The 84th Annual Academy Awards return Sunday, February 26.  Here are the Hipfish major award predictions.

BEST PICTURE   Unlike the past couple of years where there was a clear frontrunner, this year’s field is more open, with several contenders for the big prize out of nine nominees.  Top contenders:
The Artist  The French black-and-white silent film is a salute to the early days of Hollywood.  Jean Dujardin stars as the arrogant matinee idol George Valentin, dashing leading man of the silent era, at the peak of his fame.  Berenice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, struggling actress.  After meeting on one of Valentin’s films, the two fall in love, but the rise of sound pictures destroys Valentin’s career while Peppy becomes an overnight sensation.  Now a has-been, reduced to selling off his belongings, Valentin becomes morose, while Peppy tries behind the scenes to save Valentin and somehow revive his career.
The Descendants  After a seven year absence director Alexander Payne (Sideways) returns with his dramedy about a family faced with a life-changing crisis. George Clooney stars as Mathew King, a middle-aged Hawaiian lawyer whose world has suddenly collapsed.  His wife lies in a coma from a boating accident. Suddenly cast into the unfamiliar role of primary parent, King realizes he has two out-of-control daughters and a wife he didn’t really know.
Movies with the most number of nominations have gone on to win 15 out of the last 21 Best Picture Oscars.  Hugo leads this year’s list with 11 followed by The Artist with 10, but the many nominations seem more about the parts of the movie than the whole.  The Help is the highest-grossing nominated pic, and three of the cast have been nominated but the pic itself doesn’t seem as well regarded as the actors.  Safest bet – The Artist, although some have pointed out that no film about Hollywood has won Best Picture.
Pick:  The Artist
Other nominees:   Hugo / Moneyball / Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close / The Help / Midnight in Paris / War Horse / The Tree of Life

BEST DIRECTOR  Film is thought of as a directors’ medium so generally this Oscar goes to the helmer of the Best Picture unless a superstar director is in the field as in 1998 when Shakespeare In Love won Best Picture but Steven Spielberg picked up the directing prize for Saving Private Ryan.  The past two years the Best Picture/Best Director pairing as held up so if The Artist triumphs then expect director Michel Hazanavicius to pick up the directing statuette, likewise Alexander Payne if Best Picture contender The Descendants wins.  Superstar director Martin Scorsese is in the field for Hugo, but he’s already won an Oscar for The Departed and Hugo doesn’t seem to be a contender.
Pick:  Michel Hazanavicius
Other nominees:  Alexander Payne (The Descendants) / Martin Scorsese (Hugo) / Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) / Terence Malick (The Tree of Life)

BEST ACTOR  It’s a two-horse race between George Clooney (The Descendants) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist).  Clooney as Mathew King dominates every minute of his movie – the story is told from his character’s point of view.  Clooney, who usually plays affable, smooth nice guys with a touch of wiseguy self-awareness displays more vulnerability than he probably ever has in a role as his character struggles to deal with the reality of his wife’s probable death and children that have spun out of control.  Dujardin dominates The Artist with his performance as silent star George Valentin, whose career comes crashing down with the onset of sound film.  Dujardin perfectly captures the brilliant charm of the movie star at his peak and the quiet desperation of the reduced Valentin after his star has faded.
Clooney had the early lead but Dujardin has the momentum after winning Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild awards.  The simpler, but consistent charm of The Artist might also play better with voters than the mixed drama/comedy of The Descendants.
Pick:  Jean DuJardin
Other nominees:  George Clooney (The Descendants) / Demián Bechir (A Better Life) / Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) / Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

BEST ACTRESS  Veteran actress Viola Davis has been turning great performances for years now in supporting roles but rarely carrying a movie.  In 2008 she earned an Academy Award nomination for a one scene performance in Doubt – arguably upstaging star Meryl Streep.    After earning her Best Actress nomination, her main competition is none other than Meryl Streep for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.  It’s Streep’s 17th Oscar nomination.  Still, it looks to be Davis’s year.  In The Help, Davis plays Aibileen Clark, a black maid in a small Mississippi town in the early ‘60s who raises the children of white families at the expense of her own.  Clark is the emotional center of the film, the family maid that young aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) turns to when she delves into the lives of maids who bring up other people’s children against the backdrop of the pre-Civil Rights deep South.  In a way, Davis’s Oscar nom mirrors her role in The Help – a career/life in the background finally getting its due.
Pick:  Viola Davis
Other nominees:  Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) / Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) / Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) / Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR  Christopher Plummer is 82 years old.  When he made his film debut in 1957 Dwight Eisenhower was President.  For 55 years the Canadian-born stage and screen vet has made dozens of movies but was mostly known for his appearance in a movie that he detested – The Sound of Music.  All that is about to change.  With his peformance as Hal, an elderly man who comes out as gay after his wife dies, Plummer has stamped himself as the Oscar favorite.  In director Mike Mills Beginners Oliver (Ewan McGregor), confused about his mother’s death and Hal’s late-life makeover, starts a relationship with a French woman he meets (Melanie Laurent) who also has parental issues.   Although not the leading character, Plummer’s character dominates the film.  Straight in real life, Plummer believably plays a gay man who had repressed that side of himself for nearly his entire life – without resorting to “working” the part like Sean Penn in Milk.
Pick:  Christopher Plummer
Other nominees:  Kenneth Branagh (My Week With Marilyn) / Jonah Hill (Moneyball) / Nick Nolte (Warrior) / Max von Sydow (Incredibly Loud & Unbearably Close)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS  The surprise hit of the summer, The Help was powered by the strength of its cast, with three members nominated.  At the Screen Actors Guild awards the film received a “best cast” award as well as individual awards for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.  While not the favorite for Best Picture, this could benefit the cast awards with Viola Davis leading the Best Actress race and Octavia Spencer, who played Minnie Jackson, the smart-mouthed maid who has a way with pies, expected to join her cast mate by picking up the Best Supporting Actress prize.  A possible contender is Bérénice Bejo, who plays up-and-coming starlet Peppy Miller in The Artist.
Pick:  Octavia Spencer
Other nominees:  Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) / Jessica Chastain (The Help) / Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) / Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY  With writing awards often handed out as second place awards, look for The Descendants writing team of Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel to win the prize.  The Moneyball script was written by heavyweight writers Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, but Sorkin won last year for The Social Network and Moneyball isn’t a contender – sports movies, even interesting, offbeat ones don’t usually win awards.
Pick:  Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Other nominees:  John Logan (Hugo) / George Clooney & Grant Heslove and Beau Willimon (The Ides of March) / Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball) / Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY  The screenplay awards are often paired with Best Picture as in the past the past two years but leading contender The Artist is a silent movie with no dialogue.  The screenplay clocks in at only 44 pages. (Most screenplays are at least twice that length.)  Midnight in Paris was Woody Allen’s highest-grossing movie ever. With comedies not usually awarded the top prized look for the Academy to award Woody the screenplay award.  But don’t look forward to a funny acceptance speech – Allen never does award shows.  Possibly the first Iranian filmmaker to be nominated for this award is writer/director Asghar Farhadi for his script for his mesmerizing domestic drama A Separation, also up for Best Foreign Language Picture.
Pick:  Woody Allen
Other nominees:  Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) / Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) / J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) / Asghar Farhadi (A Separation)