EW's expert Dave Karger predicts the Academy Award winners

By Dave Karger
Updated February 26, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST

Back in the summer, there were four early favorites in the Oscar race, four movies helmed by filmmakers who’d directed Best Picture winners in the past that boasted either subject matter or scope befitting a standard Oscar contender. These four were expected to dominate the conversation and compete for the most prestigious prize in Hollywood. The movies in question? Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, Rob Marshall’s Nine, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, and James Cameron’s Avatar.

What a difference six months makes. Three of the four (Invictus, Nine, and Bones) went on to receive lukewarm reviews and underperform at the box office. Despite each scoring an acting nod or two — and, in the case of Nine, a few technical nominations as well — they all failed to snag a Best Picture nomination. And that’s with 10 slots this year.

Instead, the biggest race consists of some film-festival hits (The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, An Education, Up in the Air, and Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) and a few atypical contenders: an animated film (Up), a gritty alien drama (District 9), and, most surprisingly, a sports weepie (The Blind Side).

But how many horses are truly in this race? Many observers are predicting a showdown between Avatar and The Hurt Locker, the two films that earned the most nominations. At the same time, Up in the Air, which earned three acting nominations (the most for any film), clearly has support from actors, the Academy’s largest branch. And perhaps the savviest campaigner, Harvey Weinstein, is insisting his Basterds will pull an upset à la Shakespeare in Love in 1999. ”I think box office only helps,” says Basterds producer Lawrence Bender. ”But obviously it’s got to be a movie that people love, too. We have both. We’re going to kick Avatar, Hurt Locker, and everyone else in the butt!” For his part, director Cameron says he’s more interested in winning Oscars for his nominated crew members than for himself. ”I think I have less invested in it than most of the people there at this point,” he says of the Best Picture trophy. ”Is it going to help my career? No, not really. It’s going to help others, if they win, more so.”

Judging from the most important pre-Oscar prizes, however, it’s The Hurt Locker‘s trophy to lose. But even though the film’s nominated director, Kathryn Bigelow, keeps hearing that her movie is a possible winner, she’s maintaining her usual cool: ”You don’t know until you know,” she says. True as that may be, we’re still having a blast trying to predict all the winners. Read on for our comprehensive picks. Additional reporting by Adam Markovitz and Kate Ward