The Academy Awards are always about looking back usually just to the best movies of the year before.
But this year's Best Picture nominees put the focus back decades, or even millennia.
The top contenders for this year's Oscars Martin Scorsese's childhood drama "Hugo" with 11 nominations, and Michel Hazanavicius' silent Hollywood comedy "The Artist" with 10 nods both take us back to the early days of film magic, whether the silent era of the turn of the last century or the birth of the talkies in the 1920s.
Woody Allen's surprisingly successful "Midnight in Paris" takes Owen Wilson's character back to the Jazz Age of Paris, to rub elbows with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. "The Help," the most commercially successful of the nine Best Picture nominees, takes place in Mississippi in the 1960s, just as the civil-rights movement was beginning. Steven Spielberg's epic "War Horse" relives the horrors of World War I. Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" takes the verrrrry long view, going back to The Big Bang and the creation of the cosmos as well as life in 1950s suburbia.
Even two relatively modern entries, the business-of-baseball tale "Moneyball" and the 9/11 drama "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," are set at the start of the last decade.
Only one of the nine Best Picture nominees is set in the here and now Alexander Payne's comedy-drama of grief and loss, "The Descendants."
What movies, performers and filmmakers will take home the famous golden statuettes on Sunday night? The following are my annual fearless predictions in the major categories. (My predictions in the minor categories can be found on my blog: sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket.) Here's one rule: When Hollywood gets a chance to celebrate itself, it takes it.
Nominees • Demián Bichir, "A Better Life"; George Clooney, "The Descendants"; Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"; Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"; Brad Pitt, "Moneyball."
Who will win • It's between Clooney, playing against type as a middle-aged dad, and Dujardin, so charming as a silent movie star falling on hard times. "The Artist" has the momentum behind it, so expect Dujardin to win.
Who should win • Dujardin's performance was charming and daring, but the best of these five is Oldman's subtle reading of the spymaster George Smiley in John LeCarré's classic.
Nominees • Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"; Viola Davis, "The Help"; Rooney Mara, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"; Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"; Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn."
Who will win • The race is between Davis and Streep (who, interestingly enough, were co-stars three years ago in "Doubt"). Academy voters may feel that Streep has been honored enough (forgetting the fact that her last Oscar, for "Sophie's Choice," was 29 years ago). That, along with much respect for Davis' work, will likely give Davis the Oscar.
Who should win • All good performances here, but Williams was amazing as she captured the essence of Marilyn Monroe's public persona and private pain.
Best supporting actor
Nominees • Kenneth Branagh, "My Week With Marilyn"; Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"; Nick Nolte, "Warrior"; Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"; Max Von Sydow, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
Who will win • Two career-capping performances by veterans Plummer an d Von Sydow duke it out here. Plummer (who, strangely, has been nominated only once before) is a shoo-in for his sweet, lively performance as a man discovering new life as a gay man at the same time he's diagnosed with cancer.
Who should win • I picked "Beginners" as the best movie of 2011 and Plummer's warm, energetic performance had everything to do with that movie's brilliance.
Best supporting actress
Nominees • Berénice Bejo, "The Artist"; Jessica Chastain, "The Help"; Melissa McCarthy, "Bridesmaids"; Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"; Octavia Spencer, "The Help."
Who will win • Spencer has won all the big precursor awards for her role as a determined maid in "The Help," and her ascent to Oscar gold remains unchallenged in spite of a lot of love for McCarthy's star-making turn in "Bridesmaids."
Who should win • Since Chastain was nominated for the wrong movie (rent "Take Shelter" and marvel at her performance as a wife troubled by her husband's mental-health struggles), my vote goes to McCarthy's hilarious and human performance.
Nominees • Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"; Alexander Payne, "The Descendants"; Martin Scorsese, "Hugo"; Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"; Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life."
Who will win • The directing award usually (but not always) matches the Best Picture winner and with "The Artist" the odds-on frontrunner for Best Picture, Hazanavicius should win in this category, too.
Who should win • All good candidates, but "The Artist" was the most completely entertaining movie of the bunch and Hazanavicius' light touch as director made it happen.
Best screenplay original
Nominees • Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"; Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig, "Bridesmaids"; J.C. Chandor, "Margin Call"; Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"; Asghar Farhadi, "A Separation."
Who will win • This may be the one category where the juggernaut of "The Artist" won't roll over the Oscars. "Midnight in Paris," Woody's best screenplay in decades, should win.
Who should win • As much as I loved the comedy of "The Artist" and "Bridesmaids," the subtle tension of the human drama of Farhadi's Iranian drama "A Separation" is too brilliant to ignore. (Disclaimer: I never saw "Margin Call.")
Best screenplay adapted
Nominees • "The Descendants," screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Jennings; "Hugo," screenplay by John Logan, based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick; "The Ides of March," screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on the stage play "Farrugut North" by Beau Willimon; "Moneyball," screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the book by Michael Lewis; "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John LeCarré.
Who will win • The enormous heart of "The Descendants" will win over more Oscar voters than the brains of "Moneyball."
Who should win • Can a screenplay be too subtle for its greatness to be recognized? In the case of the riveting work by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor on "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," the answer is yes.
Nominees • "The Artist," "The Descendants," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "The Tree of Life," "War Horse."
Who will win • The main contender to "The Artist" may not be "Hugo" (which had more nominations), but "The Descendants," which has the heart (and the acting power) to challenge the frontrunner. But that's a long-shot scenario. "The Artist" has charm, a Hollywood-friendly message and the muscle of intrepid Oscar hunter Harvey Weinstein behind it.
Who should win • "The Artist" is the best movie among these nine nominees a bright, breezy recycling of classic style into something fresh and entertaining.
Oscars on TV
P The 84th annual Academy Awards, broadcast live from Hollywood's Kodak Theatre and hosted by Billy Crystal, will begin at 6:30 p.m. Mountain time on ABC KTVX, Channel 4, in Salt Lake City.
"Oscars Red Carpet Live," a 90-minute special featuring interviews and fashion with the arriving stars, begins at 5 p.m. on the same channel.