Gunning for Oscar, or: Dream on. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in <em>Inception</em>, likely occupant of this year's<em> Avatar</em> slot.
Gunning for Oscar, or: Dream on. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, likely occupant of this year's Avatar slot.

Nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards will be announced this coming Tuesday, Jan. 25, at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. PT. Actually, only the top categories - Picture, Director, the four acting departments, and a couple others - will rate screen time on E! channel. For the rest, make a beeline to www.oscars.org or your entertainment news website of choice (say, MSN.com/Movies or IMDb.com ... in fact, right where you're looking).

So what will we hear? Last year the Academy reverted, for the first time since 1943, to a policy of running 10 candidates for Best Picture instead of five. It was pretty clear only about half had a real shot: Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, the indie lovechild Precious, Up in the Air, maybe the animated Up, and The Hurt Locker, which went on to win. The rest could claim only "It's an honor just to be nominated" bragging rights - but they wouldn't have had that any other time in living memory. So, going to 10 was a good move on the Academy's part. And contrary to expectations, it didn't open the way for a bunch of braindead summer hits to muscle in solely on the strength of having sold millions of tickets. Instead, some wonderful oddballs - District 9, the South African political sci-fi, and the Coens' A Serious Man - got their moment in the sun, along with the much-respected Danish-British arthouse hit An Education. There was but one embarrassment, the crowdpleaser The Blind Side; and how much worse if it had been one of only five nominees?

It seems there's more "Oscar buzz" with each passing year, and having caught my share of it, I can't help feeling a bit hohum about Tuesday's "breaking news." If buzz gets a vote, the 10 are pretty well locked up: in alphabetical order, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King's Speech, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, and True Grit. I fervently hope that the class act of the independent American cinema year, Winter's Bone, is remembered as 2009's An Education and A Serious Man were. Competition for the final slot should be between the man-in-a-hole tour de force 127 Hours and the first half of the last gasp of the Harry Potter franchise. There's also the possibility of some serving-a-constituency candidacies - e.g., I Love You Phillip Morris, with its sweetnatured, whackadoodle approach to a very gay story (though I'm told it's met with considerable resistance). I'm not even dreaming of a fluke that would bring such personal favorites as The Ghost Writer and The Way Back into the race.

Best Actor? Best Original Screenplay? Best Cinematography (which last year went to a movie the majority of which had not been photographed)? Will they be so gauche as to nominate True Grit's true star Hailee Steinfeld for Best Supporting Actress? Let's save all that for now. I've been asked to file a Feb. 2 commentary on the actual nominations for Queen Anne & Magnolia News. As for the awards themselves, we get to find that out on the night of Feb. 27.

Next-day addendum:  Several more titles that have their cheering sections are: Ben Affleck's Boston crime drama The Town (Jeremy Renner seems a likely Supporting Actor contender), the virtual two-handerBlue Valentine, and the sadly topical The Company Men with its blue-ribbon cast.

Jan. 26 addendum :  Ahem ... 10 for 10.