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Oscars: We Called It Last Year — and the 2011 Winner Is …

The Odds called ”The Hurt Locker“ back in September of 2009. So who’s looking good this year?

When the Odds was launched just over a year ago, I took a stab at predicting the 2009 Oscar race – and prefaced it by saying that anybody who thinks they can divine the Best Picture winner in the first week of September is a fool.

But I went ahead and did it anyway, suggesting that “The Hurt Locker” would win.

I said that it had the feel of a film that would hang on and grow in stature, and that I just didn’t trust the buzz on all the other films on the horizon, from “Up in the Air” to “Nine” to “Avatar.” (Read “Is 2009’s Best Picture Winner Already Under Our Noses?”)

Now it’s time to celebrate the anniversary of that lucky guess — I mean that brilliant prediction — and to look at the state of the 2010 Oscar race in these final days before the Toronto International Film Festival. Which is to say, before we really know much of anything.

Colin FirthAnd while I thought that one of 2009’s summer releases had what it took to be the last film standing, I don’t see anything similar this year. The 2010 race is even cloudier than usual, and predictions even harder to make with any degree of confidence.

Have we seen some of the Best Picture nominees already?  Sure. “The Kids Are All Right” seems to be in a healthy position, buoyed by good box office figures and what I hear was a very positive reception at its official Academy screening.

“Toy Story 3” and “Inception” are both frequently mentioned as likely nominees, and I’d put them on my list of probables – though I think both films are far from slam dunks, the first because of that troublesome numeral (sequels almost never get Best-Pic nominations), the second because it seems to awe younger viewers and confuse old-timers.

When I filled out my first “Gurus of Gold” ballot for the Movie City News website this week, I picked these 15 films as the likeliest Best Picture nominees:

“The King’s Speech” (photo above)
“The Social Network”
“127 Hours”
“The Kids Are All Right”
“Toy Story 3”
“Never Let Me Go”
“True Grit”
“The Fighter”
“Another Year”
“The Tree of Life”
“Black Swan”
“Love & Other Drugs”
“How Do You Know”
“The Conspirator”

For now, I’ve only seen four of those (“The Kids Are All Right,” “Inception,” “Toy Story” and “Never Let Me Go”), and the unseen films are riddled with potential pitfalls.

James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know,” for instance, could be a commercial and critical hit like his Best-Pic winner "Terms of Endearment" and nominee “Broadcast News” – or it could be a dud, like “Spanglish.”

Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” has a high-class pedigree and a historical event (the Lincoln Assassination) to give it weight – but at the moment, it doesn’t even have a distributor.

And “The Tree of Life” is a real stab in the dark, since Terrence Malick has shown little indication that he’s ready to actually let go of the movie this year.

(In fact, this guess is complete wishful thinking, spurred by my steadfast belief that the Academy-neglected “The New World” was the best movie of 2005, that this one might be as good, and that the Academy might realize it.)

Animal KingdomMeanwhile, “Winter’s Bone” is a widely-admired indie waiting for some fourth-quarter contenders to fall out (as they always do), while the Weinstein Company’s “The Concert” could conceivably get a Best-Pic push if any of the company’s other contenders falter.

And on the mainstream/commercial front, an arena buoyed mightily by last year’s nomination for “The Blind side,” Disney’s “Secretariat” awaits its unveiling.

Peter Weir’s “The Way Back,” meanwhile, has no release plan for this year – but after showing in Telluride and Venice, it has found a lot of advocates who might persuade Newmarket to schedule a late-December qualifying run after all.

Looking back rather than forward, I’d love to think that “Winter’s Bone” and “Greenberg” and “Animal Kingdom” (above) will find their way into the Best Picture race as well, but I’m not at all optimistic that they will.

So if I had to make a guess right now, I’d say that “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” look the strongest, and that the former movie has the feel of a possible winner.

(Partly, that's because if "The Social Network" does become a frontrunner, it will almost inevitably attract the kind of attacks on its accuracy that could dwarf similar complaints about "A Beautiful Mind," "The Hurt Locker" and "The Hurricane."

But I haven’t seen either "The Social Network" or "The King's Speech," and neither have all but a handful of Oscar voters. Until those films and a couple dozen others are actually unveiled, the Oscar picture will remain murky, and anybody trying to predict with any kind of authority will remain a fool.

So there you have it. "The King's Speech" is The Odds' call in September.

I’ll revisit the awards landscape after Toronto … in the  meantime, as I said at the end of my piece a year ago:

Exit Fool, Stage Left.