Our awards-season expert reveals who's leading the Academy race — and who still might sneak in under the wire

By Anthony Breznican
January 04, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

Best Picture
If we were picking only five, this would be easy: Argo, Lincoln, Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty, and Silver Linings Playbook are locks for a nomination. I’d even argue that Life of Pi and Moonrise Kingdom are sure things. Talk to any Academy member, and these are the seven they rattle off unanimously. But the category can go as high as 10, depending on how many films collect at least 5 percent of the total number of first-place votes. Given what a strong year it’s been, most voters expect the category to max out at the full 10. (Last year, when The Artist was the front-runner in a thin lineup of contenders, the list still went to nine.) So what are the remaining three? Amour, the French-language drama about an aging couple saying goodbye, has a lot of affection, as do the indie apocalypse saga Beasts of the Southern Wild and the old-folks comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. These seem to be the most likely contenders, though the voters could throw in a surprise.

For Your Consideration
Django Unchained is a possibility, but Quentin Tarantino can sometimes be too provocative for the older, stuffier Academy members. (Granted, they did go for Inglourious Basterds in 2010.) The Dark Knight Rises may be a stealth candidate too, but the big, glossy tentpole most voters embrace is Skyfall. James Bond has never had a Best Picture nomination — this could be the first.

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Denzel Washington, Flight

Daniel Day-Lewis is a juggernaut. The Lincoln star is not only a lock for a nomination but as sure a sure thing as you can get for a win. The race for Best Actor remains a packed competition, but the other four are fairly certain, based on all the pre-Oscar prizes doled out. This list matches the Screen Actors Guild award nominees exactly, but historically there tends to be at least one difference between those contenders and the Oscars. We might see Richard Gere’s lethally corrupt Wall Street executive get in for Arbitrage, since he has been hitting the Hollywood campaign trail heavily. Joaquin Phoenix was an early possibility for The Master, but since he has expressed disinterest in awards, voters may oblige those wishes. Whatever the case, it’s hard to imagine any of the above players falling out now.

For Your Consideration
In the dark comedy Bernie, Jack Black plays a nice-guy Texas undertaker accused of the not-so-nice crime of murder, and it shows him channeling his feisty optimism in a way we haven’t seen before. The Golden Globes rewarded him with a nomination for best comedy/musical actor. An Academy nod is a long shot, but stranger things have happened — like the real-life story behind Bernie, for instance. Part of the movie’s charm is how difficult it is to believe.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard, Rust And Bone
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Most voters predict the Best Actress race will come down to a battle between Jessica Chastain’s relentless CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty and Jennifer Lawrence’s pushy widow from Silver Linings Playbook. The likeliest bets for the three other slots are all aching performances fueled by loss: the stroke victim played by 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva (who would be the category’s oldest-ever nominee) in Amour, Marion Cotillard’s amputee orca trainer in Rust and Bone, and Naomi Watts’ mother of three trying to find her family in the aftermath of a tsunami in The Impossible. Meanwhile, Helen Mirren has an outside shot at breaking in for her role as the wife of the great director in Hitchcock, which earned her Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nods.

For Your Consideration
Quvenzhané Wallis was only 6 when she played a brave little bayou girl facing the apocalypse in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Even though she’s now 9, she’d still be the youngest-ever contender for Best Actress. Kids have been nominated (and even won) before, mostly in supporting categories, but will the Academy’s acting branch feel comfortable saying the best work in their field was done by a grade schooler? If they do, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Gentlemen, start your tempers. The front-runners here are playing some of the most cantankerous characters imaginable — Tommy Lee Jones as the withering antislavery congressman in Lincoln, Alan Arkin as the crotchety Hollywood producer in Argo, and Robert De Niro as the grumbling, football-obsessed dad in Silver Linings Playbook. Even Philip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic New Age messiah in The Master is prone to tantrums. The fifth slot is a question of who gets in from Django Unchained: Christoph Waltz’s chipper gunslinging bounty hunter? Leonardo DiCaprio’s rotten-toothed, slave-driving plantation owner? Or will the Academy have the nerve to vote for Samuel L. Jackson’s scheming house slave? My guess is the Academy chooses the guy with a smile this time.

For Your Consideration
The Screen Actors Guild gave that fifth position to Skyfall‘s Javier Bardem for playing Silva, a deformed, vengeance-seeking former agent who turns terrorist against the British secret service. He could well crack the top five at the Oscars, too, though it would be the first time an actor from any of the 23 James Bond movies got a nomination. The Academy loves Bardem, who has three previous nominations, including a win in 2008 for No Country for Old Men.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Anne Hathaway is the clear leader for her heartbreaking, gut-wrenching performance as the desperate mother Fantine in Les Misérables, but you can’t count out Lincoln‘s Sally Field as the erratic and driven First Lady Mary Todd. Field has been nominated twice before and won each time — although the last time was in 1985 for Places in the Heart. The voter consensus is leaning toward three other Oscar veterans for the remaining slots: Helen Hunt as a sex surrogate in The Sessions, Maggie Smith as a prejudiced retiree in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Amy Adams as the modern messiah’s calculating wife in The Master. Although Adams could fall off if indie underdog Ann Dowd gets her due for playing a fast-food manager conned by a fake cop in the thriller Compliance.

For Your Consideration
The shock Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominee was Nicole Kidman, who was widely praised for playing the sweaty, sexy femme fatale in The Paperboy, even if the Southern gothic murder mystery was otherwise destroyed by those same critics. She could get a nod if voters are inspired to overlook the movie’s flaws when they check out the screener.

Best Director
Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper, Les Misérables
Ang Lee, Life Of Pi
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Steven Spielberg has a lock on his seventh nomination with Lincoln, a movie he developed for more than a decade. And Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck will surely make the cut for Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, respectively — two very different but equally riveting true stories about CIA operations in the Middle East. Life of Pi is considered a massive filmmaker’s achievement, so count on Ang Lee getting a nomination from his peers. Tom Hooper was the front-runner and winner two years ago for The King’s Speech, but Les Misérables has absorbed some bad reviews. He’s the one most vulnerable to a dark-horse candidate.

For Your Consideration
The directors’ branch loves to honor combative visionaries, so The Master‘s Paul Thomas Anderson has a slim chance for his cold, hard look at postwar mysticism. Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke could also be their choice for Amour, his unsentimental but deeply moving portrait of an elderly couple facing the end of life.

Best Original Screenplay
Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Michael Haneke, Amour
Rian Johnson, Looper
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Writers are the most iconoclastic of the Academy’s voting members. They love making unorthodox choices. Mark Boal is the early favorite for his investigative study into the killing of Osama bin Laden for Zero Dark Thirty, though the rebels in the voting group admire Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s Moonrise Kingdom. Rian Johnson’s clever time-travel tale, Looper, has its supporters, while Michael Haneke’s Amour has won over many of the hearts it has broken.

For Your Consideration
Writers have expressed admiration for the way Flight screenwriter John Gatins front-loads the drama with the spectacular plane crash that might have been the climax of another movie, before moving toward a more interior plot concerning Denzel Washington’s addict pilot.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Chris Terrio, Argo

Tony Kushner’s ability to imbue Lincoln with authenticity, even in the president’s private moments, is a feat that won’t go unnoticed. And while David O. Russell may sit out the directing category, he will surely be honored here for the frenetic energy of Silver Linings Playbook. Likewise, Chris Terrio’s Argo script is adrenaline on paper. Originality counts, even in the adapted category, so Beasts‘ Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin are another likely bet, as is Stephen Chbosky for Wallflower, a rare case of someone adapting and directing his own novel.

For Your Consideration
The long shot could come from anywhere, but if writers choose to recognize someone, they may turn to David Magee for Life of Pi, a truly challenging adaptation of a best-selling novel that was considered by many to be unfilmable. Magee crafted the framework that proved otherwise.

Nominate This! The Stars’ Favorites
These five talents have some passionate opinions about who should get a nod this year

James Franco on The Perks of Being a Wallflower for Best Picture
”High school can be done so wrong, but these wallflowers do it so right. They embrace the outcasts and don’t shy away from the hard issues teens face: sex, drugs, suicide, mental illness. They capture the beauty of youth: friendship, love, creativity.”

Jason Reitman on Looper for Best Original Screenplay
Looper isn’t a film about time travel …. Time travel is a prop. Looper is about what your 55-year-old self would tell your 25-year-old self over a cup of coffee. It’s about finding love in the third act of your life. It’s about overcoming trauma and the idea of true sacrifice.”

Alfre Woodard on Middle of Nowhere‘s Emayatzy Corinealdi for Best Actress
”You watch and wonder how a talent like that has gone undiscovered for so long. She imbues the film’s heroine with a combination of vulnerability and strength, humility and gusto, defiance and dignity.”

Aaron Sorkin on Promised Land for Best Picture
Promised Land is only about fracking if Jaws is about fishing. You’ll be completely taken in by the con game, the humor, the stakes, the absence of easy answers, and the typically detailed, subtle, and charismatic performances.”

Reese Witherspoon on The Impossible‘s Naomi Watts for Best Actress
”The life breath of the film is Watts. Her brutal physical performance, the ferocity of her mothering spirit, and the soul-touching moments where she held on to life with every part of her being were incredible.”