By Kit Bowen

Never have I’ve seen a Best Picture race be so (pardon the pun) up in the air.

It all started with the decision to do the whole 10 nominees thing. It’s fair to say most prognosticators, at this point, think this was probably one of the lamest moves the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences has ever made. I, on the other hand, still sort of like the idea of giving more films a chance. But this thinking may have backfired overall since the voters now have TOO many choices, especially with the new confusing system of voting for Best Pic, in which the voters rank the films one through 10. I’m not sure I get it – and I can bet most of the Academy voters don’t either.

So. That leaves the big hanging question: Which film is going to walk away with the prize? If you’ve been following the AwardPicks’ experts, myself included, you’ll know it’s basically down to three films: Avatar, Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker. Before we get into the grit on those three, however, let’s applaud the other nominees.

If these were the old days with just five nominees, then Up in the Air would have joined the three above without question. The delightful dramedy about life, love and the pursuit of air mileage points had a surge of frontrunner-ness when it first came out but has now faded into fourth position. Rounding out the top five would have most likely been the indie Precious, the gritty well-crafted film about a teenage girl’s fervent desire to escape her abusive reality.

The other five nominees give a nice, well-rounded view of the best of 2009. There’s the feel-good crowd-pleasing sports weepie The Blind Side, which surprised many when it made the list because of its TV movie-of-the-week subject matter, but holds up just the same. There’s the summer biggie District 9, which combines sci-fi action with social commentary in a highly charged, visual way. There’s Up, which certainly was one of the best of  ‘09 and will certainly win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature – but making the top 10 is just the Academy’s way of saying, “Yes, a Pixar movie CAN be a Best Picture nominee.” There’s An Education, which represents the British film contingency, a film about a young girl in London’s swinging ‘60s who discovers herself. And finally, A Serious Man, the Coen brothers semi-autobiographical black comedy about a 1970s Jewish, Midwestern college professor who’s got a lot on his plate.

Now we get to the top three choices. Proponents for Avatar say it should win for James Cameron’s sheer effort and vision. The story is a tad weak, yes, but the visual wonderment makes up for any shortcomings. Plus, its moniker as the highest grossing film of all time doesn’t hurt. Certainly didn’t hurt Best Pic winner Titanic.

Followers of The Hurt Locker say it has the edge because of its well-crafted, teeth-clenching war action combined with some superb acting. It’s got Kathryn Bigelow, who will most likely win for Best Director – and, its the critics’ favorite, hands down, winning almost all of the smaller awards.

Lastly, the pros for Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish-revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds: glorious Tarantino-isms; long, lingering and simmering scenes; razor-sharp dialogue; and Harvey Weinstein, who is marketing the hell out of this thing, just like he did for surprise Best Pic winner Shakespeare in Love. His only disadvantage this time is that Basterds wasn’t as huge a box office hit as Shakespeare.

L.A Times’ The Envelope has published three anonymous ballots, in which two voters picked Basterds, while the other picked Avatar, and Entertainment Weekly got a hold of four ballots, in which three anonymous voters picked Avatar and one picked The Hurt Locker. Quite a conundrum, indeed. If you asked me three months ago, I would have gone with Basterds all the way. The subject matter alone would have sold it to the voters, in my opinion. But now, I’m siding with Avatar, simply because of its pedigree and contribution to the future of filmmaking.

If one of the other two win, however, I won’t be disappointed – just sad to have lost my $10.00.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!