From a king of royalty to a king of the Internet, an underdog boxer to a scary ballerina and a team of subconscious thieves to a gang of toys that’ll make you cry, the 2011 Academy Awards represent cinema at its finest. With 10 Best Picture nominees again, the films this year are more eclectic than ever, and it’s a battle between old-school and new-school as “The King’s Speech” dukes it out against “The Social Network” for the highest honor. Here are my top picks for the main categories, so place your bets and tune into ABC on Sunday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. to see the winners.
Best Picture Nominees
Top Pick: The Social Network – No other film in 2010 captured today’s society and culture better than “The Social Network.” So while the Academy typically loves classic Oscar fare like “The King’s Speech,” this generation-defining movie about Facebook’s creation is the most important and relevant film of the year, and looks to take home the top prize.
127 Hours – Spending the majority of its runtime with the main character trapped in a single spot by himself, “127 Hours” delivers a truly gripping ride about one man’s incredible will to survive.
Black Swan – Ballet is finally cool because of this beautiful yet terrifyingly intense psycho-thriller, following a ballerina striving for perfection as her world spins out of control.
The Fighter – This inspiring, all-American real-life story shows one boxer’s amazing struggle to not only overcome his opponents in the ring, but his overbearing family as well.
Inception – Even though it’s a summer action flick, the mind-bending, sci-fi heist thriller “Inception” offers an original, unparallelled cinematic experience that will stand as one of the most influential and awesome films of our time. This is the blockbuster of the future.
The Kids Are All Right – A portrait of a modern family where two lesbian parents and their teenage kids meet their sperm donor, this dramedy is both sweetly funny and profoundly true to life.
The King’s Speech – A traditional, crowd-pleasing period piece centered around the friendship between the stammering King George VI and his speech therapist, older audiences simply adore the rousing “The King’s Speech.” However, Oscar seems to lean more toward the modern communication problems of Mark Zuckerberg instead.
Toy Story 3 – If proof was ever needed that Pixar makes the most emotionally engaging movies around (animated or otherwise), then “Toy Story 3” is it, their best film yet and a perfect close to the series that started them off.
True Grit – The Coen brothers strike gold again in this update of the classic John Wayne western where a spunky young girl teams with a mean old marshal to hunt her father’s killer.
Winter’s Bone – This indie darling creates a superb sense of place in deep woods Missouri as a 17-year-old girl must find her drug-dealing father or her family will lose everything.
Top Pick: David Fincher for The Social Network
Fincher’s only worthy competitor in this category was “Inception” director Christopher Nolan, but with Nolan snubbed of even a nomination, Fincher’s got this in the bag. The Academy ignored Fincher’s master craftsmanship and perfection on 1995’s “Se7en” through all his films until “Benjamin Button” in 2008, so while this is only his second nomination, he’s long overdue for the Oscar. Thankfully, he’s being rewarded for a masterpiece that absolutely deserves it.
Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen for True Grit
Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech
David O. Russell for The Fighter
Top Pick: Colin Firth for The King’s Speech
Jeff Bridges beat Colin Firth in this category last year with an accentuated, bravado performance in “Crazy Heart,” while Firth gave a much subtler, but just as nuanced one in “A Single Man.” The tables have turned this time around, and now Firth has the more outstanding offering. His role and way of speaking required great skill and finesse to portray, and he produces an astounding representation of King George VI that’s a performance for the ages.
Javier Bardem for Biutiful
Jeff Bridges for True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg for The Social Network
James Franco for 127 Hours
Top Pick: Natalie Portman for Black Swan
Of all the performances this year, none transfixed viewers and got them lost in the world of the character like Natalie Portman did in the dazzling “Black Swan.” She trained in ballet for an entire year as part of the role, but what’s more impressive than how she pulled off the intensive dancing is her spellbinding transformation from a timid, sweet girl into a ferocious, lustful enchantress.
Annette Bening for The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone
Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine
Best Supporting Actor
Top Pick: Christian Bale for The Fighter
Despite how people may feel about his Batman growl, Christian Bale is an ardent method actor who completely devotes himself to his characters. Here, as a washed-up crack addict in the dysfunctional-family-from-hell, he’s a stunning revelation. Nothing like you’ve ever seen him before, Bale shines as a despicable yet endearing sibling, causing more trouble for than he does help his boxer brother. And the spot-on Boston accent is endlessly entertaining.
John Hawkes for Winter’s Bone
Jeremy Renner for The Town
Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush for The King’s Speech
Best Supporting Actress
Top Pick: Melissa Leo for The Fighter
Even though it’s a boxing film, the real action of “The Fighter” comes from the dynamic between the larger-than-life family members who never stop fighting each other. As the mother and head of the family, Melissa Leo exerts a fierce control over everyone else, and is by far the most intimidating person in the film. Instantly switching from caring supporter to the raging ringleader of her trashy daughters, Leo proves herself a force to be reckoned with.
Amy Adams for The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter for The King’s Speech
Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit
Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom
Watch a video roundtable with Alex Lamb and Jack Howland on the other Oscar categories here.
Four Staffers talk about who they think should have been nominated.