2010 will be remembered as the year when the Academy Awards went “back to the future.” For the first time since 1943, the nominees for Best Picture have been expanded from the usual five to a field of ten. The hope was to include more movies that people actually went to see in order to boost slumping ratings for the live television broadcast. It will definitely help that half of the film finalists went over the hundred million dollar mark at box offices (AVATAR, THE BLIND SIDE, DISTRICT 9, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, UP) with one being the HIGHEST GROSSING MOVIE… EVER.

My suggestions to improve the telecast include getting rid of the pre-event “red carpet” interviews since most of those “journalists” sound like dopes. While we’re at it, let’s lose the pointless, glitzy “Hooray for Hollywood” dance routines as well as the humanitarian and lifetime achievement awards since they just go to old, way past-their-prime actors/filmmakers who never won a “real” Oscar. Don’t even get me started on the Best Song nominees. However, let’s keep the “tribute to dead guys” because that’s sort of moving. And could we make sure, for once, that the presenters for Best Foreign Language Film can actually pronounce the names of the nominees and their artists without sounding like provincial illiterates? I can’t say with certainty that these “improvements” will increase viewership but it’ll definitely streamline a consistently overlong program that’s been known to violate curfew laws in Pharr.THE ENVELOPE PLEASE…

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: It isn’t often that the previous year’s winner in the same category has a chance to repeat but that’s exactly what NINE’s Penelope Cruz (whom Oscar pollsters adore) could do if she were to triumph. But her nomination and CRAZY HEART’s Maggie Gyllenhaal’s came as mild surprises so they’ll wind up in the “we’re just glad to be here” mode. UP IN THE AIR’s Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick will split what votes they get. Oh, who are we kidding here? Lowbrow comedienne Mo’Nique has won every pre-Oscar prize in sight for her “hateful in one scene, pathetic in another” turn as the title character’s welfare cheating mother in PRECIOUS. On Sunday night, she’ll add one more to her trophy case.AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO… Mo’Nique, PRECIOUS

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Not so far back, villains not only got no love from the Academy they were positively ignored. That changed two years ago when Javier Bardem’s psychopath with a bad haircut won for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) and continued when the late Heath Ledger’s Joker was recognized last year for THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Since Christoph Waltz’s presence as SS Nazi colonel Hans Landa in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS brought out the best in Quentin Tarantino’s stylish dialogue, I’m betting that he’ll continue this not-so-long standing tradition of bad guys doing good. Even though I still have issues with the film’s rewriting of World War II history, I’d be more than willing to watch the opening scene again where Waltz interrogates a French farmer he knows is hiding Jews on his property and goes into a discourse about how rats and squirrels elicit polar opposite reactions even though they’re basically the same animal.AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO… Christoph Waltz, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

BEST ACTRESS: I admit to having been blindsided by the THE BLIND SIDE making the final cut for Best Picture. Don’t misunderstand me because I thoroughly enjoyed the movie as did nearly everyone I know who saw it. But I didn’t come out of it thinking that it was Best Picture material. The sole reason that it attained its lofty status is Sandra Bullock’s crowd-pleasing role as the adoptive mom of current NFL star Michael Oher. This race has been touted as a competition between JULIE & JULIA’s Meryl Streep a.k.a. the greatest actress on the planet and Bullock. But Streep is a two-time victor and this is her record-breaking sixteenth nod. To score a third statuette, she’ll have to either be “Jessica Tandy old” or give “THE GREATEST PERFORMANCE… EVER.” Besides, Streep’s movie isn’t up for Oscar’s “primo” award and Bullock’s is. If there is a dark horse here, I think it’s Audrey Hepburn clone Carey Mulligan for AN EDUCATION which IS in the mix for Best Picture. But to quote Bradley Cooper from THE HANGOVER (2009), “That’s just not going to happen.”AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO… Sandra Bullock, THE BLIND SIDE

BEST ACTOR: Spencer Tracy once told Burt Reynolds that “acting is easy if nobody ever catches you doing it.” Throughout a lengthy career, Jeff Bridges has never resorted to either affectations or mannerisms to make his varied characters distinct. He’s the kind of actor who’s interesting to watch even if the movie he’s in is really crappy. Looking like a cross between Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, Bridges’ alcoholic, broken-down country singer/songwriter in CRAZY HEART is convincing enough to make you believe that he once had the talent to be famous along with the self-destructive nature to throw it all away. Had THE HURT LOCKER’s Jeremy Renner sung a few strains of Toby Keith or Willie Nelson while he was defusing IEDs in Iraq, he might have something of an outside shot here. But after four previous nomination losses, Bridges will be singing a different tune this time around.AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO… Jeff Bridges, CRAZY HEART

BEST DIRECTOR: There’s a very simple reason that my forecast in this bracket has never missed. I check first to see who the winner of the Director’s Guild of America Award is because its recipient has failed only six times in sixty something years to capture the Oscar later on. I don’t see that changing this Sunday and that bodes well for DGA champion Kathryn Bigelow for THE HURT LOCKER. If it occurs, Bigelow will break tradition by being the first woman ever to win in the category.AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO… Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER

BEST PICTURE: In the interest of accuracy and brevity, this contest ought to be called “AVATAR, THE HURT LOCKER and everybody else.” My first thought was that since Bigelow and AVATAR filmmaker James Cameron are ex-spouses that Academy voters would go into a “community property mindset” and make the former Best Director while the latter would get the big prize for the top movie. What’s changing my mind is AVATAR’s having been shut out at the Director’s, Producer’s and Writer’s Guild Awards. History dictates that you have to win one of these to come out on top for Oscar’s Best Picture and THE HURT LOCKER wound up with the first two prizes. For those of you who don’t want to stay up late to see who wins here, I suggest you not go to the bathroom when the gold statuette is handed out for Best Film Editing. Trust me when I say that the winning film in this category will be the Best Picture at the end of the evening.AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO… THE HURT LOCKER

MY OTHER FEARLESS OSCAR PREDICTIONS

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: UP IN THE AIR

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: UP

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: THE COVE

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: THE WHITE RIBBON (GERMANY)

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: AVATAR (DUH!)

Watch the 81st Annual Academy Awards this Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. on television station KRGV (ABC).