As is self-evident by the crudely manipulated photo above, the Oscars are back (and so is Billy Crystal). I’m still trying to peer into my crystal ball to determine which nominees will walk away from Sunday, February 26th’s awards with a golden statuette but a preliminary look is now up for all to see (and hopefully not mock too greatly).

All I’ll say about the nominees, because it would take a number of pages to fully express my disappointment, is that this may be the worst set of nominees in a decade, if not longer. All of the kudos to “War Horse” can be stricken from the record; Jonah Hill was good (not great) in “Moneyball” but that film is wildly overrated; if you can only pick 2 (not so great) selections for Original Song, what’s the point?; Just because you respect and like Glenn Close & Meryl Streep doesn’t mean you have to nominate them when they’re featured in two of the most boring films of 2011; how is this Gary Oldman’s FIRST nomination? And add that film to the boring list; Etc., etc. I’m stopping before this turns into a full rant.

In any case, check back as it gets closer to show time, picks are likely to change according to the way the wind blows leading up to the event. Many of my selections below at this point are gut instinct (and I wouldn’t always trust my gut, no matter how big it is).

● Best Picture: “The Artist”
– Should Win: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” —

Other Nominees:
“The Descendants”
“The Help”
“Midnight in Paris”
“The Tree of Life”
“War Horse”

Notable Snubs:
“Drive” (which really should be the winner)
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″

The continued use of an expanded Best Picture field does little to actually add drama to the award (nor does it seem to help ratings which is the only reason it was done in the first place). There doesn’t seem to be any stopping the freight train known as “The Artist” running silently towards the podium this year. A small amount of backlash regarding the film is buzzing around so it’s possible for “The Descendants” to sneak in for the win but I’m sticking with the front runner (for now). Almost any other selection is like voting for Ross Perot.

● Directing: “The Artist” Michel Hazanavicius
– Should Win: “The Tree of Life” Terrence Malick —

Other Nominees:
“The Descendants” Alexander Payne
“Hugo” Martin Scorsese
“Midnight in Paris” Woody Allen

Notable Snubs:
“Drive” Nicolas Winding Refn (Like with the film, the one who really should win)
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” Stephen Daldry
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ David Yates

A predictable lot of nominees. Refn is the biggest snub and considering the film’s overall lack of recognition (just one sound category nomination), I’m beginning to wonder if someone involved with the film pissed off all the wrong people. That, or the voters refuse to pick anything that isn’t safe, warm and cuddly. Either way, blegh. As for picking Hazanavicius, he picked up the Directors Guild of America award, which has only been wrong six times in over sixty years; You do the math.

● Actor in a Leading Role: Jean Dujardin in “The Artist”

Other Nominees:
Demián Bichir in “A Better Life”
George Clooney in “The Descendants”
Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”
Brad Pitt in “Moneyball”

Notable Snubs/Should Win:
Ryan Gosling in “Drive”
Brendan Gleeson in “The Guard”
Stellan Skarsgård in “A Somewhat Gentle Man”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “50/50″
Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter”
Ewan McGregor in “Beginners”

Wow, is this one almost too close to call. I’m giving the edge right now to Dujardin because of his SAG win, which has predicted the Lead Actor for the last 6 years in a row. But it’s a razor thin margin between the two and I was leaning in Clooney’s favor up until the SAG award was announced. Still, I’d cast my vote for any of the talented gentlemen above that were passed over for their efforts in 2011 before any of the “official” nominees. In fact, I’d just swap out the entire category list. But what do I know?

● Actor in a Supporting Role: Christopher Plummer in “Beginners”

Other Nominees:
Kenneth Branagh in “My Week with Marilyn”
Jonah Hill in “Moneyball”
Nick Nolte in “Warrior”
Max von Sydow in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

Notable Snubs:
Albert Brooks in “Drive”
Alan Rickman in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″

Plummer did a great job and it will be well deserved should he indeed be named the winner, though it’s too bad Brooks and Rickman aren’t in the mix. But who should come off, you ask? Branagh and Hill. Their performances were fine but far from amazing, and it’s only because of Kenneth’s reputation that the head-scratching wasn’t as pronounced as it was with Jonah’s Tomei-like inclusion.

● Actress in a Leading Role: Viola Davis in “The Help”

Other Nominees:
Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs”
Rooney Mara in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady”
Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn”

Notable Snubs/Should Win:
Brit Marling in “Another Earth”
Elizabeth Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”
Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
Adepero Oduye in “Pariah”
Liana Liberato in “Trust”
Felicity Jones in “Like Crazy”

Once again, I come up with six snubs. SIX. I think you can tell how I feel about the nominees (though Davis was very good). Is it too late for a recount once Academy voters watch more than ten or fifteen films from 2011? If Close or Streep win (the latter being a distinct possibility), it’ll make my liver very sad because binge drinking will be in order.

● Actress in a Supporting Role: Octavia Spencer in “The Help”
– Should Win: Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life” “Take Shelter” “The Help”

Other Nominees:
Bérénice Bejo in “The Artist”
Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids”
Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs”

Notable Snubs:
Mélanie Laurent in “Beginners”
Jessica Chastain in almost anything else she did this year
Shailene Woodley in “The Descendants”
Carey Mulligan in “Drive” or “Shame”

Woodley’s omission from the list is one of the biggest surprises (Brooks on the men’s side being the other). Bejo should be considered a lead actress if you factor in screen time and significance to the film (she did a great job, but didn’t make my Top 5). McTeer did a decent job but in a terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE film. And throwing aside my estimation of “Bridesmaids” (which is poor; very, very poor), this feels more like the Golden Globes picked the nominees than Academy voters. Based on that, I’ve gone with Spencer, who picked up the Golden Globe (and SAG award) this year. This is notoriously one of the most erratic awards to select so almost anything could happen.

● Writing (Adapted Screenplay): “The Descendants” Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Other Nominees:
“Hugo” Screenplay by John Logan
“The Ides of March” Screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon
“Moneyball” Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin; Story by Stan Chervin
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” Screenplay by Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan

Notable Snubs:
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ Screenplay by Steve Kloves
“Carnage” Screenplay by Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski
“Drive” Screenplay by Hossein Amini

Actually not a very surprising list, just a sign that voters love anything with George Clooney or Brad Pitt. I get it. I just wish the popularity contest wasn’t so very, very obvious.

● Writing (Original Screenplay): “Midnight in Paris” Written by Woody Allen

Other Nominees:
“The Artist” Written by Michel Hazanavicius
“Bridesmaids” Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
“Margin Call” Written by J.C. Chandor
“A Separation” Written by Asghar Farhadi

Notable Snubs/Should Win:
“Beginners” Written by Mike Mills
“50/50″ Written by Will Reiser
“The Guard” Written by John Michael McDonagh
“Win Win” Written by Thomas McCarthy

Another category where I’d swap out most of the picks, leaving “Midnight in Paris” as a nominee but preferring any of the four efforts not getting the recognition they deserve. Nominating “Margin Call” and “A Separation” are at least interesting choices, though it also won’t be too surprising if “The Artist” pulls this out as well. As ridiculous as it sounds giving a silent film a writing award since there’s virtually no dialogue, a lot of work goes into crafting a feature film and it starts with the screenplay.

● Foreign Language Film: “A Separation” Iran

Other Nominees:
“Bullhead” Belgium
“Footnote” Israel
“In Darkness” Poland
“Monsieur Lazhar” Canada

Notable Snubs:
A Somewhat Gentle Man
Happy Happy
The Housemaid

This is tricky because each country nominates one film for consideration released in their homeland between 10/1/2010 and 9/30/2011. I’m only concerned with foreign language releases in the states in the 2011 calendar year. It’s made trickier as only “A Separation” has even been screened for most critics to this point. This is almost like throwing darts at a list of names.

● Animated Feature Film: “Rango”
– Should Win: “Kung Fu Panda 2″ —

Other Nominees:
“A Cat in Paris”
“Chico & Rita”
“Puss in Boots”

Notable Snubs:
NONE … actually, this category shouldn’t exist this year. Just because there are animated films doesn’t mean an award HAS to be given out. “Kung Fu Panda 2″ was very good and the best of the bunch but even that wasn’t something I’d place on a pedestal. I’ve preliminarily picked “Rango” because people like Johnny Depp. Yes, that’s the only reason. Meh.

● Documentary (Feature): “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

Other Nominees:
“Hell and Back Again” Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner
“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
“Pina” Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel
“Undefeated” TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Rich Middlemas

I’m still mulling this one over but my first instinct is to say “Pina” will take it because of its inclusion on a number of critics’ lists.

Update 2/5: After finally seeing “Pina”, I’ll back this horse for now.

Update 2/25: And after peering into my crystal ball some more, I’m switching my pick. I haven’t had a chance to see the predicted winner but it seems to have more celebrity backing … and we wouldn’t want merit to trump frepotism now would we?

● Documentary (Short Subject): “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen

Other Nominees:

“The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement” Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin
“God Is the Bigger Elvis” Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson
“Incident in New Baghdad” James Spione
“Saving Face” Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Update 2/25: Haven’t been able to see any of the shorts this year but I’ll go with Lucy Walker’s effort because of her excellent documentary “Waste Land” from 2010.

● Art Direction: “Hugo” Production Design: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
– Should Win: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ Production Design: Stuart Craig; Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan —

Other Nominees:
“The Artist” Production Design: Laurence Bennett; Set Decoration: Robert Gould
“Midnight in Paris” Production Design: Anne Seibel; Set Decoration: Hélène Dubreuil
“War Horse” Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

Notable Snubs:
“The Tree of Life” Production Design: Jack Fisk; Art Direction: David Crank
“Super 8″ Production Design: Martin Whist; Art Direction: David Scott & Domenic Silvestri
“Jane Eyre Production Design: Will Hughed-Jones; Art Direction: Karl Probert

“Hugo” will likely only have a shot at technical awards (unless Scorsese picks up his 2nd lifetime achievement Oscar) and if there’s one element I’d agree on with most others, it’s the excellent production design.

● Cinematography: “The Tree of Life” Emmanuel Lubezki

Other Nominees:
“The Artist” Guillaume Schiffman
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Jeff Cronenweth
“Hugo” Robert Richardson
“War Horse” Janusz Kaminski

Notable Snubs:
“Drive” Newton Thomas Sigel

If anything but “The Tree of Life” wins, every voter eligible in this category should be forced to get their eyesight checked. This one should be such a slam dunk I almost feel bad for the other nominees. However, I won’t be shocked if “The Artist” scoops this up as part of its awards run … I will be sad and disappointed though. Oh, and upset. And annoyed. And angry. And – You get the point.

● Costume Design: “Anonymous” Lisy Christl

Other Nominees:
“The Artist” Mark Bridges
“Hugo” Sandy Powell
“Jane Eyre” Michael O’Connor
“W.E.” Arianne Phillips

While one normally sticks with period pieces from England, making “Anonymous” perhaps an even likelier choice, this category has often just stuck with the dominant force no matter how worthy the actual costuming. Remember, “The English Patient” won for dressing everyone in khaki from The Gap. That tuxedos and late ’20s/early ’30s women’s wear could pick up a statuette wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

Update 2/19: Flip-flop city. Moving back to “Anonymous” as it has the loudest costumes of the bunch. Voters won’t/shouldn’t feel like they have to give everything to “The Artist”.

● Film Editing: “The Artist” Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius

Other Nominees:
“The Descendants” Kevin Tent
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
“Hugo” Thelma Schoonmaker
“Moneyball” Christopher Tellefsen

Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall won this award last year for “The Social Network” and probably delivered the best example of their craft among these nominees. However, I think this comes down to “The Artist” vs. “Hugo”. I’m waiting to decipher the buzz a bit more before declaring a prediction.

Update 2/19: After the ACE Awards handing Best Editing to “The Descendants” and “The Artist” (Drama/Comedy or Musical respectively), I’m going to give the edge to “The Artist” as it sweeps through things.

● Makeup: “The Iron Lady” Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland

Other Nominees:
“Albert Nobbs” Martial Corneville, Lynn Johnston and Matthew W. Mungle
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″ Nick Dudman, Amanda Knight and Lisa Tomblin

Look I get it, you took two excellent actresses and either made them look like a man, age over time, or both (Sorry, Prime Minister). But the team involved in “Harry Potter” should win this in a landslide … if there’s any sense of justice in the world … which there probably isn’t. So if “The Iron Lady” takes it, I’ll just roll my eyes and take another sip of my adult beverage.

Update 2/25: I can’t figure out why but the odds-on favorite appears to be “The Iron Lady” so I’m switching my pick simply in hopes of being correct … it should not win but hey, these are the Oscars. How often do they get it right?

● Music (Original Score): “The Artist” Ludovic Bource

Other Nominees:
“The Adventures of Tintin” John Williams
“Hugo” Howard Shore
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” Alberto Iglesias
“War Horse” John Williams

Notable Snubs:
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ Alexandre Desplat
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” Alexandre Desplat
“Hanna” The Chemical Brothers
“Like Crazy” Dustin O’Halloran
“Drive” Cliff Martinez
“Another Earth” Fall on your Sword

This one particularly hurts every fiber of my being. John Williams is great but his nominations are based on reputations alone. Iglesias’ score did nothing to keep me from falling asleep during “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and Howard Shore’s work on “Hugo” was fine but feels more like inclusion by association due to the film’s multiple nominations. Bource makes sense as a nominee, as the film is carried by his score and it’s well composed, and given early indicators he’ll probably take the award. But this is yet another category that could almost be clean swept and replaced by more worthy selections. I’ve once again come up with SIX snubs. We’re well past ridiculous at this point.

● Music (Original Song): “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets” Music and Lyrics by Bret McKenzie

Other Nominee (singular. only one other possible winner. ugh):
“Real in Rio” from “Rio” Music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown; Lyrics by Siedah Garrett

With this one, although I’m going with “The Muppets”, just flip a coin because it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t even find any notable snubs within the other 37 eligible songs (full list here). What’s so wrong with omitting a category? It would help with the show’s runtime.

● Sound Editing: “War Horse” Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom

Other Nominees:

“Drive” Lon Bender and Victor Ray Ennis
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Ren Klyce
“Hugo” Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl

Update 2/25: It hurts my soul to pick “War Horse” but this category tends to prefer big sound and violence. “Hugo” is a likely contender as well and “Transformers” has a decent shot also; and sadly I hope it can take the award just to keep “War Horse” shut out but there are obviously voters out there who liked that melodramatic mess so if it’s going to get an award, it’d be here.

● Sound Mixing: “Hugo” Tom Fleischman and John Midgley

Other Nominees:

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Bo Persson
“Moneyball” Deb Adair, Ron Bochar, David Giammarco and Ed Novick
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Peter J. Devlin
“War Horse” Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson

Update 2/25: The scuttlebutt seems to be that “Hugo” will take this so I’m just going to go with it. Like Sound Editing, I suppose I’d rather see the robots in disguise snake this away from a work I felt missed the mark and floated into Scorsese teaching film history.

● Visual Effects: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White and Daniel Barrett

Other Nominees:
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ Tim Burke, David Vickery, Greg Butler and John Richardson
“Hugo” Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman and Alex Henning
“Real Steel” Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor and Swen Gillberg
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Matthew Butler and John Frazier

Eenie Meenie Miney Moe. Picking between these nominees is actually hard (I gave up on the idea of rhyming). “Hugo” is the least worthy but could get caught up in voters handing out technical awards to a losing cause in the major categories. The other four all have merit (in the sense that they all have excellent special effects). My guess is that it comes down to “Harry Potter” or “Apes”. I’m letting the tea brew a bit more before reading the leaves.

Update 2/19: Seeing as there was some talk for getting Andy Serkis an acting nomination for his work as Caesar in “Apes”, I’m giving the edge right now to their movie … even though it pains my soul a little bit to do so.

● Short Film (Animated): “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg

Other Nomines:
“Dimanche/Sunday” Patrick Doyon
“La Luna” Enrico Casarosa
“A Morning Stroll” Grant Orchard and Sue Goffe
“Wild Life” Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby

Update 2/25: Going off the buzz though it wouldn’t be shocking to see “La Luna” take this, and like all shorts categories, it could go any direction. Last year’s winner, “The Lost Thing” was not heavily favored (though it was the right choice).

● Short Film (Live Action): “The Shore” Terry George and Oorlagh George

Other Nominees:
“Pentecost” Peter McDonald and Eimear O’Kane
“Raju” Max Zähle and Stefan Gieren
“Time Freak” Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey
“Tuba Atlantic” Hallvar Witzø

Update 2/25: On paper, “Raju” might seem to have the advantage but I’ll stick with “The Shore” … not that I have any solid reasoning why.