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Oscar predictions offer tips to top races

The Oscars start at 5 p.m. Sunday on ABC, beamed directly to you from the Academy’s Kodak Theater in stellar Hollywood. As always, there will surprises.

But after covering many of these ego marathons (six as a working, no, slaving journalist), I want more than surprises. I want miracles. Here are three that would answer my prayers on Sunday:

Jeff Bridges shows up tipsy as The Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” Winning the Oscar for his work in “Crazy Heart,” he announces that, in “everlasting devotion” to his 1971 breakthrough “The Last Picture Show,” he will “never appear in any 3-D movie, and Jim Cameron can kiss my blue pinky.” Jeff is briskly escorted from the stage, laughing.

Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” appears exquisitely gowned and powdered in bold Na’Vi blue, to announce on stage that she will star in “Avatar II: Blue Momma’s Revenge.” As James Cameron leads the Kodak audience in a thundering ovation, Queen Latifah collapses in a fit of envious disappointment.

Instead of the usual, mournful spree of clips honoring the year’s dead, how about clips of the talents who deserved being nominated, but were not? For me, 2009’s castaways certainly include “The Messenger” as film, “Bright Star” and its stars, “Still Walking” as foreign film, Christian McKay in “Me and Orson Welles,” the rockin’ ensemble crew of “Pirate Radio,” etc. No chance, no way.

But let’s get down to showbiz. Here are my predictions of winners in the top six categories. Plus my notions of the most and least deserving. Agree or disagree. The chatter puts a shine on Oscar’s gold.

BEST MOVIE
“Avatar,” “The Blind Side,” “District 9,” “An Education,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Precious,” “A Serious Man,” “Up,” “Up in the Air”

By doubling nominations from five to ten, the Academy perhaps unsettled the massive, $2 billion dominance of “Avatar,” the new all-time hit and possible game-changer. Maker James Cameron is not wildly popular, and was heavily Oscarized with 1997’s “Titanic.” Do many voters fear what “Avatar” may do to the industry’s future? But it has just two films (“District 9,” “Up”) chipping at its populist base, whereas “The Hurt Locker,” big with critics and festivals, has at least four (and is about an unpopular war). The surprise sneak-in could be the comedy with a topical slant on hard times, “Up in the Air.”

Most deserving: “The Hurt Locker”

Least deserving: “The Blind Side”

WILL WIN: “AVATAR”

BEST ACTOR
Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”; George Clooney, “Up in the Air”; Colin Firth, “A Single Man”; Morgan Freeman, “Invictus”; Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”

Nix Freeman. Not even playing heroic Nelson Mandela could save his snoozy film (and what was that accent?). Renner is terrific as the bomb disposer in Iraq, but has no developed a rep. Clooney is very popular, yet lacks gravitas (so, in my opinion, does his movie). Still, who would accept more graciously? The real battle is between the weathered old Dude Himself, Bridges, with his career-topper as a Texas singer, and England’s Firth, who gave perhaps the most sensitive depiction of a gay man yet seen in a major film. The Jeffster is overdue, and has a shelf of other awards for this role.

Most deserving: Bridges or Firth

Least deserving: Freeman

WILL WIN: JEFF BRIDGES, “CRAZY HEART”

BEST ACTRESS
Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”; Helen Mirren, “The Last Station”; Carey Mulligan, “An Education”; Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”; Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

Bullock is liked, had hits and kept her silly movie from seeming just a stuffed mush of heart-warming banalities. But her mom role is all pep and attitude. Mirren took this prize in ’06 for “The Queen,” and as Lady Tolstoy has won more prestige than attendance. Sidibe is, I think, a novelty item, and much more presence than talent. My favorite, the young Brit wow Mulligan, gave one of the great “look, I’m here” performances, up there near Joanne Woodward in “Three Faces of Eve” and Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” Then there is the trouper’s trouper. Streep is the all-time acting nominee (16), and has won two. She cooked a feast of character, not just an impersonation, as chef Julia Child. Current odds slightly favor Bullock, but….

Most deserving: Mulligan or Streep.

Least deserving: Bullock or Sidibe

WILL WIN: MERYL STREEP, “JULIE & JULIA”

BEST DIRECTOR
Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker”; James Cameron, “Avatar”; Lee Daniels, “Precious”; Jason Reitman, “Up in the Air”; Quentin Tarantino, “Inglourious Basterds”

If the biz votes its hopes over its fears, Cameron should win, and “Avatar” is a gilded chance for the Academy to stand with the big public. But will his reliance on digital tech teams hurt him? The Academy likes directors who direct actors, not blue-skinned gollies. Bigelow got great performances, and the best military action ever shot by a woman (or most men). Her being Cameron’s ex-wife may cement the feminist vote (a woman has never won this prize). Daniels has a modest track record and not a lot of taste. Reitman is seen as a very snarky guy, and he’s up against King Snark, Tarantino, whose insolent brilliance might never win broad Oscar support (does his comedy’s revenge on Hitler eclipse his clear delight in suave-stud Nazis?).

Most deserving: Bigelow

Least deserving: Daniels

WILL WIN: KATHRYN BIGELOW, “THE HURT LOCKER”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Penelope Cruz, “Nine”; Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”; Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Crazy Heart”; Anna Kendrick, “Up in the Air”; Mo’Nique, “Precious”

The sassy, savvy “Up in the Air” gals may knock each other out. Cruz is here because she’s Cruz, Spain’s best export since Picasso. But her Carla is just a sexpot with flashy moves, and “Nine” is a tinny joke of a musical. Gyllenhaal, a modern marvel, was more than a fem-foil for Bridges; she gave “Crazy Heart” its sanest heart. She could well be the upset. The bets are mostly on Mo’Nique, the crazy mom of Precious. Despite playing a sadistic monster, she won sympathy points with her stunning final 15 minutes. Her minutes on the Kodak stage could also be precious.

Most deserving: Gyllenhaal

Least deserving: Cruz

WILL WIN: MO’NIQUE, “PRECIOUS”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Matt Damon, “Invictus”; Woody Harrelson, “The Messenger”; Christopher Plummer, “The Last Station”; Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones”; Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds.”

A Matt, a Stan, a Woody and two Chrises, so who do you like? Clearly, for anyone who’s seen their movies, Plummer and Harrelson should be in the leading man category. Old-pro sentiment (and portraying Tolstoy) might advance Plummer, 80, who’s never won, over Harrelson, 48, who gave the performance of his career but is widely seen as a gonzo-hemp goofball. Tucci, subtle in the past, virtually wore a sandwich board that screams “Scum” as a pedophilic killer; the nom is his reward. Damon is a good actor who got back in shape to play a South African rugby star, who is quite amazingly dull. Waltz waltzed in from Austria, did the Tarantino tango as the slickest Nazi creep since Maximilian Schell in “The Young Lions,” and has stacked up awards. Unless there is a fierce alliance of voters who want to punish Col. Landa, he should win the Iron Cross with Oscar Cluster.

Most deserving: Harrelson

Least deserving: Damon

WILL WIN: CHRISTOPH WALTZ, “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”

Recap on the predix: “Avatar,” Kathryn Bigelow, Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Christoph Waltz, Mo’Nique.

But please, no wagering.

David Elliott is the SDNN movie critic.