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Originally published January 30, 2010 at 6:57 PM | Page modified February 1, 2010 at 5:03 PM

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Oscar predictions: Who will the nominees be?

Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald predicts the nominees for this year's Academy Awards. They'll be announced at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday. On her list: James Cameron, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Mo'Nique and more.

Seattle Times movie critic

On Tuesday morning, at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m., this year's Oscar nominations will be announced at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater. And whoever is announcing the best-picture nominees had better take a deep breath — because this year, he or she is reading 10 names.

It's a new twist that's shaking things up for Oscar-watchers in 2010. The decision to go from five titles to 10 was made last summer, ostensibly to give Academy voters a chance to showcase more films, but in all likelihood inspired by the telecast's sagging ratings and frequent criticism that the Academy, in its top awards, ignores movies popular with audiences (like last year's "The Dark Knight").

Historians point out that the Oscars long ago allowed more than five movies in the category: Though the first Academy Awards ceremony, in 1929, had only three titles in the top category (then called "Outstanding Picture," and won by the silent World War I drama "Wings"), subsequent years featured as many as 10. Some categories had even more: In the 1945 Oscar ceremony, there were 21 nominees for best score. But the postwar Oscars settled on a limit of five nominees per category, until this year.

And how will this decision affect the best-picture race? Well, it'll just make for a very crowded category with lots of campaigning, but I think it will be clear enough who the front-runners are.

Ironically, if the Academy really took this step to try to get more popular movies into the mix, it needn't have bothered: "Avatar," the year's runaway hit, is clearly on the Oscar shortlist. But it's possible a few more big-box-office movies, such as "Star Trek," might turn up on the list of 10, or that an animated film or two ("Up" or "Fantastic Mr. Fox") might make the cut, rather than being confined to their own category.

Here's how things just might shake out Tuesday morning. ...

Best picture

Sure things: "Avatar," "Inglourious Basterds," "The Hurt Locker," "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire," "Up in the Air." Each of these is an absolute lock. No question.

Possible: In this bizarro year with 10 nominees in the category, there's plenty of room for more. I'd expect the remaining five slots to be filled with some combination of the following: "(500) Days of Summer," "Crazy Heart," "District 9," "An Education," "The Messenger," "A Serious Man," "Star Trek" and/or "Up."

Probably not: Jane Campion's "Bright Star" seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle this year; likewise Tom Ford's "A Single Man" and John Hillcoat's "The Road."

Best director

Sure things: This category usually, though not always, marches in lock step with the five best-picture nominees. Though things will be more muddy this year, the five names here should indicate the upper tier of the top category. I think you won't go astray if you bet on James Cameron ("Avatar"), Quentin Tarantino ("Inglourious Basterds"), Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"), Lee Daniels ("Precious") and Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air"). That's what the Directors Guild of America did, and they usually know.

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Possible: If anyone could surprise, perhaps previous nominees Joel and Ethan Coen ("A Serious Man") or Campion ("Bright Star"), or newcomers Marc Webb ("(500) Days of Summer") or Lone Scherfig ("An Education").

Probably not: Sorry, Peter Jackson ("The Lovely Bones"); this isn't your year.

Best actor

Sure things: This is a pretty easy race this year, with four safe bets in the handsome forms of George Clooney ("Up in the Air"), Morgan Freeman ("Invictus"), Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart") and Colin Firth ("A Single Man").

Possible: Expect the fifth position to be taken by Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") or Viggo Mortensen ("The Road"). Possible surprise nominations could be snagged by previous Oscar favorites Daniel Day-Lewis ("Nine"), Johnny Depp ("Public Enemies") or Brad Pitt ("Inglourious Basterds").

Probably not: Where's the love for the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg in "A Serious Man"? Most likely absent.

Best actress

Sure things: Expect Meryl Streep to notch her record 16th nomination, for "Julie & Julia," and first-time nods to be given to Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious") and Carey Mulligan ("An Education"). Sandra Bullock, who won the SAG award last weekend for "The Blind Side," is a safe bet as well.

Possible: With no Kates or Cates (Winslet or Blanchett) in the mix this year look for another first-timers — such as Emily Blunt ("The Young Victoria") or Abbie Cornish ("Bright Star"). But never rule out Helen Mirren ("The Last Station").

Probably not: A couple of fine foreign-language performances this year likely won't make the cut: Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel" and Yolande Moreau in "Séraphine."

Best supporting actor

Sure things: Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds") has swept virtually every pre-Oscars award and appears to be a shoo-in. Everyone else is a bit of a crapshoot. ...

Possible: Woody Harrelson should earn his second Oscar nomination (his first was for "The People vs. Larry Flynt") for "The Messenger"; Christopher Plummer will likely fill the beloved-veteran slot for "The Last Station." Matt Damon might be rewarded for learning a South African accent for "Invictus"; Alfred Molina or Peter Sarsgaard could sneak in for "An Education," or Paul Schneider for "Bright Star." Stanley Tucci has two strong supporting roles this year, but is probably more likely to be named here for "The Lovely Bones" than for "Julie & Julia." (Which is odd, really, that playing a loving husband gets you bupkis, but playing a child murderer attracts awards.)

Probably not: I have an immense fondness for Zachary Quinto's Spock in "Star Trek." Unfortunately, the Academy most likely won't.

Best supporting actress

Sure things: Mo'Nique, the year's most terrifying villain in "Precious," is sure to hear her name read. Also seeming more than likely are the dynamic duo from "Up in the Air": Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. (Kendrick, whose role is showier, might have a bit of an edge over Farmiga.)

Possible: Though Julianne Moore's role in "A Single Man" is very brief, it's the kind of brief that gets Oscar nominations (remember, Judi Dench won this category for only about 8 minutes of screen time in "Shakespeare in Love"). Samantha Morton ("The Messenger") has turned up in this category before, as has last year's winner Penélope Cruz (though "Nine" has lost a lot of momentum). Other possibilities: Diane Kruger in "Inglourious Basterds," Rosamund Pike in "An Education," Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart."

Probably not: So, how much fun would it be to see Betty White get named for "The Proposal"? It won't happen, though.

Elsewhere, look for a few surprises in the screenplay categories (such as, will Tom Ford be the first fashion designer ever nominated as a screenwriter, for "A Single Man"?). A few otherwise underrepresented films might turn up in the design categories, such as "Coco Before Chanel," "Public Enemies" or "Chéri." "Avatar" will be mentioned, and rightly so, in every technical category imaginable, and some people none of us have ever heard of will be thrilled to hear their names read in the documentary-short category. Congratulations, prematurely, to all of them. See you Tuesday.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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