They're calling this the easiest Oscar race to predict in years. I'm still bracing for mild upsets.

With nine nominations each, it's the year of `The Hurt Locker' and `Avatar,' but don't cross off `Up in the Air' and `Inglourious Basterds' in the Best Picture category. New voting rules could turn these would-be's into winners.

This year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the Best Picture category from five to 10 films and changed the way members vote for the top movie. Using a weighted ballot, voters are listing the 10 films in order of preference instead of simply checking off their favorite single title. The process could dilute the votes and bump runners-up to the top. Still, a sense of the preordained persists. Here are my predictions.

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon, `Invictus'

Woody Harrelson, `The Messenger'

Christopher Plummer, `The Last Station'

Stanley Tucci, `The Lovely Bones'

Christoph Waltz, `Inglourious Basterds'

Who will win: Too easy. Waltz.

Who should win: Waltz. Quentin Tarantino consistently directs his actors to levels of untapped greatness, gives them juicy roles and shimmering lines. Waltz, an Austrian new to most Americans, absorbed the material molecularly. His cartoonish performance, fitting for a comic-book movie, conjured a villain as frighteningly convincing as Heath Ledger's Joker.

Best Picture

`Avatar'

`The Blind Side'

`District 9'

`An Education'

`The Hurt Locker'

`Inglourious Basterds'

`Precious'

`A Serious Man'

`Up'

`Up in the Air'

Who will win: In a nail-nibbling face-off, it's `Avatar' vs. `The Hurt Locker,' with long-shot potential for `Up in the Air' and (choke) `Inglourious Basterds.' `Avatar,' the quintessence of epic moviemaking, is printing money, won the best drama Golden Globe and changed how films are made. But `Locker' grabbed the bulk of year-end awards - including the critical directors and producers guilds honors - and tackles serious, timely themes. Also: No blue humanoids. If we must call it, `Locker' locks it.

Who should win: `The Hurt Locker.' The only flawless picture in the bunch found a way to recast the war film and shatter genre clichés.

Best Director

Kathryn Bigelow, `The Hurt Locker'

James Cameron, `Avatar'

Lee Daniels, `Precious'

Jason Reitman, `Up in the Air'

Quentin Tarantino, `Inglourious Basterds'

Who will win: Bigelow. She won the all-important Directors Guild award and, incidentally, made the best movie. That she's female is immaterial. Still, Hollywood might like to see a woman take the directing trophy. It would be an Academy Award first.

Who should win: Bigelow. Her pointillist control of action and performance, a feat of airtight precision, makes the other pictures look flabby. (It should also win the best editing award.)

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'

Who will win: As the sentimental, it's-about-time favorite, Bridges gets it. He luxuriated in the role of sozzled country singer Bad Blake, giving off fumes of the boozy and unbathed. And he sang. Hollywood loves Bridges, and he's earned laurels for the role to back him.

Who should win: I'm torn. Bridges is always brilliant, but I'm not sure how challenged he was by the rather obvious "Crazy Heart." "Locker's" Renner gave a scrappy-fierce turn as a renegade bomb dismantler that was varied, relentless and revelatory. I like things that go boom. Renner it is.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock, `The Blind Side'

Helen Mirren, `The Last Station'

Carey Mulligan, `An Education'

Gabourey Sidibe, `Precious'

Meryl Streep, `Julie & Julia'

Who will win: Bullock and Streep are almost neck in neck. Streep's Oscar streak even embarrasses her now, while Bullock has the Who-woulda-thunk? novelty behind her. In the nominees, I see at least three more interesting performances than hers, but Bullock's sassy southern mama will take it.

Who should win: Veterans Streep and Mirren can do no wrong and make it look easy. The young Mulligan and Sidibe are fascinating newcomers. There was something lovely and feral about Mirren's portrayal of Leo Tolstoy's long-suffering wife that sticks, so I pick Mirren.

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon, `Invictus'

Woody Harrelson, `The Messenger'

Christopher Plummer, `The Last Station'

Stanley Tucci, `The Lovely Bones'

Christoph Waltz, `Inglourious Basterds'

Who will win: Too easy. Waltz.

Who should win: Waltz. Quentin Tarantino consistently directs his actors to levels of untapped greatness, gives them juicy roles and shimmering lines. Waltz, an Austrian new to most Americans, absorbed the material molecularly. His cartoonish performance, fitting for a comic-book movie, conjured a villain as frighteningly convincing as Heath Ledger's Joker.

Best Supporting Actress

Penélope Cruz, `Nine'

Vera Farmiga, `Up in the Air'

Maggie Gyllenhaal, `Crazy Heart'

Anna Kendrick, `Up in the Air'

Mo'Nique, `Precious'

Who will win: Mo'Nique, slam-dunk. She's netted a load of awards for her abusive mother, a character so monstrously alive she made you nervous every time she was on screen. Later, she made you cry.

Who should win: Mo'Nique. Kendrick was terrific as the fresh-faced go-getter in "Up in the Air," but the role wasn't in the same class as Mo'Nique's lived-in realism.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649