Greg Akers: A couple times now you've mentioned reasons why you think you're terrible at predicting Oscars. Untruth of that assessment aside, I would compare picking categories based on relative merit akin to guessing the NBA All-Star Game starters based on worthiness. It's a fool's game. The starters are the most popular players, even if they don't deserve it.
Best Lead Actress
Nominees: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Naomi Watts (The Impossible)
Akers: First, this is a really great category. I at least like and in some cases love every performance. I would be very happy if my fifth favorite won. This seems to be a two-way race between Chastain and Lawrence. Stat alert: The winner of the Golden Globe has won the Oscar 14 of the last 17 years. Chastain and Lawrence each won the Golden Globe this year in their respective categories. Riva won the BAFTA, but that has only mattered 8 of the last 17 years, and every time the BAFTAs were right, so were the Golden Globes. It's a trend, yo.
Should Win: On the other hand, I think Jessica Chastain has the edge in terms of merit. She's simply amazing. I couldn't help but think of her as having a Sarah Connor-type trajectory, with Chastain taking her character, Maya, from the weak-stomached (some might say well-adjusted) CIA smarty to the badass, take-no-prisoners crusader. In a scene toward the end of Zero Dark Thirty, Maya even dons aviator sunglasses, a knowing reference made by Kathryn Bigelow to Connor in her ex's, James Cameron's, Terminator 2. And Chastain (and screenwriter Mark Boal) really nail Maya in the last scene in the film, as the character sits alone contemplating her achievement and the toll it took (personally and beyond) to get there. "What's next" is the perfect question to ask, and I love how Chastain handles it. "What price victory" is the question the film doesn't ask but implies. Why does nobody talk about the ending to Zero Dark Thirty when discussing where it sits on the sliding scale of righteousness/repugnancy?
Got Robbed: I don't think Keira Knightley has ever been better than as the title role in Anna Karenina. For that matter, I should've mentioned the film as getting robbed for Adapted Screenplay. A friend says he was glad when Anna Karenina threw herself under a train. (Spoiler-alert for a plot point from a novel more than a century old?) I just don't get the dislike and relative forgotten-ness of the film. That's a really good movie.
Will Win: A tough call, but Jennifer Lawrence seems to be the most beloved thing about a very beloved film. Hollywood wants to launch her into megastardom and she might be worthy of it. While I responded very strongly to the film's updated screwball sensibility, it feels like Lawrence's role is too slight by normal Oscar standards up against the likes of Chastain and Riva, but I'll stick with her.
Should Win: I'm tempted by Chastain, who holds up well against the weight of Zero Dark Thirty, but she's as much a conduit and stand-in — for the audience, for the intelligence community writ large, for the country itself — as a character. (Similarly, Wallis was more a presence than a performance.) As much as I enjoyed Lawrence and Chastain, I'll give a slight nod to Emmanuelle Riva, who seems to disappear — like you said, in a good way — before our eyes in Amour.
Got Robbed: Best female lead performance of the year? I'm going with Rachel Weisz for the bruising British period romance The Deep Blue Sea. As great as ever in merely good movies: Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz and Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone.
Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis.
Should Win: Day-Lewis in Lincoln and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master may have been the two best things about the movies last year. Both are completely brilliant in very different ways. Day-Lewis soars — a deep impression with a shockingly light touch. You want to give him a standing ovation mid-scene on multiple occasions. But Phoenix, to me, is unshakeable. He's my pick. But I'll add an acknowledgement for Washington, whose performance in Flight is stronger than that in Training Day, for which he won his Best Actor Oscar.
Got Robbed: French actor Denis Lavant is an eccentric, electric performer generally unknown to American filmgoers (check out The Lovers on the Bridge). His man-of-a-thousand-faces work in Holy Motors, which received a single local screening at the Brooks Museum of Art this month, is nearly as indelible as Day-Lewis and Phoenix. Lavant was never going to get a nomination, but another French actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant, really should have joined his Amour co-star, Emmanuelle Riva, among the nominees, displacing Jackman or Cooper. Their performances are equally strong and utterly inseparable.
Akers: Daniel Day-Lewis is a monster lock. Abraham Lincoln has got to be on the Mount Rushmore of most difficult Americans for an actor to successfully portray. Seems like it'd be so easy to fall into homespun caricature. What DDL does is remarkable — making Lincoln human and accessible while still pointing to the way he became an icon the instant he was killed — and may be even more impressive than the last time he proved he was the greatest actor on the planet, in There Will Be Blood.
I was never a big fan of Denzel Washington winning for Training Day (seems so minor compared to some of his other roles), but he's really good in Flight. His struggle is palpable, and I like the alternating he does between arrogance and defeated. I was never a fan at any point of Bradley Cooper, but finally liked him in Silver Linings Playbook. He plays it just right. Hugh Jackman: whatever. He was middle-of-the-road in Les Miz, not as good as Anne Hathaway or Samantha Barks but way better than Russell Crowe and Eddie Redmayne.
Got Robbed: I haven't seen Holy Motors but concur on Jean-Louis Trintignant being every bit as great as Riva in Amour. My nod here goes to John Hawkes, though, in The Sessions. I liked the movie okay, but Hawkes is superb as Mark O'Brien; he projects the frailty of his body through his voice tone (different from how the actor normally sounds) and clearly shed considerable weight and muscle mass for the part. But he's still as charming and thoughtful as you'd want a lead in a sex dramedy to be.