It’s Oscar time and America’s primed for Sunday. Folks have checked the gossip blogs and movie sites, studied Oprah’s Academy Award special and saturated themselves in cable television’s pre-coverage. In the wee hours of Monday morning, we’ll be Tweeting; on the subway, chatting in break rooms, beauty shops and kitchens, we’ll be yapping and debating.

The hype is that 2010 is somehow different. Despite the fact that the traditional old white guy—in this case two, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin—will host. Here, indie films, “non-traditional” flicks, and re-invented actors are in the hunt.

For example, 10 movies are nominated for best picture rather than five. Avatar portends that we don’t need human actors at all and managed to make $2 billion. An Education and The Hurt Locker are superbly-acted by human beings, yet made hardly any money. One film features an obese, mentally disabled African-American child-mother; in another, aliens channel Nat Turner. Two movies popular with “regular folks”— The Blind Side and the animated Up—would have never been considered before this year.

So let’s make a few sample predictions. Who’ll win, then who should win. We’ll see how this year it’s the same ol’ Oscar drama, and not some new enlightened age. Let’s start with Mo’Nique

Best Supporting Actress
Who’ll win: Penelope Cruz for Nine
Who should win: Mo’Nique Precious

Here’s why: Never mind Mo’Nique sweeping other awards. Never mind the way white folks love films about black pathology (think Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball and Denzel Washington in Training Day). We’ve heard about the so-called “whisper campaigns” in Hollywood, and Mo’Nique will be victimized by the same. Recall how Denzel and The Hurricane sank, or how Mickey Rourke and Marissa Tomei accumulated armfuls of awards for The Wrestler, but were left empty-handed on Oscar night.

The Hurt Locker’s competition has apparently nudged groups of Iraq War vets to question that film’s veracity. Entertainment Weekly, as well as Hollywood pundit Peter Bart, have opined that Paramount (which produced the flop and early Oscar bait Nine) and other huge outfits urged their folks to vote in blocs against all competition, especially Mo’Nique. Tyler Perry and Oprah, despite their clout, are no match for that, and neither is Lionsgate, which produced Precious. While many critics and audiences are mesmerized by Mo’Nique’s raw, passionate performance, more influential mavens like Armond White of the New York Film Critics Circle don’t think she’s deserving of an Oscar. Serendipity is always an ally of nominees like Mo’Nique (or now Sandra Bullock); pundits like Bart think Mo’Nique’s wins have, ironically, canceled out that factor.

Moreover, Mo’Nique hasn’t helped herself with stodgy voters and “bourgie” audiences. Rather than mimic Queen Latifah’s strategic branding for Hollywood, her product it that of coarse stand-up comic whose usual acting jobs are in low-brow, even “bamma” movies. Her talk show matches that brand. She refers to not shaving her legs, and chronicles the often strange manager-spouse relationship she has with Sidney Hicks. Never mind that many white Academy Award nominees have sprung from low-brow comedy. Her honesty and “total entertainment” package is something black audiences rightfully laud, but it might not be “pure” enough for the culture of Oscar voters. Mo’Nique’s hope for that statue rests not on past wins or the passion of her fans, but on Vera Famiga and Anna Kendrick stealing enough votes from Cruz and Gyllenhaal. Maybe losing will be a good thing. Did winning help Cuba Gooding?

Best Picture
What’ll win: Avatar
What should win: Up or The Hurt Locker

Here’s why: Avatar’s bigger than Titanic. Enough said. James Cameron’s been very good to Hollywood, despite the fact that his technology might make human actors obsolete. Art will be rewarded in the Best Director category, where The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow will edge out Cameron and Jason Reitman (both of whom are the industry’s “insider boys”) as well as Tarantino. Again, it’s about politics and compromise. The Coens won last year for No Country for Old Men, so forget A Serious Man. An Education is too artsy even in this “let’s embrace indie film” hyped universe. Up in the Air is typical studio fare dressed up as something fresh and indie. It’s a threat to Avatar but won’t win. Neither is Inglorious Basterds the David to Avatar’s Goliath. Basterds is a feast, but it also might split votes with Up in the Air for the more hip folks, and just too “out there” for old-school voters. This is despite Hollywood’s strange affection for Tarantino, and Harvey Weinstein’s supposed politicking and lobbying. Precious is simply up against too much competition. Some trivia: originally Tarantino paid homage to the original 70s grindhouse/pulp film by keeping the black G.I.’s in the Basterd commandos, as victims of Jim Crow seeking blood and heroism fighting alongside the Jews. He cut them from script. The nod to black folks, if at all, will be Mo’Nique (or The Princess and the Frog as our last stand!).

The other “black” film—this one metaphorically speaking—is District 9. “Real” aliens star, as opposed to blue, computer generated ones, and we see allegorical issues of race, power and poverty that are a bit too deep for many voters. Although the film did well at the box office, the simpler themes of Avatar, which many social critics have labeled a hi-tech Tarzan movie, will prevail. Likewise, The Blind Side featured a similar “white person as savior/ magic Negro” formula. It was popular with women—sisters and even the Sarah Palin crowd. Other soap opera-ish feel good films have been nominated in the past and have never won. Neither will The Blind Side. Up, is a cartoon, yes. But it’s intelligent, joyful—and presents themes of true “hope” and “change” in this mean world. We need escape to our own sense of wonder, it tells us, rather than escapist entertainment. But that’s just not Hollywood.

Best Actress
Who’ll win: Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Who should win: Gabourey Sibide Precious or Carey Mulligan An Education

Here’s why: Bookies favor Sandra Bullock. Again, audiences and critics alike love a white person transfixed by a simple (or even simple-minded) magic Negro, a term minted by black film scholar Donald Bogle. They also love comeback performances of American sweethearts. They portrayals of real-life, feisty blue collar women in tight capris and wedge sandals. Julia Roberts won for Erin Brockovich, so shall Sandra take that mantle? No. Meryl Streep is too well loved, Julie & Julia was a hit with the traditional crowd of both audiences and critics/peers—and here Oscar bloc-voting might rob Sandy. And then there’s the lost serendipity factor. Ask the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints what it means to be the mighty favorite versus underdog. Sandy’s hope is that Helen Mirren, who already won for The Queen, will steal Streep’s votes. It all fits the typical model of Oscar drama. Hollywood, and the American female acting corps, needs something atypical, and Mulligan and Sibide are about as anti-talentless slut/waif as one can get. They should be the future, not Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep 2.0.

Best Actor
Who’ll Win: George Clooney in Up in the Air
Who should win: Colin Firth A Single Man or Jeremy Renner The Hurt Locker

Here’s why: It’s similar to the same ol’ Oscar drama and politicking explained in the best actress prediction. Jeff Bridges is the odds-made and sentimental favorite, even more so than Bullock, is Jeff Bridges. But voting blocs, insider influence and politicking will make Clooney’s the upset of the night. Clooney, like Streep, is adored by critics, audiences and Oscar voters. Always bet on George. Morgan Freeman has made a career out of playing the safe, sage elderly black men. If Invictus was just about Nelson Mandela instead of rugby, perhaps more black folks would be pulling for him. Indeed, the best actor category is like a battle among dinosaurs while the mammals who will inherit the earth, scurry at their feet. Oprah may have showcased Jeff Bridges but she openly embraced Colin Firth’s performance in A Single Man. There is also a big gay factor in Oscar voting; given A Single Man’s subject matter and that is was directed by Gucci designer-turned-director Tom Ford, Firth is a contender. He’s at the top of craft and shows more Brit range than Americans Clooney and Bridges. Renner has been an amazing character actor since Dahmer. The Hurt Locker is the best Iraq movie among mostly liberal duds. It’s the twenty-first century’s Red Badge of Courage. Renner’s portrayal captures the spirit of a real American soldier: not frat boy swag or either liberal or wingnut clichés, but rather quiet anguish competing with determination, bravery and hope. He should win on that basis alone.

Best Supporting Actor
Who’ll win: Christoph Waltz Inglourious Basterds
Who should win: Christopher Plummer The Last Station

Here’s why: Waltz plays a seductive, venomous fantasy Nazi. So? Bruno Ganz’s very real, very human portrayal of Adolph Hitler in Downfall, which won best foreign film is 2004, beats the fantasy seig heils-down! Plummer’s been among Hollywood’s elite since he was Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music; he conveys the essence of another real person—Leo Tolstoy in decline—with a subtle touch no one in his category can match. Certainly not Waltz or Matt Damon. Possibly Woody Harrelson. But Woody Harrelson—Oscar material? Come on. It’s no wonder that older, more seasoned actors usually win this category. Unfortunately, not this year. That’s the only atypical item for 2010.

Best of the Rest
Who’ll win:
Best Director—Karyn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Original Screenplay—Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Animated FeatureUp (thus black folks will be blanked out again—nothing new here)
Foreign FilmA Prophet
Song—The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart
Documentary (long)—The Cove (the save-the-dolphin flick)
Costume DesignNine
Make upStar Trek
All of these are the safe bets.

Hype is dangerous because it not only gets us to buy into lies, image, puffery, but also coaxes us in to talking about the lie, image, puffery once we wake up to them, Monday morning, to yap, debate, crow or eat crow. Yes, the same ol’, same ol’.