Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2.  We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees. This time around, we are looking at each category as a whole. Which categories appear to be the strongest and weakest?

John: Everyone With A Solid Year Take A Step Forward…Not So Fast Supporting Actresses

I think the likely slates of nominees will be pretty solid this year, mostly bereft of bad choices. On the other hand, there are few categories I’d call particularly strong. If I had a ballot I’d still have trouble filling it out with performances/films that I found worth advocating for. If there were only three slots for animated films, Best Animated Feature would certainly be the strongest category. But enough films qualified this year that there ought to be five nominees, which dilutes its still considerable strength.

The strongest category overall is Best Actor. If I chose irrespective of those choice’s chance at nomination, there are many strong candidates. If we’re looking at likely candidates, both screenplay categories look very strong. Even films whose scripts I wouldn’t find strong enough to nominate (Inglourious Basterds, (500) Days of Summer) are at least somewhat different. Compare that to the screenplay nominees I found disappointing from last year, like Frost/Nixon or Doubt, that were neither particularly great nor interesting.

The weakest category is Supporting Actress, where I find little to interest me either in the whole pool of 2009 supporting actresses nor in the list of those who have a shot at a nomination. Beyond Mo’Nique and Vera Farmiga there’s very little for me to get excited about.

I also don’t think there’s any doubt that the ten nominees has weakened the Best Picture slate. But at least the films that are going to get in because of the category expansion tend to be different, fresh choices, even if I didn’t always love the films.

Jared: Love/Hate Relationship With The Ladies

I actually think Best Actress is a very strong category this year.  Small caveat, The Last Station is (probably) the last Oscar movie I need to see.  But Helen Mirren is always awesome, so should she beat out a strong Emily Blunt performance, I’m not super concerned.  Otherwise, I think Gabourey Sidibe walks away with the statue in many other years, but she’s nearly out of the picture this year.  Similarly, Carey Mulligan was just breathtaking.  I’m a little lower on Sandra Bullock than most, but would still be tickled pink if she won.  And Meryl Streep certainly doesn’t need me to praise her.

Depending on what happens, Original Screenplay is a close second.  It has the potential to be filled with riveting, unique works.  And even if my dream scenario doesn’t happen, it is still going to be very very strong.

And yeah, Supporting Actress is far and away the weakest category this year.  I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of a push to get more names into the race.  Maybe it is because Mo’Nique has this thing in the bag.  Otherwise it is her, and then meh.  I already said my piece on the lovely ladies from Up in the Air, and then you are looking at, what?  Someone from the horribly overrated Inglourious Basterds?  (Although, I’d love a Diane Kruger nod, just to bump up the Oscar nominees who appeared in National Treasure 2.  The actresses from Nine were decent, but their roles weren’t anything special.  That Julianne Moore has a shot to sneak in here shows how much of a joke this category is this year.

Brian: If Only The Actors Could Sing A Song

If the Academy had expanded the Best Actor slot to ten nominees as they had with Best Picture, I’m not sure I would have found a choice about which to complain. Sure, Morgan Freeman is a gimme nomination, but if I’m going with the Academy trends, I can understand it. The next five in probably includes Mortensen, Damon, Day-Lewis, Stuhlbarg, and maybe even one of my faves, Sharto Copley for District 9. I have seen neither Nine or Serious Man, but from what I have heard I can’t image there would be anything too objectionable about any of their performances. Once I see them, they might even find a lobbyist in me for their likely snubbing tomorrow. Of the five nominated, I liked all of their performances. Freeman was serviceable as Mandela and he rose above what was a script replete with platitudes and Yoda-like pieces of wisdom. Colin Firth was the best part of Single Man and like with Freeman, transcended the limits of the story, not to mention the over-the-top direction. I disagree with Jared on Clooney and thought that even though was just doing his Clooney thing, it still worked great and I can’t see anyone else in the role. I’ll get to Bridges v. Renner when we do our Oscar posts later in the month, but both were fantastic.

Weakest category has to be Best Song. Not one of the Princess and the Frog has broken out and reached the public discourse. Granted its a wholly different era in entertainment from the years when Aladdin and Lion King permeated the popular music culture and had songs played ad nauseum on the radio, but still — I expect at least one of them to be recognizable. The song from Crazy Heart is the best of the bunch but even then — I am sorely disappointed in the list of possible songs and cannot see any of them being memorable even a couple of months from now. I leave it now to John to disagree with me.

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