2011 has at least four strong contenders in play

Most observers were able to predict nine of the favored 10 best picture nominees weeks ago, their guesses reinforced by the mostly overlapping PGA roster. Now that the battle for slot number 10 has been resolved between “Winter’s Bone” and “The Town,” with rural blight edging out urban bleak, the real challenge begins. Unlike last year, which seemed to boil down to a horse race between “Avatar” and eventual winner “The Hurt Locker,” 2011 has at least four strong contenders in play — and that, the statisticians tell us, opens the door for one of the other six to squeak through. Here’s how the field stands at present:

THE NOMINEES:
Best Picture | Director | Animated Picture | Foreign Film |

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What the critics say


The best picture nominees are:


Why It’ll Win: Boasting across-the-board virtuoso performances in front of and behind the camera, helmer Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller gives life to a topic close to the Academy’s heart: the excruciating pain of artistic creation. You get a lot of movie for your money.
Maybe not: Oscar’s dance-themed winners (“An American in Paris,” “West Side Story”) have emphasized Hollywood fancy rather than the true grit of the workaday ballet grind. And what Aronofsky puts Natalie Portman (and us) through is widely held to be over the top. Any serious drama eliciting so many giggles, even nervous ones, may not have the muscle to best all comers, especially since Portman already offers voters an adequate means of rewarding pic’s achievement. “Black Swan” is the only best picture nominee to have fallen short of a writing nod, not a hopeful sign.


“The Fighter”
Why It’ll Win: Little was expected of this critically acclaimed, popular indie, but David O. Russell’s family drama went on to deliver an emotional roundhouse punch not unlike that of last year’s winner “The Hurt Locker,” but more uplifting. Producer-star Mark Wahlberg’s decade-long labor on the project is a narrative Academy members can relate to. Three nominated perfs suggest strong support within the powerful actors branch, especially with Wahlberg having come out of their ranks. Most of all, this would be a win the voters discovered on their own, not one pre-announced at the Toronto Fest or in critics’ screenings.
Maybe not: Many dismiss it as “just another ‘Rocky,’ ” while others ascribe the pic’s impact to those nominated thesps. After “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and 2006′s champ “The Departed,” the mean streets of Boston no longer qualify as unfamiliar territory.


“Inception”
Why It’ll Win: Smart blockbusters are what the industry has always done best and often honored, as “Titanic,” part three of “Lord of the Rings” and “Gladiator” attest. (Apologies to those who didn’t find such pics to be particularly smart, but the voters sure did.) “The Dark Knight” got stiffed two years ago, and Christopher Nolan’s brand of sophisticated action filmmaking is generally thought overdue for recognition.
Maybe not: Techical virtuosity aside, many viewers profess not to have cared whether Leonardo Di Caprio would get back to his kids or work out the problems with his wife. Best picture winners rarely lack rooting qualities, with “No Country for Old Men” the exception that proves the rule. Besides, the lack of a personal helming nod for Nolan suggests the Academy may believe his best work, something appealing to both head and heart, still lies ahead of him.


“The Kids Are All Right”
Why It’ll Win: Feels strikingly fresh and contemporary, even as it occupies the familiar, award-honored middle-class territory of best picture classics “Ordinary People” and “Terms of Endearment.”
Maybe not: The airiness that makes it a pleasure to watch works against its bringing home the bacon. Domestic comedies, most recently “Annie Hall,” pull off a win only when none of the nominated dramas carries a gut punch, but this year there are plenty of those. And Woody’s triumph occurred in 1977, while “The Apartment” carried off the main prize even further back in the Dark Ages.


“The King’s Speech”
Why It’ll Win: The most honored entry in the field (12 noms) includes such time-honored traits of award winners as gravitas laced with humor; emotional resonance; characters to care about; and literate, quotable dialogue. Pic’s background narrative, scribe David Seidler’s own childhood battle with stuttering, doesn’t hurt either. If the quintessentially American “Social Network” seems the front runner at the moment (or did, until “King’s” snapped up the PGA prize), just remember 1998, when the favored “Saving Private Ryan” was edged out by the joyously Anglophile “Shakespeare in Love.”
Maybe not: If it dramatized an American president’s struggle with stammer, it’d probably win in a walk. But although the Academy reveres British thesps, it generally tilts Stateside for best picture. Brit pics “Chariots of Fire” and “The English Patient” won in the absence of homegrown fare about which the electorate could be passionate. Bigger possible impediment: the moment the reports came down from Toronto about this period drama tailor-made for Oscar, you could practically feel the town start to bristle: “Nobody’s gonna tell us what to pick.”


“127 Hours”
Why It’ll Win: Inspirational sagas about the triumph of the human condition always tug at Academy heartstrings.
Why It’ll Win: Inspirational sagas about the triumph of the human spirit always tug at Academy heartstrings.
Maybe not: Was there really enough material here to justify feature length? For many, who know nothing much will happen to trapped young Aron Ralston until it’s time for “A Farewell to Arm,” the pic more or less spins its wheels leading up to the finale. And whether it’s the gore factor or what, Danny Boyle’s pic is subject to the most pronounced “want-not-to-see” since 2005′s unsuccessful best pic contender “Brokeback Mountain.” Flashy directorial touches usually open the door to a helming nod but Boyle wasn’t one of the chosen five, a hint the pic’s support is thin.


“The Social Network”
Why It’ll Win: If subject Mark Zuckerberg is Time’s man of the year, his lightly fictionalized biopic can lay some claim to film of the year, with multiple critics groups’ prizes and the Golden Globe sitting atop its computer desk. Not only is the yarn “ripped from the headlines,” as they used to say, but it throbs with today’s rhythms. David Fincher is a “happening” filmmaker, so a vote here is an affirmation of the Academy’s hipness. Stop laughing.
Maybe not: Early anointing can always prompt a backlash (a factor also potentially threatening “The King’s Speech”). If enough voters balk at having their top honor decided for them or decide to buck the conventional wisdom, an upset could be in the making. Fincher’s somewhat cerebral pic is admired but not loved like some of the others. Since Fincher and scripter Sorkin seem likely winners, voters could opt to spread the wealth to a warmer nominee.


“Toy Story 3″
Why It’ll Win: Rapturously reviewed, hugely successful and emotionally true, it’s aimed right at the heart of the baby boomer demographic now preeminent in the Academy. The 2003 award for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” has already broken the barrier against threequels.
Maybe not: Animated features have their own category, dagnabbit. Most likely the competition would have to be much weaker than this year’s is in order for the huge corps of voting actors to throw their support to a winner in which none of them is seen.


“True Grit”
Why It’ll Win: Industry favorites, the Coen brothers defy the augurers with their biggest hit ever, at no sacrifice of their characteristic moodiness or the source novel’s distinctive rhythms. Has benefited from a late start: The rush of great reviews and big biz creates the impression of momentum. Its 10 nominations bumped a whole lot of hopefuls off the lists, attesting to the esteem of Academy branches across the board. True, period Westerns have rarely won, but the three that have (“Cimarron,” “Dances With Wolves” and “Unforgiven”) were all major audience favorites.
Maybe not: Besides its genre, the biggest strike against “True Grit” is its remake status: pic re-creates an old myth rather than inventing a new one. Several best picture pics, from “Hamlet” to “Titanic,” have been based on previously filmed material or subject matter, but most Oscar watchers assert the only authentic remake to win was 1959′s “Ben-Hur.” And if the awards had been available to the hugely successful silent version in 1925, maybe William Wyler’s subsequent revamp would’ve fallen short as well.


“Winter’s Bone”
Why It’ll Win: Discerning viewers want movies to take us places we haven’t been, to reveal societies we don’t already know. Debra Granik’s exploration of the backwoods meth culture does all of that. The critics’ darling of 2010′s opening months enjoyed B.O. legs extending far into the year, suggesting mucho admiration. The nine other favored features matched those of the PGA short list, but “Bone” scrambled its way onto the Academy roster by displacing “The Town.”
Maybe not: Had there been a trophy for best pic of 2010′s first quarter, this would’ve been the champ. “Bone” began to lose calcium once the likes of “Inception” and “Toy Story 3″ came along to offer more exciting or upbeat options for top dog. The downbeat melodrama has copped few critical best-of honors to compensate for being passed over by the PGA.

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