With so much prognostication surrounding the Academy Awards, fortified by a raft of guild and critics’ awards before it, can a triumph for “Bridesmaids” nominee Melissa McCarthy even be called a surprise anymore?

Probably not, but that doesn’t mean voters can’t throw a curveball or two amongst the expected veterans (Christopher Plummer for “Beginners,” Kenneth Branagh for “My Week With Marilyn”), A-listers (George Clooney in “The Descendants,” Brad Pitt in “Moneyball”) and much-hyped newcomers (Jessica Chastain for “The Help,” Jean Dujardin for “The Artist”). Take Rooney Mara’s lead actress nod for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” for instance.

Vogue film critic John Powers sees a case of good timing behind Mara’s nomination in terms of visibility and versatility, after last year’s bravura bit turn for David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”

“Voters liked her from that, where she was garrulous and good, and the next time they see her she’s wildly different,” says Powers. “You can see how they’d want to boost her.”

Left out, though, was awards season fave Tilda Swinton for her shattered mom in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

“She gave one of the staggering performances of the year,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. “So it’s kind of shocking she’s not in there.”

Transformation seems once again to be a way to get noticed by the Academy, notes Associated Press film critic Christy Lemire.

“You have Meryl Streep doing a dead-on Margaret Thatcher, Glenn Close dressing like a man and Michelle Williams, who we don’t think of as sexy and voluptuous, doing a nice job with Marilyn Monroe,” says Lemire.

The movie with the most acting nominations is “The Help,” and for DreamWorks co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snider, the trio of actress nominations for her studio’s hit adaptation — Viola Davis for lead, and Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer for supporting — indicate a unique staying power for the civil rights-era tale.

“The reason ‘The Help’ built and built and was remembered since August is that it really connects with us as human beings. It was very intimate, and came from an utterly fresh point of view.”

On the male side, Gary Oldman’s first Oscar nomination, as master spook George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” was welcome news to Lemire. “He has to reveal nothing, yet be our conduit into this dangerous world. It’s a tough balance to strike and I’m pleased the Academy recognized the difficulty of that,” Lemire says. “At the opposite end of the spectrum is Brad Pitt — all charisma and cajoling and that charm Pitt so often exudes in his best work. These nominations make sense.”

Two highly acclaimed male performances that didn’t make it, however, were Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar” and Albert Brooks in “Drive,” a sign that perhaps if a movie doesn’t land — “J. Edgar” getting a lukewarm reception, and “Drive” being not a typically Academy-friendly film — its actors don’t, either.

But it might be Mexican-born Demian Bichir’s portrayal of an undocumented immigrant in East Los Angeles, in the little-seen indie “A Better Life,” that in Powers’ view seems to speak to something both time-honored and bracingly relevant.

“This is the kind of role that used to get Oscar nominations in the ’40s, the classic kind of role that is the honest, working, self-sacrificing man trying to deal with stuff. Now we almost never get movies about working people,” says Powers.

With most Academy voters living in L.A., too, the awareness level for the plight of Bichir’s character would be particularly high.

Adds Powers, “It’s an emotional story and because it touches something particularly close to the heart of Los Angeles, they would be touched by it.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Actor & The Actress
Newbies shock ‘n’ roll
And the nominees are:
Best Actor | Best Actress | Best Supporting Actor | Best Supporting Actress