As Oscar ceremony approaches, the picture is unclear

Film Critic

If you write about the Oscars for a living -- which is what everyone at the L.A. Times seems to be doing this time of the year -- people expect you to have the answers, to know who’s who, what’s what, and, most important, which films are going to win.

This year, however, feels different. This year, to my mind at least, the questions are as interesting as the answers.

The one that interests me most is whether Kathryn Bigelow will become the first woman in the Oscar’s 82 episodes to win best director. When you put it that way, you understand why the answer is almost surely yes. Not only is “The Hurt Locker” a spectacular piece of directing, but it’s likely that academy members have become increasingly embarrassed over an omission that has gone on for so long. The chance to right that wrong with such an exceptional piece of work will be hard to resist.

That question is linked to one that’s equally intriguing. Will “Hurt Locker’s” move from way, way off the lead -- the film was released back in June but didn’t gain real best picture traction until the last month or so -- be strong enough to displace “Avatar,” the de facto favorite?

The James Cameron film dazzled with its genuinely revolutionary use of 3-D, an achievement that will likely be viewed as enough of a game changer to take home the Oscar.

But if below-the-line voters are likely to appreciate “Avatar’s” accomplishments, will actors, irrationally worried that a digital future will not include them, vote against it? More to the point, will voters split their tickets on this matter, dividing the wealth in a Solomon-like manner by voting for Bigelow for best director and “Avatar” for best picture? That’s my best guess at the moment, but the reverse could happen as well.

One thing feels sure: “Hurt Locker” is closing fast and will not be denied a major award.

Other races pose equally tricky questions. For instance:

Can Sandra Bullock hold off a late Meryl Streep charge? Whereas the lead actor award has been a lock for the five-times nominated Jeff Bridges since the day “Crazy Heart” opened, the lead actress race has a more complicated story line.

Although you hear many people say that Bullock will win, you hear almost no one say that hers was the superior performance. Rather the conventional wisdom has been that a Bullock victory would be a kind of lifetime achievement award: She’s a popular actress, “The Blind Side” is her moment, and Streep has been nominated a ton.

Lately, however, the fact that it’s been decades since Streep actually won the award (for “Sophie’s Choice” in 1983) has been mentioned a lot, as has the fact that her work as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia” was the tougher and trickier performance. Bullock is still the favorite, but Streep is on the move.

Will the consensus picks in the supporting categories actually win or will there be a backlash? Since their films had their first festival screenings -- Christoph Waltz’s “Inglourious Basterds” in Cannes, Mo’Nique’s “Precious” at Sundance -- these two performers have been almost prohibitive favorites in their respective corners.

But given that no one, especially not academy voters, likes to feel that their choices can be taken for granted, will one of these favorites be upset in the name of spontaneity and surprise? This probably will not happen with the actresses, but there is an outside chance for an upset with the men, with the venerable Christopher Plummer, playing Count Leo Tolstoy in “The Last Station,” having his share of supporters among an academy with some members who might have known Tolstoy in their youth. (Just kidding).

Will the writing Oscars follow the script? One of the most traditional of Academy Award patterns is that if a film has numerous nominations, its supporters will for sure cluster around the one that offers the best chance for victory. For “Up in the Air” and “Inglourious Basterds,” that category is writing. “Up in the Air” seems secure for best adaptation, but “Basterds” will have to fight off a challenge from, again, “The Hurt Locker.”

Will there be an upset in the foreign language category two years in a row? Last year observers were shocked when Japan’s unheralded “Departures,” the only audience friendly film in the group, bested four better known but colder items to take the Oscar.

This year, the same dynamic looks to apply. Four of the candidates -- “Ajami,” “The Milk of Sorrow,” “A Prophet” and “The White Ribbon” -- are as serious as serious can be. The fifth and least-known film, Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes,” is by contrast an updated version of a traditional Hollywood vehicle, plus one with themes sure to appeal to a, shall we say, mature audience. Will history repeat itself? You’ll have to tune in to find out.