Although there have been a few instances of suspense among recent races (last year's Best Actress contest, for example, was The Help's Viola Davis vs. The Iron Lady's Meryl Streep, with My Week with Marilyn's Michelle Williams as a possible spoiler, right up to the moment when 2011's oh-so-predictable Best Actor winner Colin Firth opened the envelope and announced Streep's name), there hasn't been a truly WTF Oscar moment in the acting categories since 2003. That was the year in which The Pianist's Adrien Brody snatched Best Actor from the medium-tight grips of Gangs of New York's Daniel Day-Lewis and About Schmidt's Jack Nicholson (an upset I began anticipating somewhere between the showing of Brody's clip and Halle Berry's opening of the envelope).
This year might seem to be business as usual as usual, but look closely. Some of the major categories are more too-close-to-call than you might think. We've become so accustomed to hearing the acceptance speeches of Les Misérables' Anne Hathaway and Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis all Oscar season long, that the other categories have begun to seem like foregone conclusions, too. (Oh, if only The Master's Joaquin Phoenix would pull an Adrien Brody, but that's about as likely to happen as Barbra Streisand hitting a bum note in her first Oscar singing performance since the '70s.)
With Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress all but wrapped up, there's still a surprise or two -- and possibly at least one upset -- waiting to happen in the other major categories.
Best Actress: Zero Dark Thirty's Jessica Chastain Vs. Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence Vs. Amour's Emmanuelle Riva
I've been predicting an upset all season in the form of The Impossible's Naomi Watts, and I still haven't completely given up that, um, near-impossible, dream. But if the Academy, for the first time since Charlize Theron's Monster win in 2004, decides to send the Best Actress Oscar home with the contender who deserves it most, there'll be no stopping Beasts of the Southern Wild's Quvenzhané Wallis.
Most Likely to Win: Jennifer Lawrence
But Look Out for: Emmanuelle Riva
Best Supporting Actor: Lincoln's Tommy Lee Jones Vs. Django Unchained's Christoph Waltz
Who would have thought it possible? What is traditionally the most predictable and least exciting acting category, this year might actually be the second-most interesting one. Jones, Waltz and The Master's Phillip Seymour Hoffman have pretty much split the spoils this season (a SAG Award for Jones, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for Waltz, a Critics Choice Award for Hoffman), and it feels like a contest mainly between them (give or take Hoffman, who I'm taking out of the likely showdown scenario). Both Jones and Waltz are in it to win it, and either would be deserving. But I wouldn't completely count out Robert DeNiro.
The Academy's acting branch obviously loves Silver Linings Playbook, or it wouldn't have nominated it in every acting category, and at least one of its four contenders will win. If Best Actress goes to Riva (an outcome I think is more likely than Chastain winning), the movie's consolation acting prize just might go to DeNiro (making him possibly one of two newly minted three-time winners), and why not? His performance might have looked easy on paper, but he made what could have been a throwaway dad role a pivotal one, finding and accentuating both the vinegar and the sweetness in the character. Bonus points for finally coming of age onscreen, too, fully embracing his patriarchal status, wearing his 69 years proudly and never once giving in to youthful vanity, in much the same way Jack Nicholson did in About Schmidt a decade ago.
Most Likely to Win: Christoph Waltz
But Look Out for: Robert DeNiro
Best Picture: Argo Vs. Silver Linings Playbook Vs. Lincoln
I know, I know. It's Argo's too lose. That's probably true. But don't underestimate the Academy's inclination to throw the occasional curve ball and upset the apples and oranges cart. The Best Picture wins of Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan and Crash over Brokeback Mountain, both among the biggest Oscar gaffes since 1990, according to my friend and Us Weekly critic Mara Reinstein (see the rest of her list here), were hardly upsets to me since I could see them coming from at least a few weeks away. They are, however, proof that Oscar likes to occasionally mess with our minds.
I'm expecting a repeat of 1999 when a Steven Spielberg film (Saving Private Ryan that year, Lincoln tomorrow) won him Best Director but not Best Picture. As acclaimed and successful as Lincoln has been (it's a movie that was pretty much made for Oscar glory, and the year's most-nominated film, with 12 nods), it seems to inspire more solemn reverence than the passionate enthusiasm that Silver Linings Playbook incites in its still-growing fan base. And a Best Picture win for indie SLP would make the Academy seem hipper than it has in decades while striking down those accusations of chronic predictability and stodginess.
But considering what The King's Speech did to The Social Network a few years ago, is that even an Oscar aspiration? If, for once, it is, and if Argo isn't indestructible by now, SLP might be the one contender that can still take the wind out of its sails.
Most Likely to Win: Argo
But Look Out for: Silver Linings Playbook