Column: Fight the hype, Oscars

This year's Oscar season has been plagued by early expectations and hasty hype for what critics and insiders are sure will win big at Sunday's awards. But with the ceremony just days away, it's worth a second look at the nominee list.

In this sea of shoo-ins and sure things, the most exciting movies this year are the ones that (probably) won't win. The quieter, bolder, more adventurous roles and screenplays will be talked about longer than "Avatar" rests at its worldwide box office top spot.

Luckily, because this year's backlash is almost as premature as the hype, there are a handful of underdogs certainly worth rooting for.

"The Hurt Locker," Kathryn Bigelow's squeamishly close look at a bomb squad on the front lines, is a live-wire kick in the pants, delivering action and thoughtfulness in a dynamite of a war movie.

Although her ex-husband James Cameron seems like the smurf to beat for Best Director, Bigelow's claustrophobic masterpiece might be the only underdog scrappy enough to take down the heavyweight "Avatar." She could be the first woman to walk away with Best Director in Academy history — if we're really lucky, "Locker" will be walking away with the Best Picture statue, too.

Meanwhile, in myriad acting races decided months before voting even began, a little upset could be the dash of excitement this year's ceremony so desperately needs.

Mo'Nique and Christoph Waltz's wickedly crafted performances as a deranged, abusive mother and charmingly sadistic Nazi officer have deservedly commanded near unanimous acceptance as the ones to beat for the female and male Supporting Actor roles.

But this still leaves the big two in acting — Best Leading Actor and Best Leading Actress — largely undecided. Although critics and fans have rallied behind Sandra Bullock's tough-lovin' mentor role in "The Blind Side," her competition is a laundry list of more-deserving breakouts and veterans.

The dynamic charm of Carey Mulligan as a susceptible '60s prep school student in "An Education" was a vision of nuance and beauty; the only thing standing in the youngster's way is Oscar's tendency to deprive young actresses of a statue on their first nomination.

It's this sort of flippant Oscar politics that have Jeff Bridges favored for his boozy, heartbreaking turn as an aging country singer in "Crazy Heart." Some wish to award the abiding dude for his whole body of work, and in a year of devastatingly beautiful male roles (Colin Firth in "A Single Man" and George Clooney in "Up in the Air"), it seems unfair to honor career and not performance.

Of course, unfair is Oscar's middle name. An awards show can't make everyone happy, and it shouldn't. But the overwhelming chatter that the awards have already been "decided" is irritating. With Best Picture offerings ranging from the adorable "Up" to the grotesquely entertaining "Inglourious Basterds," it's a shame that this year should be so predictable.

Let's hope they don't go down the predictable road. If Bullock does take home the statue, it will be discouraging not because she doesn't deserve it (and she doesn't) but because it just makes the Academy all the more irrelevant.

Oscar needs a zesty kick in the pants, an upset from a unique, exciting film nobody expects. This year's nominees have the potential to deliver. Let's hope the cash-hungry voters see through the blue haze this Sunday.

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