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How Oscar Could Surprise — and Scare — Us

A Best Picture nom for “Nine”? “Mary and Max” winning for animation?

We know who the frontrunners are, but the real spice in every batch of Oscar nominations comes from the surprises.

So while we tally up the nominations for “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” and “Inglourious Basterds” and “Up in the Air,” it’ll be intriguing to see who lands those last two Supporting Actress nominations, who unexpectedly sneaks into the Original Screenplay category, what dark horse suddenly surges into contention.

I indicated a few possibilities in my nomination predictions, but I also want to take a minute to offer some of the surprises I’d love to see – and, looking on the dark side, some of the possibilities that scare me.

First, 10 welcome surprises. I know the odds are against any of these actually happening, but I’d love to see them.

Christian McKay1. Best Supporting Actor: Christian McKay, “Me and Orson Welles.” Chances are, not enough Academy members saw this unknown British actor (left) channel the mercurial Welles, dominating Richard Linklater’s agreeable period piece with a funny, charismatic, commanding performance. I’m sure he got a good number of votes from those who saw it, though.

2-4. Best Actor: Viggo Mortensen for “The Road,” Ben Foster for “The Messenger,” Sharlto Copley for “District 9.” Three tough, terrific performances that would sit alongside Jeff Bridges and Jeremy Renner (and, oh, Colin Firth) on my personal ballot.

5-6. Best Animated Feature: “Mary and Max” or “A Town Called Panic.” This may be one of the best years ever for animated features, and the lineup of five nominees will likely be a strong one – but with a little imagination, the Academy could make it a strong, weird, utterly delightful one. “Mary and Max” is a remarkable Australian claymation oddity for adults, and one of my favorite movies of the year; “A Town Called Panic” is a crazed Belgian stop-motion entry with some of the anarchic feel of old Gumby cartoons.

Mary and Max“Mary and Max” (right) in particular fully deserves to be a nominee – and I can’t shake the feeling that since members have to watch 16 of the 20 eligible films in order to vote in this category, enough of them might actually seen it to put it in the finals. But I may be deluding myself.

7. Best Director: Lone Scherfig for “An Education.” “When every actor in a movie is that good,” said an actor (and AMPAS member) after seeing “An Education,” “you have no choice but to blame the director.” I blame this unheralded Danish vet of the Dogme 95 movement for my favorite movie of the year, and wish more voters blamed her as well.

8. Best Adapted Screenplay: Armando Ianucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche for “In the Loop.” Fast, funny and furiously profane. And not out of the picture, actually, given the writers branch’s proclivities for surprises.

9. Best Original Song: “Dove of Peace,” from “Bruno.” How many of the 63 eligible songs not only provided their films with clear high points, but actually served as the punchline to the entire movie? This one, a loopy parody of all-star charity-rock anthems, did. Yes, it has some lines that’d give the ABC censor fits – but imagine an onstage recreation of the movie’s performance, which features not only Sacha Baron Cohen but also Bono, Sting, Slash, Elton John and Snoop Dogg.

10. Best Picture: “Invictus” falling out of the race. Does the Academy really love Clint Eastwood enough to reward him for a sub-par effort? I know they probably do, but then I think about “Gran Torino” (high hopes, zero nominations), “Changeling” and “Flags of Our Fathers,” and think that maybe they don’t anymore. I’d love to see “The Messenger” slip in here, or any of a variety of films that are more vibrant and vital than Eastwood’s honorable but occasionally hamfisted by-the-numbers South African film.

And now, five possibilities that scare me.

Jeff Bridges1. “The Weary Kind” from “Crazy Heart” not receiving a nomination for Best Original Song. Yes, it’s probably the frontrunner, winning at the Globes and the Critics Choice Movie Awards. But the way in which the Academy’s music branch makes its choices is so odd, and the ways in which a song can be left out so pervasive, that I never feel as if anything is safe. Hands-down the best, most central of the 63 eligible songs, and the likely winner … but still, I’m worried that it might be left out.

2. No Supporting Actor nomination for Alfred Molina for “An Education.” Christoph Waltz is the favorite, of course, but back in the fall I figured the always-topnotch Molina was a solid second or third choice. Now I wonder if voters have forgotten the way he turns what could have been a easy-joke role into one of heartbreaking depth.

3. “Up” missing a Best Picture nomination. If it wasn’t for the Best Animated Feature category, it’d be a deserved shoo-in. But that category is an easy, perhaps irresistible escape hatch for voters.

4. “Nine” getting a Best Picture nomination. Reviewers were unkind, audiences stayed away, and the lavish musical that some people thought would be a frontrunner stumbled badly. But with all those stars, and all those beautiful sets and costumes and cinematography and all that flashy editing, could it connect with a certain (old-fashioned) segment of the AMPAS membership enough to land a nomination? No way, right? Right?

5. Best Original Song: “I See You” from “Avatar,” “God Bless Us Everyone” from “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” … One enormous sappy ballad I can deal with, barely. More than that, no. And if “Colorblind” from “Invictus” somehow gets in … Well, I can’t even think about that one.