Analysis of each major Oscar category

A wrap-up of the big contests, from actors to scripters

It’s former winners vs. the newbies, with the girl next door in the middle

This has shaped up to be a fight of extremes. In one corner stand two vets: Meryl Streep, who has broken her own record by earning a 16th Academy Award nom (she won for “Sophie’s Choice” and “Kramer vs. Kramer”), for her playful channeling of Julia Child in the frothy comedy “Julie & Julia”; and Helen Mirren (past winner for “The Queen”) who returns as a countess and Tolstoy’s wife in “The Last Station,” detailing the last intrigue-filled year of the literary giant’s life. The other corner is occupied by two indie newcomers (and first-time nominees): Gabourey Sidibe, who wholly inhabited the morbidly obese, depressed and abused teenage heroine of “Precious,” her first-ever film performance; and Carey Mulligan, the young British star of “An Education,” the ’60s-era coming-of-age tale, who more than holds her own opposite pros Emma Thompson and Peter Sarsgaard in her first lead role. Somewhere in the middle of the ring is Sandra Bullock, another first-time nominee who is enjoying a spectacular year thanks to back-to-back hits “The Proposal,” a $164 million blockbuster, and her Oscar-nominated “The Blind Side,” the bighearted football drama and true story, which has grossed $230 million-plus to date.

Loners join the crowd of perfected perfs that tell us much about the men

Loners and loneliness inform all these perfs, but none more so than George Clooney’s (Oscar winner for “Syriana”) heartbreaking turn as the debonair, soulless yet ultimately self-aware hatchet man in “Up in the Air,” a constant traveler happiest at 30,000 feet, insulated from messy human drama. “Crazy Heart’s” Jeff Bridges is another man alone in a crowd, an alcoholic, hard-living country music singer long past his peak; the veteran actor (four previous noms) nails every detail of the character, from drool on his pillow to fine singing and guitar-playing. Colin Firth’s character in “A Single Man” is also lonely — a gay professor contemplating suicide following the loss of his partner of 16 years and unable to imagine a future without him. The role got Firth his first nom. Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker” plays another loner, a bomb defuser isolated within a heavy suit, whose life is on the line every time he approaches an IED and tangle of wires. His breakthrough perf (copping a first nom) balances the combustible mix of thrill and terror driving the character. Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela in “Invictus” may seem like the odd man out, but the South African prexy spent years in solitary confinement, and the Oscar winner (“Million Dollar Baby”) lets that knowledge seep into every scene.

Is it a toss-up for ‘Up in the Air’ duo? Cruz in control? Maggie vs. Mo’Nique?

This category is notable for its first-timers (all but Penelope Cruz are Oscar newbies), and the dueling nominees of “Up in the Air.” That film’s Vera Farmiga, who plays Clooney’s sexy, equally compartmentalized doppelganger and forces him to re-evaluate his cynical attitude toward love, squares off against Anna Kendrick, who captures the buttoned-down, tightly wound nervousness of her ambitious character, forced to re-evaluate her priorities after watching Clooney’s soulless exec in action. By contrast, Cruz, who won this category last year for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” plays the flamboyant, hyper-emotional mistress of Daniel Day-Lewis’ director in the musical “Nine” — and shows off her dancing legs and singing skills to great effect. In an understated perf, Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart” plays a journo/divorced single mom who against her better judgment becomes involved with Jeff Bridges’ booze-sodden, flabby, irresponsible, over-the-hill country singer. Mo’Nique also plays a mother, but of a very different kind, in “Precious.” The standup comedienne, in her first dramatic role, eschews any hint of her usual glamour and gives a searing, brutally honest performance of a woman whose abuse of her daughter is truly horrific.

Trio of first-timers vs. a pair of Oscar vets

The biggest shock of this category is the realization that 80-year-old Christopher Plummer’s star turn as a dying Leo Tolstoy, wrestling over the fate of his literary fortune and legacy in “The Last Station,” marks his first-ever nom, despite a storied career that now spans a half century. But then it also took Stanley Tucci, playing against type as the creepy rapist and murderer in “The Lovely Bones,” several decades of acclaimed work to finally achieve his first Oscar nom. Another perhaps underappreciated actor, Woody Harrelson (whose only previous Oscar recognition was a best actor nod back in ’97 for “The People vs. Larry Flynt”) gets another nom for his performance as a bearer of bad news in “The Messenger.” Matt Damon, previously nominated for best actor for his “Good Will Hunting” role (he won best original screenplay with Ben Affleck for the film) gives an inspiring performance as the driven captain of South Africa’s world champion rugby team in the feel-good real-life drama “Invictus.” And Austria-born, London-based Christoph Waltz, another first-time nominee, steals every scene in which he’s present in “Inglourious Basterds” as the uber-charming but terrifying SS colonel — the first English-speaking role in a decade for the actor who’s also fluent in German and French.

Toons’ high-tech golden era is repped by — wait for it — four retro pics and a CG blockbuster

Recognizing animation’s new golden age, the Academy expanded the category to five noms –– “Coraline,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “The Secret of Kells”and “Up.” Interestingly, despite the dominance of CG animation in the marketplace — “Up” was the fourth-biggest hit of last year with $293 million, and three of the 10 top-grossing films were CG-animated — only one of this year’s nominees, “Up,” was a true CG blockbuster. The other four, which enjoyed varying degrees of B.O. success, all wore their retro looks and techniques proudly on their hand-drawn sleeves. Disney’s “Princess” may have revamped the classic fairy tale, setting it in New Orleans with an African-American gal in the lead, but it’s also determinedly old-fashioned with its “Bambi”-era 2D animation techniques. “Kells” also showcases hand-drawn 2D animation, which is so traditional in design and execution that it looks like it was created by direct descendents of the medieval manuscript illustrators it celebrates. And both “Coraline” and “Fox” make inspired use of the equally retro technique of stop-motion, the former employing a 3D CG polish, the latter effectively combining low-tech puppets with cotton-wool clouds and painted backdrops.

D.p.s shed light on their art, be it in service to CG wonders, straightforward dramas or even a bracing war fantasy

War and fantasy dominated this category —
sometimes within a single nomination. Shooting Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-fantasy World War II epic, “Inglourious Basterds,” Robert Richardson (previously nominated for six Oscars and winning for “Aviator” and “JFK”) drew inspiration from such eclectic sources as spaghetti Westerns and the French New Wave to create a retro-fresh look. Although it’s set in the future, the sci-fi epic “Avatar” also depicts the carnage of war, with live-action scenes lensed by Mauro Fiore. By contrast, “The Hurt Locker” and its Iraq War backdrop presented a very different challenge for Barry Ackroyd, hired after helmer Kathryn Bigelow saw his jittery, tension-filled work on “United 93.” Filming in the heat and dust of Jordan, Ackroyd shot Super 16mm, giving the film a raw, documentary look. War also lurks in the background in “The White Ribbon,” the austere drama from director Michael Haneke about a small village in northern Germany on the eve of World War I, crisply shot in B&W by Christian Berger. And fantasy reigns supreme in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” shot by Bruno Delbonnel, a newcomer to the franchise whose previous credits include “Amelie” and “Across the Universe.”

Serious cinema centers on abuse, repression, history and industrialization

Drama and/or suffering are the usual touchstones of this category, and this year’s nominees are no exceptions. “Which Way Home” examines human suffering as it follows unaccompanied child migrants journeying through Mexico en route to the U.S., desperate to reach their families and outwit crooked smugglers and the authorities. “Burma VJ,” documents the suffering and courage of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a group of underground journalists who risked their lives to cover the 2007 uprising against the junta, and contains harrowing scenes of violence and death. The suffering of dolphins at the hand of Japanese fishermen is the focus of “The Cove,” which follows marine expert Richard O’Barry (who trained the dolphins for “Flipper”) and his crusade — which plays like a thriller — to expose the atrocity to the world. The way our diet and health are suffering is the subject of “Food, Inc.,” which paints a scary picture of the high price America pays for the mass industrialization of its food supply. High drama and suffering hover in the background of “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” which relates how the high-level Pentagon official and Vietnam War planner leaked the titular documents.

Crime, war, fascism, mother’s milk, complex thriller round out the offshore set

The foreign-language noms are nothing if not an eclectic group. France’s “A Prophet,” a violent and graphic drama about an illiterate 19-year-old Arab-Corsican prisoner who quietly bides his time while making plans, marks the country’s 36th nom and was Grand Prix winner at Cannes in ’09. “The Milk of Sorrow,” by contrast, reps the first Oscar nom for Peru. Based on a folk belief that women raped during Peru’s decades of political violence would traumatize the children they breastfed, it was directed by Claudia Llosa, niece of Peruvian literary giant Mario Vargas Llosa, and won the Berlin Golden Bear last year. Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes,” a complex work combining two generation-spanning love stories, a noirish thriller, some witty comedy and a sharp political critique, is that country’s sixth nom. “Ajami,” Israel’s ninth nom, is a gritty crime drama that pushes political as well as cinematic buttons, and is notable as it’s co-directed by Israeli Yaron Shani and Palestinian Scandar Copti. Rounding out the group is Germany’s “The White Ribbon,” about the children of a farming village and the seeds of fascism on the eve of World War I; it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Relative novices found the right words to impress the Acad

This category’s nominees are striking for a couple of reasons: Not only are they getting Oscar props as writers for the first time, they are all relatively new to the game. “District 9,” the sci-fi hit written by director Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, marks their first feature script. Likewise, the harrowing drama ” Precious” reps the debut screenplay of Geoffrey Fletcher, while Brit coming-of-ager “An Education” is only the second screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”). “Up in the Air,” with its deft handling of comedic, dramatic and poignant elements, represents only the second script for director Jason Reitman (who spent seven years honing it) and third for co-writer Sheldon Turner. And while all four writers of the biting political satire “In the Loop” are experienced TV scribes, the film’s screenplay represented a first for director Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche, the second for Simon Blackwell and the third for Jesse Armstrong.

Brash band of scribes tackles war from various angles — and with many tones

Quentin Tarantino spent many years writing and honing his “Inglourious Basterds” script; the result is a bravura collage of interlocking stories, all fueled by his love of language. Another war story, “The Hurt Locker,” written by Mark Boal, is a very different creation: taut and spare, with tension-filled scenes featuring little or no dialogue. War likewise hovers over the “The Messenger,” co-written by Alessandro Camon and director Oren Moverman (who co-wrote Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There”). The emotional screenplay about the Army’s Casualty Notification service pulls no punches as it examines the human sacrifice of conflict. Internal conflict runs through “A Serious Man,” written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Their most personal film to date, it focuses on a fractious Jewish family in 1960s Minnesota. Surprisingly, those four intense dramas are joined by warm and fizzy toon hit “Up,” about a gruff widower and young stowaway who airlift a house to South America, with script by Bob Peterson and director Pete Docter.

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