the Best Picture and Best Director categories, Steven Spielberg goes home with his fourth Oscar.  It’ll be less upsetting than the last time he was involved in such a split, having won director for Saving Private Ryan but questionably losing picture to Shakespeare in Love in 1999, but the separation is always an odd asterisk to an accomplished list of achievements.  It’s a question that’s never supplied with an adequate answer: How can the Best Director not have directed the Best Picture?  The question is especially puzzling any time Spielberg, the quintessential director’s director, enters the context.  Still, a divvying up of honors seems to be the route the Academy is pursuing this year, with Spielberg as the favorite of his bunch.

Should Win: David O. Russell‘s masterful direction of his ensemble cast in Silver Linings Playbook  is possibly one of the greatest displays of a collaborative effort in film in recent memory.  It’s a true testament to fine direction to evoke not only surprisingly great individual performances, but to weave them together so thoughtfully into a singular, spectacularly organic spectacle.  He doesn’t work with any fancy sets or pull any signature camera tricks, but caters to his actors’ specific strengths to bring out the best in them.  A jack of many trades, Russell effortlessly entertains with his self-penned adaptation in one of the year’s most enjoyable watches.

Should Have Been Nominated:  You’re going to see mention of this in many of the upcoming categories, so be warned.  Just as The Master was snubbed for Best Picture, so too was Paul Thomas Anderson left out for his direction of said snubbed film.  What he does isn’t conventional, easily consumed, or even comprehensible sometimes, but it can’t be denied that it’s a fascinating form of filmmaking.  His work on The Master is in the same vein as that of There Will Be Blood (2007), for which he earned a rightful nomination, and should have won for.  Building complex  relationships between his characters, particularly the indefinable draw between the charismatic demagogue Lancaster Dodd and the uncivilized miscreant Freddie Quell, attests to his penchant for challenging character studies.  Much like Stanley Kubrick never winning for director (his only Oscar is for visual effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey, seriously) in his career full of greats, Anderson has been overlooked before, but downright exclusion this time is inexcusable.  Also, Ben Affleck is an obvious and strange omission, given he’s cleaned out his competition at virtually every other major awards show, as is Kathryn Bigelow for her bold, groundbreaking work on Zero Dark Thirty, perhaps coming too soon and too strong after her win for The Hurt Locker in 2009 for the Academy to feel comfortable doling out another nomination.  Oh, and also Wes Anderson, but I’m just being greedy now.

Best Actor

Will Win: No longer able to preserve my stubborn naivete, I’ve succumbed to the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis will win the Best Actor prize at Joaquin Phoenix’s expense.  The well-decorated method actor will go on to secure his  record-setting third Oscar for Best Actor in a leading role for his portrayal of one of the most popular historical figures of all time.  In the year of Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States has been the renewed object of enamored adoration and the ever-revered Day-Lewis champions the role to perfection and unanimous praise.  It’s hard to deny him the award any time he’s up for one because he really is that good, but it HAS happened twice before, as a completely irrelevant statistical mention.

Should Win: We’ve never seen Joaquin Phoenix act like this before.  Why?  He’s not acting.  He IS the primal, uncouth drifter Freddie Quell, complete with all the trimmings of the stooped back, handsomely skewed features, almost inaudible guttural utterings.   Behind the unabated primitive appetites of a man on the verge of violence at any given moment, is a lost human soul somehow still capable of a fleeting, though honest longing and tenderness.   Stripped of the sophistication and connivery  of  say, a Daniel Plainview, Quell’s allegiance to his baser instincts both compels and repels his dubiously motivated supporters and obviously distraught detractors.  Phoenix perfectly embodies the equally fascinating and off-putting human specimen The Master subjects to observation and study.  As such, Phoenix’s  is DDL’s strongest competing performance, regardless of his slim chances of actually winning, not only in this particular lineup but probably since the latter was up for In the Name of the Father against Liam Neeson for  Schindler’s List back in 1994.  In retrospect, Phoenix should have also won for Best Supporting Actor as the volatile, insecure Commodus  in Gladiator (2000).  That’s two trophies, by my count.

Should Have Been Nominated:  Giving off a practically textbook Oscar performance in The Sessions  was oddly not enough to earn John Hawkes a nomination for Best Actor, as it rightly should have.  With his portrayal of the iron-lung bound Mark O’Brien, Hawkes is probably the only actor to have played a role entirely in a horizontal position, taking on the challenge of not being able to interact with his co-stars and environment with any semblance of normalcy.  The way he depicts a desire for natural human intimacy in spite of his shortcomings tugs at the heart-strings in a sweet, though not sappy or self-defeating story of personal growth.  Usually Oscar eats up depictions of physical and mental handicaps with an soup ladle, but apparently Hugh Jackman’s singing really is just that irresistible. 

Best Actress

Will Win: Already with her second nomination since her coming out in Winter’s Bone (2010), Jennifer Lawrence generates a good deal of buzz for her “beyond her years” performances and character portrayals–buzz which will likely take the form of gold hardware this year.  As one-fourth of the exceptionally functioning dysfunctional cast of Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence consistently maintains a bright and volatile flame of energy, which she effuses without restraint.  Not only does she match Bradley Cooper’s own excellent brand of madness point for point without missing a step, she might even be slightly responsible for bringing out the best in Robert De Niro in the pivotal scene when they go head-to-head.

Should Win: Again unfortunately marred by the clout of the “controversy” surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain’s performance as the unwavering, immensely dedicated intelligence operative who orchestrates the hunt for UBL, will unjustly go unrewarded.    She possesses the character of Maya with such an understated, yet clearly obsessive passion that it’s equally fascinating to witness her progression from green, young newcomer to seasoned, confident expert as the actual unfolding of the historical events.  It’s sad to see points docked from the remarkable work she puts in as one of the greatest female protagonists–or even just protagonists–to drive one of the most compellingly thrilling and smart films in recent years.  Chastain is a rare natural talent who holds her own as an actor, transcending conventional gender constructs without even making it her agenda.

Should Have Been Nominated: This marks the second year in a row when a superb performance by Keira Knightley goes unnoticed by the Academy.  While her turn as a hysterical mental patient in A Dangerous Method (2011) was more obvious Oscar bait, taking on the titular heroin in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina was no easy feat, and she pulled it off brilliantly.  Having always been a fan of her work, particularly when  in collaboration with Wright, it’s great to see a progression in her style of acting, refining her youthful brashness and intensity with a bit of mature subtlety, though that fire gladly still burns in her.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: This might be one of the harder categories to predict since it’s one of the rare groups where each of the nominees already has a win to their name, so that doesn’t help narrow down the odds in favor or against a given contender.  Without the possibility of crowing a first-time winner to make the choice easier, I say Robert De Niro just might walk away with his third Oscar for his work in Silver Linings Playbook.  Phoning in some sub-standard performances in recent years, the legendary actor is back to form and reminds the world just how good he is, and also that he’s got a knack for offbeat comedy, but we already knew that after seeing him in Meet the Parents (2000).  Back when he was filming Cape Fear (1991),  he reportedly used to leave director Martin Scorsese voicemail messages in character as Max Cady, effectively frightening him.  That’s funny–creepy sure–but funny.  Incidentally, that was also the last time he was nominated for an acting award, so he’s due and deserving for a win.

Should Win: Well, this is nice: the first time a prediction matches a preference.  Makes things nice and easy, no in-fighting or complaints to be had.  De Niro takes to Russell’s direction so superbly that he becomes another integral cog in the endearingly deranged family mechanism operating at the film’s core.  He makes it a fascinating exercise to draw the gradually revealed parallels between Pat Sr. and Pat Jr.’s behavioral problems and coping methods, accounting for much of the comedic and naturally human element in the film.

Should Have Been Nominated:  So the Academy dropped the ball in nominating Michael Fassbender for the inarguable best performance in Shame (2011) last year because the film was too controversial and unapologetic, or some such nonsense.  This year, he delivered a carefully studied and complex performance as the android David in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, for which he should have been recognized.  Combining elements from his two famous robotic and dubious predecessors, Ash from Alien (1979) and Bishop from Aliens  (1986), he instinctively adds his own mannerisms and quirks to make for another of his many captivating on-screen presences.  It’s always a joy to watch him command attention in his scenes just by doing what comes naturally, and this portrayal of an unnatural being is no exception.  Also, Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty could have easily been nominated for simultaneously being the unflinching, unhinged terrorist interrogator and occasion source of unexpected wisdom and empathy.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Expect a cringingly gushy speech, a la Julia Roberts winning for Erin Brockovich at the 2001 show when Anne Hathaway graces the stage to accept her imminent award.  If you thought “I Dreamed a Dream” was a heart-breaking performance, just wait till you see the waterworks accompanying the high-pitched acceptance.  Apart from already snickering at the theatrics sure to take place, I do think Hathaway is deserving of the Oscar for her heart-wrenching depiction of Fantine, though if I had it my way, it would be for her role as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises instead, but I can’t have it my way.

Should Win: I can’t be completely wrong in admitting I’m a sucker for all the actors in Silver Linings Playbook, so I’ll unapologetically stand behind my first pick, Jacki Weaver.  Playing a mother nervous for her son’s ability to adapt to a normal life outside of a sanitarium, often naively stepping in as his protector, she offers some feeble stability in a comically chaotic environment.  Her maternal concern is natural but also a little bit absurd, given her son is a grown man.  She’s part of the important balance between the characters in Russell’s human comedy and should be rewarded for playing her part well.

Should Have Been Nominated: The Academy pretty much nailed all the right nominees in this category, with no obvious omissions.  Each of the nominees in contention for the award delivers performances worthy of a win, so huzzah.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Will Win: In spite of Chris Terrio’s adapted Argo screenplay stealing much of its thunder and taking the WGA honor, the Academy still might prefer the eloquently insightful and intricately layered Lincoln adaptation by playwright Tony Kushner.  Kushner’s majestic handling of trying political and moral questions serves as the backbone keeping the film and its characters poised for recognition, and as such, stands as one of the picture’s strongest categories.

Should Win:  It might be certifiable to say this, but David O. Russell should win this one.  I have a definite bias for a director who writes his own material, even if adapted, and as one of only two director-writer combos in this category, he exerts a masterful command over the material his actors deliver.  Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook adaptation of the Matthew Quick novel provides his stellar cast with the meat on which they gorge to nourish the phenomenally irresistible chemistry vital to the film’s success.

Should Have Been Nominated:  I may be in a league of my own, buy I happen to think Tom Stoppord‘s innovative take on Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina is incredibly effective, fresh, and appropriate for such a daunting adaptation.  The playwright is definitely in his element in Wright’s ingenious decision to emulate a stage production and the screenplay serves its purpose well.  Also going by my director-writer rule, Stephen Chbosky should have been recognized for a working adaptation of his own novel of the same name.

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: I wish I could call on blind devotion and say I’d be more than thrilled to see one of my favorite screenwriters of all time, Quentin Tarantino,  nab another writing Oscar, but alas, for the sake of a clear conscience, I cannot.  Sure he’s a writer’s writer and all, but I’m not exactly sure how the Academy went for his latest antics in Django Unchained.  Apart from being his third revenge story and being too bloated and flourished–even for a Tarantino script–the dialogue and narrative structure are far inferior to his other works, possibly even making it one of his weakest screenplays to date, I dare say.  There are too many conveniences somewhat clumsily sprinkled in, like Christophe Waltz playing a German bounty hunter, and the plot drags on unnecessarily in more than one instance.  It almost feels like he was rushed to finish writing and delivered a less than optimally refined product.  It pains me to say it, but this win will  be undeserved for Tarantino.  The silver lining: I doubt there are any other alternate history vengeance tales he can tackle for a follow-up project.

Should Win: Either Mark Boal for his understated, unglorified yet thrilling and intelligent representation of a woman of strong will in pursuit of one of history’s most wanted and elusive men in Zero Dark Thirty or Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s charming and cheeky tale of adolescent love and adventure in Moonrise Kingdom should take home this writing honor.  Boal is unfortunately an extremely long shot, but the Anderson-Coppola duo might be the strongest competition against Tarantino.  If by some miracle Tarantino is defeated, it should be by either Boal (unlikely) or Anderson and Coppola (less unlikely).

Should Have Been Nominated:  I’d like to propose an addendum to the official Oscar rules which reads as follows: Any time Paul Thomas Anderson writes a movie, you bloody well better nominate him.  It seems that such a rule might secretly already be in place for certain other writers (I mean you, Tarantino), so I’m making a “slippery slope” motion to include PTA from here on out.  That is all I have to say about that.  Rian Johnson for his wildly creative and smart thriller Looper would have been another nice and worthy substitution for either Amour or Flight.

Best Animated Feature

Will Win: I’ve been staunchly adamant for more than half a year now that Brave, though beautifully designed and animated, lacks a strong storyline or even adequate character development and thus, never reaches the potential it so dazzlingly promises.  That being said, Wreck-It Ralph delivers all the magic of a Disney film packaged in Pixar casing.  The concept is refreshingly original and the excellent execution of the narrative structure and charming character dynamics consistently entertains at a pace worthy of a Sugar Rush champion racer.  There are no glitches in sight in Disney’s latest hit, making it the most deserving winner in its group.

Should Win: Like I said, no glitches.  Wreck-It Ralph‘s originality and magic should carry it easily across the finish line in the big race.

Should Have Been Nominated: Since Japan’s Studio Ghibli partnered with Disney to make their films accessible to the American market, the magic of Hayao Miyazaki’s stories has been widely compared to that of Walt Disney himself.  It’s too bad The Secret World of Arietty (2010) didn’t qualify for Oscar contention, but it surely deservses a spot among its English-language counterparts.  To see beautiful characters and worlds still created with 2D hand drawings and animation seems like something of a bygone era, but thankfully there’s still some appreciation for the way things used to be done.

And now, for the rest…

Best Foreign Language Film:
Will Win: Amour
Should Win: Kon-Tiki
Should Have Been Nominated: Rust and Bone

Best Cinematography:
Will Win:
Should Win:
Skyfall or Anna Karenina
Should Have Been Nominated:
The Master, Moonrise Kingdom

Best Film Editing:
Will Win: Argo
Should Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Should Have Been Nominated: The Dark Knight Rises

Best Production Design:
Will Win:
Anna Karenina
Should Win:
Anna Karenina
Should Have Been Nominated:
Prometheus, Moonrise Kingdom

Best Costume Design:
Will Win: Anna Karenina
Should Win: Anna Karenina
Should Have Been Nominated: The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Prometheus

Best Hairstyling and Makeup:
Will Win: Les Miserables
Should Win: Les Miserables
Should Have Been Nominated: Lincoln, Looper

Best Original Score:
Will Win: Lincoln
Should Win: Anna Karenina
Should Have Been Nominated: Moonrise Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises

Best Original Song:
Will Win: “Skyfall”
Should Win: “Skyfall”
Should Have Been Nominated: “Learn Me Right” (Brave)

Best Sound Mixing:
Will Win: Skyfall
Should Win: Skyfall
Should Have Been Nominated: Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises

Best Sound Editing:
Will Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Should Win: Zero Dark Thirty
Should Have Been Nominated: Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises

Best Visual Effects:
Will Win: Life of Pi
Should Win: Prometheus
Should Have Been Nominated: The Dark Knight Rises

Best Documentary:
Will Win: Searching For Sugar Man
Should Win: Searching For Sugar Man
Should Have Been Nominated: Side by Side

Best Documentary Short Subject:
Will Win:
Should Win:
Open Heart

Best Live Action Short:
Will Win: Buzkashi Boys
Should Win: Asad

Best Animated Short:
Will Win: Paperman
Should Win: Paperman

There you have it! Now, time for your picks!