Entertainment & Arts

Oscars 2011: Ten of the best?

Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, Natalie Portman in Black Swan and James Franco in 127 Hours
Image caption Boxers, dancers and unlucky climbers - but who will be smiling on Oscar night?

With the Academy Awards just three months away, speculation is mounting about which films will be in the frame.

This year saw the best picture category expanded from five titles to 10 - a move aimed at ensuring more commercial movies, traditionally shut out of the annual awards hoopla, would make the cut.

That said, this year's ceremony saw sci-fi behemoth Avatar pipped at the post by modestly budgeted Iraq drama The Hurt Locker.

Will 2011 see another indie David slay another studio Goliath? It remains to be seen, though the best picture line-up may well feature a number of both.

Here are the pictures we predict will be in the mix, plus the other prizes they are likely to be up for when the 2011 Academy Awards are held on 27 February.

BLACK SWAN

A heady blend of obsession, madness and high art, Darren Aronofsky's ballet opus is a bold departure for a critically acclaimed director surely due some Oscar attention.

Image caption Portman was previously nominated for an Oscar for Closer in 2005

His follow-up to The Wrestler should also land Natalie Portman a best actress nod for her fearless turn as a ballerina driven to extremes after she wins the lead in Swan Lake.

Barbara Hershey is in with a shot as well, her forceful portrayal of Portman's domineering mother is sure to get her a nomination for best supporting actress.

It is possible, though, the movie's high-brow subject matter and operatic excesses might be a turn-off for some Academy members.

THE FIGHTER

Boxing movies tend to do well come Oscar time. Rocky, Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby are just a few to have enjoyed knock-out success in the past.

Image caption Bale (l) and Wahlberg (r) play half-brothers in the boxing biopic

This certainly augurs well for David O Russell's gritty biopic of US welterweight Micky Ward - a pet project for actor Mark Wahlberg he spent five years bringing to the screen.

Wahlberg's lead performance may not be showy enough to earn him a shot at the best actor title. His film, though, has a decent chance in the supporting categories.

Christian Bale - who lost 30 lb (13.6 kg) to play Wahlberg's crack addict half-brother Dicky - is a virtual shoo-in for a nomination.

And Melissa Leo - who rose to prominence in 2009 thanks to her surprise best actress nomination for Frozen River - is also a strong contender for her role as Bale and Wahlberg's mother.

INCEPTION

Christopher Nolan's audacious fantasy thriller was both a critical darling and a box-office smash when it opened in July.

Image caption Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man who can enter people's dreams

Such a combination could prove hard to resist when the members of the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Pictures come to cast their votes.

Inception should also get a slew of nominations in technical categories, though it is unlikely any of its cast members will be so fortunate.

Nolan should be in with a shout though, especially after his Batman film The Dark Knight failed to land a best picture nod in 2009.

That snub is thought to have been one of the main reasons why the number of nominated candidates was doubled the following year.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

This story of a lesbian couple whose family is unsettled by the return of their sperm donor is a winning combination of comedy, drama and social commentary.

Image caption Bening (l) and Moore (r) already have seven Oscar nominations between them

Same-sex marriage and gay parenting are hot-button topics in the US, dealt with both sensitively and provocatively in Lisa Cholodenko's film.

Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo are all in the running for acting nods, with Bening in particular a decent bet for the best actress statuette.

Cholodenko might also get shortlisted for best director, though her chances of winning the best original screenplay prize are probably stronger.

THE KING'S SPEECH

This elegant period piece - an impeccably mounted costume drama about the British monarchy - is the kind of movie Academy voters love.

Image caption Colin Firth plays a British royal seeking to conquer a debilitating stammer

As the US media's recent coverage of Prince William's engagement showed, there is a huge fascination with the Royal family that can only boost the chances of Tom Hooper's film.

Colin Firth missed out on a best actor prize earlier this year for A Single Man. Come February, though, his touching turn as stammering ruler George VI should sweep him to Oscar glory.

Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter may also have something to celebrate should they receive supporting actor nominations for their roles as his eccentric speech therapist and the future Queen Mother respectively.

127 HOURS

Danny Boyle stormed the Oscars in 2009 with Slumdog Millionaire. Could he replicate that success with his follow-up feature?

Image caption Franco plays real-life climber Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle's film

That entirely depends on the Academy's stomach for a real-life story of survival against the odds with a harrowing and grisly resolution.

James Franco is surely due a best actor nod for his role as a climber forced to take drastic action after his arm becomes trapped by a falling rock.

Yet while Boyle's mastery of his medium is hard to ignore, voters might feel he has already been more than amply rewarded.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

David Fincher's account on the origins of Facebook was the most talked-about film of the year. Critics lined up to shower it with praise.

Image caption Garfield (l) and Eisenberg (r) portray Facebook co-founders Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg

Small wonder it is considered one of the strongest contenders for next year's best picture award.

Fincher will be up for best director, of that there is no doubt. Aaron Sorkin's inclusion in the adapted screenplay line-up is also a cast-iron certainty.

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and a certain Justin Timberlake may also be in the running in one or more acting categories.

As hip, literate and topical as The Social Network is, however, some have found it a somewhat alienating experience.

And the fact there isn't anyone to root for in this tale of back-stabbing and double-crossing might put voters off.

TOY STORY 3

No such problem exists with the other front-runner, an animated sequel that brings Pixar's computer-animated franchise to a heartfelt, emotional and very entertaining conclusion.

Image caption Tom Hanks has voiced Woody the cowboy (r) in all three Toy Story films

No animated film has ever won the best picture Oscar, and only two - Beauty and the Beast and last year's Up - have previously been nominated for one.

Some believe, however, that animation's time has come and that the genre can no longer be ghettoised in the animated feature category it was rather apologetically gifted in 2001.

Could history be made next February? Disney thinks so, having planned a huge promotional campaign on Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear's behalf.

TRUE GRIT

Joel and Ethan Coen were the toast of the 2008 Academy Awards with No Country for Old Men and got a surprise best picture nod this year for A Serious Man.

Image caption Bridges (l) plays "Rooster" Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original True Grit

It is hardly surprising, then, that their remake of the 1969 John Wayne western is being bandied about as a best picture hopeful.

Having finally won an Oscar in March, Jeff Bridges has probably just an outside chance of a nomination for his interpretation of one-eyed marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn.

Yet Matt Damon - a best supporting actor also-ran this year - could find himself up for the same award for his performance as a Texas Ranger on an outlaw's trail.

Buzz is also building around newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, said to be excellent as a young girl seeking to avenge her father's death.

WINTER'S BONE

Some believe Mike Leigh's mordant comedy drama Another Year has a chance of a best picture nod.

Image caption Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence has been highly praised for her breakthrough performance

Yet we suspect it will be pushed out of the running by another lauded independent made with limited means.

The critics loved Debra Granik's atmospheric tale of a young woman whose dogged attempts to locate her missing father raise the hackles of her remote rural community.

Leading lady Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, could land a best actress citation at the expense of more established talents.

Are we correct? Find out when the Academy Award nominations are announced on 25 January.

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