And the Oscar SHOULD go to …

Will 'The Artist,' its star and director continue their awards streak? Or will Clooney and Co. pull through?

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Any year when George Clooney and Brad Pitt are competing against each other for an Oscar, or when gender identity (“Albert Nobbs”), racism (“The Help”), post-9/11 pain (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), the cost of pro sports (“Moneyball”) and illegal immigration (“A Better Life”) are prevalent themes can’t be described as a quiet one for the Academy Awards.

And yet a silent film is the major player at this year’s ultimate film event, which airs Sunday on ABC.

“The Artist,” a winsome look at the rise and fall of a charismatic silent screen star, has become the big talk of the 2012 awards season. It has earned only about $25 million, but it was showered with 10 Oscar nominations including one for best actor front-runner Jean Dujardin, who has the breezy charm of Gene Kelly.

By now, a wide audience is familiar with “The Artist,” if only as that black-and-white movie with the cute Jack Russell terrier. But can this ultimate underdog grab best picture honors? Or will the top prize go to weightier fare like “The Descendants,” a poignant family portrait led by a surprisingly vulnerable George Clooney, or “The Help,” a box-office hit elevated by the power of its three actress nominees?

Will silence be golden? Here are some predictions on what’s likely to happen when the envelopes are opened.

Best Picture

“The Artist”

“The Descendants”

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

“The Help”

“Hugo”

“Midnight in Paris”

“Moneyball”

“The Tree of Life”

“War Horse”

Will win: In a year when one nominee that looks good on paper was clobbered by bad reviews (the Tom Hanks-Sandra Bullock-starring “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”) and another was underappreciated for its classic style (“War Horse”), the competition here is mostly between the fizzy joys of “The Artist,” the multilayered drama of “The Descendants” and “The Help” and the lovely precision of “Hugo.” Expect “The Artist” to prevail, especially since Oscar voters can’t resist a movie that celebrates their own craft.

Should win: “The Descendants,” another excellent snapshot of the human heart from director Alexander Payne. It conveys the magnificent, tragic messiness of life through the story of a husband and father coping with revelations in the wake of his wife’s devastating coma.

Best Actor

Demian Bichir, “A Better Life”

George Clooney, “The Descendants”

Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”

Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

Will win: George Clooney has never been better. And goodness knows that Gary Oldman deserves to be recognized for decades of superb acting. But when a performer commands a movie with such throwaway grace, the Oscars tend to give him the gold. Jean Dujardin, prepare to be honored for displaying world-class style, delivering sweet dance moves and making silent films cool again.

Should win: Clooney, who succeeded by scrapping his debonair confidence and digging deep to find the place where sorrow, jealousy and wisdom meet in an average man struggling to do his best in an impossible situation.

Best Actress

Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs”

Viola Davis, “The Help”

Rooney Mara, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”

Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”

Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”

Will win: Although Meryl Streep is technically superb and emotionally on target as Margaret Thatcher, she is burdened with a movie that feels more like a series of quick pencil sketches than a finished portrait. Viola Davis, on the other hand, takes viewers on a journey into the soul of her character, showing us both the guarded outward composure of an African-American maid in the 1960s South and the strength, anger, tenderness and complexity that define her inner life. For such an epic turn, Davis is bound to take home the statuette.

Should win: Davis, a phenomenal actress who finally is getting a chance to show what she can do with a starring role. She conveyed the struggles of a woman in a specific time and place in history, yet made her character’s voice speak for the timeless, universal search for equality and acknowledgment.

Best Supporting Actor

Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”

Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”

Nick Nolte, “Warrior”

Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”

Max von Sydow, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

Will win: Christopher Plummer is on an award-season winning streak. The veteran actor is finally being acknowledged by Hollywood with a rush of appreciation for a lifetime of achievement, as well as his understated portrayal of a senior citizen who comes out as a gay man in order to live his final years with grace and honesty. All these years later, Captain Von Trapp is still an imposing presence.

Should win: Plummer is a fine choice, but if it’s time to single out a legend who’s never won, why not the venerable Max von Sydow, who is downright amazing as a man swaddled in a grief that’s rendered him mute. It would be an extreme, incredible upset by an actor in a flawed movie, but he deserves it.

Best Supporting Actress

Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”

Jessica Chastain, “The Help”

Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids”

Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”

Octavia Spencer, “The Help”

Will win: Octavia Spencer, for her captivating blend of humor and suppressed fury as a maid with an unforgettable recipe for those who’ve wronged her. It’s the sort of breakthrough performance that makes Oscar voters sit up and pay attention.

Should win: Janet McTeer, who quietly steals her movie from star Glenn Close. As a woman impersonating a man in late 19th-century Ireland in order to earn a living wage, McTeer’s immersion in male facial expressions and body movements is beyond impressive. Every time she’s on screen, she brings to life what’s essentially a depressing character study.

Best Director

Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”

Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”

Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”

Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”

Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”

Will win: Michel Hazanavicius. By relying on the silent treatment, the French director created a visual treat and a splendid reminder of how movies seduced the world back in the days before sound, much less computers, ruled the industry. It’s filmmaking stripped down to its essentials, and yet it’s sprinkled with the flair of a cinematic maestro.

Should win: Alexander Payne, who’s become a bard of contemporary American life. No other director has populated so many movies with such a rich tapestry of characters and such respect for the earth-shaking dramas of ordinary lives. Payne has a Shakespearean appetite for the complicated nature of human behavior and an internal GPS for locating the truth of a situation.