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Holiday preview: Oscar predictions

We analyze the playing field — including a Best Picture race shaken up by new Academy rules

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As if the Oscar game wasn’t already complicated enough, the Academy further muddied the waters this year by overhauling the rules for Best Picture. In order to nab a nomination, a film must now earn at least 5 percent of the total number of first-place votes (projected to be around 240 ballots). Depending on the actual voting, between five and 10 films will earn Best Picture nods. (In other major categories, there will still be only five nominees.) How will this affect the race for the top prize? ”Now if you don’t vote for a film number one,” says one campaigner, ”your vote won’t matter.” Films with strong cult followings will have an advantage. Though nominations won’t be announced till Jan. 24, here are the movies and stars currently leading the pack.

Best Picture
The Artist
Yes, it’s in black and white and has virtually no audible dialogue. But its unique charm has led to several festival awards, both domestically and overseas.
The Descendants
Balancing deadpan comedy and heart-tugging drama, director Alexander Payne’s latest character study stands to be the critical favorite of the year.
War Horse
With its wartime setting, sweeping visuals, and a story based on a hit novel (and play), Steven Spielberg’s period piece seems to tick all the right Oscar boxes.

Other Contenders
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
The Ides of March
Midnight in Paris

Long Shots
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2
J. Edgar
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Tree of Life
Young Adult

Best Actor
George Clooney, The Descendants
As a father of two who learns his comatose wife had been cheating on him, he delivers what may be a career-best performance showcasing his signature charm as well as previously unplumbed depths of emotion. He’s the guy to beat.
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Already a household name in his native France, the 39-year-old comedian picked up the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his almost entirely wordless work as a fading silent-film star. Extra points for his stellar dancing scenes.
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
It’s not your typical scenery-chewing Oscar turn, but he anchors Moneyball with measured tension, humor, and grace as baseball manager Billy Beane (and the Academy loves real-life stories). On deck: his third career nomination.

Other Contenders
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March
Woody Harrelson, Rampart
Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Long Shots
Demián Bichir, A Better Life
Matt Damon, We Bought a Zoo
Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus
Thomas Horn, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Best Actress
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Of all the actresses working regularly today, Close has the most nominations—five—without a win. Her deftly convincing turn as a woman passing as a man in late-19th-century Ireland should clinch her first nod in two decades.
Viola Davis, The Help
This category has had the fewest African-American nominees of all the acting races, with only eight. But Davis’ fierce, heartbreaking performance as headstrong maid Aibileen will easily make her the ninth on the list.
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Buzz on the film isn’t as strong as it is on Streep herself. But just look at Oscar’s most nominated performer in character as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Would you consider betting against her? We wouldn’t.

Other Contenders
Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Long Shots
Ellen Barkin, Another Happy Day
Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
Felicity Jones, Like Crazy
Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
A past nominee for Best Actor, Director, Screenplay, and Short Film, he should score a supporting nod for his vivid turn as one of his idols, Laurence Olivier.
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Two years after earning his first career nomination for The Last Station, the 81-year-old icon leads this year’s pack as a newly out-and-proud widower.
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Playing a man who communicates via a notepad and ”yes” and ”no” written on his palms, the 82-year-old vet is said to be a standout.

Other Contenders
George Clooney, The Ides of March
Armie Hammer, J. Edgar
Tom Hanks, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Christoph Waltz, Carnage

Long Shots
Jim Broadbent, The Iron Lady
Robert Forster, The Descendants
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
Kevin Spacey, Margin Call

Best Supporting Actress
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Previously recognized in the Best Actress race for 1999’s Tumbleweeds, the British film and stage star steals scenes as Glenn Close’s gender-bending kindred spirit.
Octavia Spencer, The Help
After 15 years of TV guest spots and bit parts in film, she scored the role of a lifetime — as no-nonsense master chef Minny — and gives a star-making performance.
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Only 18 when she filmed The Descendants, the star of ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager more than holds her own with screen dad George Clooney.

Other Contenders
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Sandra Bullock, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Long Shots
Jodie Foster, Carnage
Judy Greer, The Descendants
Carey Mulligan, Shame
Kate Winslet, Carnage
Evan Rachel Wood, The Ides of March

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Steven Speilberg, War Horse

Other Contenders
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
George Clooney, The Ides of March
Stephen Daldry, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
David Fincher, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Tate Taylor, The Help

Long Shots
Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Bennett Miller, Moneyball
Jason Reitman, Young Adult
Martin Scorsese, Hugo