Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and Matt Damon make our critic's short list of possible honorees

Best Picture
Oh, how much easier this would be if there were only five Best Picture nominees this year: It’d be Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Precious, and Inglourious Basterds and we’d call it a day. It’s those other five slots that are tougher to suss out. An Education has strong support from actors (witness its SAG nod for best cast) and across-the-pond voters, and the delightfully strange A Serious Man will rally the Coen brothers’ fervent fan base. Invictus has the necessary prestige to make the cut, while Best Animated Feature front-runner Up should manage to break out of the cartoon ghetto. If voters want to go the populist route, the top contender is the adult romance It’s Complicated. But since it’s the No. 1 and No. 2 votes on the Academy’s ranked ballots that truly count, a film with a smaller cult of enthusiastic followers — think District 9 or, more likely, The Messenger — is poised to become a spoiler. Which means the flashy, filled-with-Oscar-faves musical Nine may fall victim to its nasty reviews and lackluster box office.

And the nominees will be?
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
For Your Consideration With zippy direction and a crackerjack cast, isn’t the Star Trek reboot just the kind of movie the supersize Best Picture race is made for?

Best Actor
Four performances have dominated this race and show no signs of budging: George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth, and Morgan Freeman all received the trifecta of Golden Globe, SAG Award, and Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations. Tobey Maguire also landed a Globe nod for Brothers, but the film has taken some knocks from critics, which hurts his chances; ditto BFCA nominee Viggo Mortensen for the drama The Road. In a race with another onscreen soldier, Ben Foster (so raw and moving in The Messenger), we think the last spot goes to Jeremy Renner.

And the nominees will be?
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
For Your Consideration We’re certainly happy that Matt Damon is finally on his way to getting some more Oscar love for Invictus (see right) after being overlooked for The Talented Mr. Ripley and the Bourne films. But let’s not forget his funniest, gutsiest — and flabbiest! — turn as the world’s worst corporate whistle-blower in The Informant!

Best Actress
Meryl Streep will easily break her own record and earn Academy Award nomination No. 16. Though It’s Complicated is the more recent of her two starring roles this year, Streep’s channeling of a real person in Julie & Julia is likelier to get the voters’ attention. Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe are the indie standouts of the year. Emily Blunt made the BFCA and Globe short lists for her impressive turn in The Young Victoria and could do the same here, but the Academy may round out the race with a past winner — Helen Mirren — and a first-time nominee: Sandra Bullock.

And the nominees will be?
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, JULIE & JULIA
For Your Consideration Remember how surprised you were when you saw Maya Rudolph in Away We Go last summer? How impressed you were that such a hilarious former Saturday Night Live star could offer such an understated and poignant performance as a conflicted mother-to-be? We were too.

Best Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz and Woody Harrelson are the definites here, followed by Matt Damon, who’ll earn his first nomination in 12 years. With Me and Orson Welles’ Christian McKay becoming more and more of a long shot, the last two slots will likely go to veterans who’ve never been nominated despite decades of strong work: Stanley Tucci (so fabulous in Julie & Julia but more likely to get noticed for his villainous role in The Lovely Bones), Christopher Plummer (resolute as a dying Tolstoy in The Last Station), or An Education‘s Alfred Molina, who may find himself drawing the short straw this year.

And the nominees will be?
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
For Your Consideration This category is the most fun when the Academy chooses to recognize a comedic performance. And there’s no better scene-stealing, pot-smoking, and, yes, flesh-baring turn this year than Alec Baldwin’s, as Meryl Streep’s ex in It’s Complicated. In this case, it’s not complicated — it’s obvious.

Best Supporting Actress
Mo’Nique and Anna Kendrick have monopolized the critics’ prizes, while Kendrick’s costar Vera Farmiga also seems a good bet. The Screen Actors Guild overlooked Julianne Moore, but her boozy BFF in A Single Man should do the trick with the Academy. As Nine‘s buzz continues to fade, Golden Globe and SAG Award nominee Penélope Cruz may find herself edged out. Inglourious Basterds‘ Diane Kruger made the SAG list, but the likeliest stealth contender is The Messenger‘s Samantha Morton, who has snuck in at the last minute before.

And the nominees will be?
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo’nique, Precious
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Samantha Morton, The Messenger
For Your Consideration
Where the Wild Things Are may have been polarizing, but no one can dismiss Catherine Keener’s surprisingly complex (given her screen time) performance as the exhausted yet loving mother of mad Max. What she conveys with the squint of an eye or playful poke of the foot speaks volumes about being a parent.

Best Director
One certainty in this year’s Oscar race: A woman will be nominated for Best Director, for the fourth time ever, in the form of Kathryn Bigelow. Jason Reitman and Quentin Tarantino should each score their second nods in this race, while past winners James Cameron and Clint Eastwood stand the best shot at rounding out the category. Outside contenders include Precious‘ Lee Daniels, Up‘s Pete Docter, and An Education‘s Lone Scherfig, in which case there’d be two women nominated in the same year for the first time.

And the nominees will be?
Katheryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Clint Eastwood, Invictus
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
For Your Consideration
Part sci-fi adventure, part action thriller, part buddy comedy, and part political satire — first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 combined all these things and actually left us hungry for a sequel.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Up in the Air, Precious, and An Education are the surest bets, while the writers’ branch has recognized both members of Fantastic Mr. Fox‘s clever team before. For the fifth slot, it could be Nora Ephron for Julie & Julia or Tom Ford (co-credited with David Scearce) for his impressive overhaul of A Single Man. But if voters don’t want to let a designer into the club, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell’s District 9 may be too unsettling to ignore.

And the nominees will be?
An Education, Nick Hornby
District 9, Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Precious, Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air, Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Best Original Screenplay
There are essentially six screenplays fighting for the five spots here. The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Up, and A Serious Man, all strong overall contenders, seem like foregone conclusions. Nancy Meyers scored a Golden Globe nomination for her insightful and funny It’s Complicated script, but the guys from (500) Days of Summer can see Meyers on insightful and funny and raise her another all-important adjective: inventive.

And the nominees will be?
(500) Days of Summer, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
The Hurt Locker, Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino
A Serious Man, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Up, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter

The 25 Movies You Need To See Before Oscar Night
March 7 isn’t far off. So start at the top of this list and work your way down.

Up in the Air
The Hurt Locker
(on DVD Jan. 12) Precious
Inglourious Basterds
(now on DVD) Invictus
An Education
(now on DVD) A Serious Man
The Messenger
Julie & Julia
(now on DVD) A Single Man
Crazy Heart
(goes wide in Jan.) The Blind Side
The Last Station
Star Trek
(now on DVD) District 9
(now on DVD) Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Lovely Bones
(goes wide Jan. 15) (500) Days of Summer
(now on DVD) It’s Complicated
The Young Victoria
Bright Star
(on DVD Jan. 26) The Informant!
(on DVD Feb. 23)