Oscar's in Desperate Need of Surprises — Here's Where They Could Come From

Academy members are hoping for a few monkey wrenches — some categories might be more uncertain than the experts think

The Oscar races can't  be decided already.

Yes, "The Artist" and Jean Dujardin and Viola Davis and Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer and Michel Hazanavicius seem to have every reason to polish those acceptance speeches. (Keep it under 45 seconds, folks, be emotional, don't read lists!)

But I've noticed a yearning – heck, a desperation – on the part of a number of Academy members for things not to go according to plan.

They want, say, Meryl Streep to upset Viola Davis, or Gary Oldman to pull off a miracle over Dujardin (left) and George Clooney. Or even, just to throw a monkey wrench in things, for Max von Sydow to wrestle the gold from Christopher Plummer. (No offense, Chris.)

There have to be some shocks on Feb. 26. So where will they come from?

Here are four significant categories with signs of uncertainty.

George Clooney in The DescendantsBEST ACTOR

For months, George Clooney was the front-runner for his carefully calibrated blend of heartbreak, anger and comedy in "The Descendants." But then "The Artist" juggernaut began to pick up momentum, and Jean Dujardin won one award after another: the Golden Globe, SAG Award, BAFTA Award …

Now Dujardin is the clear favorite, picked to win by all but two of the 12 pundits on Movie City News' Gurus of Gold. And Clooney will have to console himself with the one Oscar he already has, and those two People magazine Sexiest Man Alive awards that he loves to talk about.

Or will he?

One of the reasons that "The Artist" has become a near-prohibitive favorite in the Best Picture race is that no other film established itself as the clear-cut alternative, the movie to vote for if you don't want the silent movie to win.

In the Best Actor category, though, Clooney is that alternative. He's one way to slow the "Artist" train, one way to say that black-and-white charm only goes so far.

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

On the surface, this one looks like a no-brainer. "A Separation" has almost swept the critics' awards and precursor honors – and the one film that has occasionally beaten it, Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In," wasn't eligible in this category.

It also received an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, a rarity for a foreign-language film and something no other nominee can boast.

The problem is, this is one of a few categories where Academy members must see all five nominees before they can vote. So with only two of which have been theatrically released, the number of voters is likely so small that their tastes become nearly impossible to predict.

A SeparationThis boils the race down to something completely independent of conventional wisdom: Which movie does that small group of voters, which almost certainly numbers in the hundreds rather than the thousands, like best?

Remember, two years ago the French film "A Prophet" was in a similar position,  and yet it  lost to a far less-heralded Argentinian film, "The Secret in their Eyes," which went down easier with viewers.

I've also heard murmurs that "A Separation" may have been one of the three shortlisted foreign films that was given its slot by the executive committee rather than the main body of voters. If that’s true, that would mean it is competing against two or three films that the main body of Academy voters preferred.

Its likeliest competitor? Agnieszka Holland's harrowing Holocaust drama "In Darkness"  — though you shouldn't rule out Canada's emotional "Monsieur Lazhar" either.

The Tree of LifeBEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Another no-brainer, at least on paper. Emmanuel Lubezki has won nearly all the early awards – including the most prestigious one, from the American Society of Cinematographers – for his work on Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." The film has gorgeous shots achieved under a high degree-of-difficulty environment, in which the actors lived as the characters and Lubezki had to catch what he could on the go, using minimal or no lights. 

And yet Lubezki was in a similar position five years ago, when he'd won the ASC Award for his tremendous and tremendously difficult work on "Children of Men." At the Oscars, though, he lost to "Pan's Labyrinth," which hadn't even been nominated by the ASC.

Voting in the category is not done by cinematographers but by the Academy at large, which is why you get results like "Pan's Labyrinth" — or "Avatar" (much of which was hardly cinematography in the traditional definition) over the ASC winner "The White Ribbon."

Could the black-and-white dazzle of "The Artist" or the virtuosic 3D of "Hugo," win over voters for whom "The Tree of Life" is too long, too dense and too weird?

I think they could. In fact, I'm afraid they will.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory posterBEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

As with Foreign-Language Film, voters can't cast a ballot unless they see all five films in theaters. And to my mind, it's completely up in the air.

I've been giving the edge to "Paradise Lost 3," the third in the series of Joe Berlinger's  and Bruce Sinofky's movies about the West Memphis Three case, largely because of the publicity that surrounded the release of the three unjustly convicted men after 18 years in prison last August.

In a category that loves to salute important and significant films, freeing three men from prison – as the series of docs was instrumental in doing – is a hard achievement to ignore.

And yet "Paradise Lost 3" is the kind of movie that newly adopted rules in the category are designed to eliminate: a made-for-HBO film that qualified for the Oscar through a quiet one-week run in a theater on the outskirts of Los Angeles County. And it's a sequel to two previous films that uses footage shot for those films to tell some of its story.

Both factors could hurt it, as could the arrival of the high-profile, Peter Jackson-produced film "West of Memphis" on the festival circuit just as nominations were being announced.

UndefeatedAnother nominee, "Undefeated," deals with a less earth-shaking subject — high school football — but does so in a surprisingly emotional and thoroughly crowd-pleasing way. It has the advantage of being a film where viewers think they know what they're going to get (an inspirational sport movie) but find something more powerful than they expected.

In a category that insists on voters seeing the films in theatrical settings, it may well be the nominee that plays best in front of large audiences.

Two other serious docs, "Hell and Back Again" and "If a Tree Falls," have their partisans and could get the issue-doc vote that doesn't go to "Paradise Lost 3."

And Wim Wenders' dance documentary "Pina" is the real wild card: The people who love it really love it, and it could sneak in if the four issue-oriented films split their vote.

AS FOR THE REST…

Other categories have at least the potential for upsets: Best Actress isn't completely set, and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that "Rango" could prove too weird for Academy voters in the Animated Feature category.

In the end, I suppose, all we can hope for out of this Oscar season is that even if the favorites will end up winning in every single category, somebody at least gives them a run for their money.