City Lights: The Oscar pool is on

Everyone has at least one skill that doesn't have a practical use.

Mine is the ability to name every movie ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

I absorbed that knowledge from years of reading critical studies of the Oscars, to the point where, if someone blurts out any year from 1928 to the present, I can pinpoint that year's winner within three seconds. Go ahead, try me — my number is at the bottom of this column.

I guess having that photographic memory has one practical use: It gives me a leg up in making Oscar predictions. The last time I can remember wrongly handicapping the winner was in 1998, when I picked "Saving Private Ryan" over "Shakespeare in Love," but I don't think even Shakespeare's descendants predicted that upset.

In many ways, the Best Picture race is similar to a presidential primary. Both are contests ostensibly about choosing the "best" candidate, but more often award the most politically prudent and least divisive choice. Sometimes, a movie will top the list because it's a popular smash ("Titanic"); sometimes, voters will favor it over a volatile contender ("Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain"); other times, the Oscar serves as a consolation prize (would "The Departed" have taken the gold without Martin Scorsese's name on it?).

This year, the field seems more open than usual, without one film that seems a sure bet to win it all — you know, like "Saving Private Ryan" or "Brokeback Mountain." And so, with the Oscar nominations having come out Tuesday, I propose the Independent's first annual Outguess the City Editor Contest.

Between now and the Feb. 26 ceremony, email your predictions for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress to Whoever gets the most right will get a mention in this column after the show. The only catch is that you have to do better than me. Here are my picks:

Best Picture: Under recently adopted rules, the Academy now nominates up to 10 movies for this award — which just means there are more also-rans than in the past. Of the ones with a fighting chance, "The Help" has too many outspoken detractors, "Midnight in Paris" is lightweight, and "The Descendants" may be too talky and low-key to entice enough votes.

So it really comes down to "The Artist" and "Hugo," both of which celebrate the early days of moviemaking. The latter gets my personal vote as the year's best film, but "The Artist," which recently won the Golden Globe and the Producers Guild Award, seems to have the momentum.

The pick: "The Artist"

Best Director: Usually, this one matches the Best Picture winner. Scorsese ("Hugo") and Woody Allen ("Midnight in Paris") have won before, Alexander Payne ("The Descendants") may have a better shot in the screenplay category, and Terrence Malick baffled as many viewers as he charmed with "The Tree of Life." So that leaves Michel Hazanavicius, whose obscure (and hard-to-pronounce) name will benefit from having "The Artist" behind it.

The pick: Michel Hazanavicius

Best Actor: This one, at least, should come down to a pair of household names: George Clooney ("The Descendants") and Brad Pitt ("Moneyball"). Pitt had a career year in 2011 and could just as easily have been nominated for "The Tree of Life." Clooney, though, has dominated the industry for the last decade as an actor, director and writer, and the Academy will probably take this opportunity to give him his first Oscar for a leading role.

The pick: George Clooney

Best Actress: Meryl Streep ("The Iron Lady") and Michelle Williams ("My Week With Marilyn") won the Golden Globes, but both performances got more acclaim than the movies they were in. So this one will likely go to Viola Davis ("The Help"), who starred in a box-office smash — love it or hate it — that eked out a Best Picture nod.

The pick: Viola Davis

Best Supporting Actor: No one in this category really leaps out as a front-runner, but Christopher Plummer ("Beginners") looks like the safest bet after winning the Golden Globe. Plus, the Academy often uses the supporting categories to honor industry veterans — Don Ameche in "Cocoon," Alan Arkin in "Little Miss Sunshine," and so on.

The pick: Christopher Plummer

Best Supporting Actress: Part of me says Octavia Spencer will win this for "The Help," but I have a growing hunch that Melissa McCarthy will pull an upset for "Bridesmaids." She appeared in a box-office smash that got just two nominations; she's an offbeat contender in a category that often favors them (remember Marisa Tomei for "My Cousin Vinny"?); and frankly, if that speech about the female Fight Club wasn't Oscar-worthy, I don't know what is.

The pick: Melissa McCarthy

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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