In tough times, people look to entertainment to escape the harsh realities of living in this economically and politically unstable world, which explains why "The Artist" and "Hugo" lead the nominations made by the 6,066 Academy Award voters.

Silent, black-and-white and made by French filmmakers as homage to early Hollywood, "The Artist" is the overwhelming favorite, and Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" is a fantasy about France's George Melies, the greatest moviemaker of the 1920s. Both are enchanting love letters to the cinema, reminding us that even in this technology-dominated era, we're not so far removed from the collective basics.

"Celebrate the movies in all of us" is this year's theme. Billy Crystal will open the Sunday night show with a fantasy containing all the nominated movies. Later, 50 Cirque du Soliel aerialists, acrobats and contortionists have created a unique, three-minute performance.

Curiously, among this year's Best Picture nominees, only "The Help," the civil-rights drama adapted from the best-selling novel, is a box-office hit, earning more than $100 million. But its chances of winning are diminished because it wasn't nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Only three films have ever won Best Picture without their directors being nominated, making "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," "The Help," "Moneyball" and "War Horse" problematic. So "The Artist" may be the first silent film to win since "Wings" (1929).

My prediction: "The Artist"

For Best Director, nominees are Michel Hazanavicius for "The Artist," Alexander Payne for "The Descendants," Martin Scorsese for "Hugo," Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris" and Terrence Malick for "The Tree of Life." Since Hazanavicius won the Directors Guild Award, along with the Producers Guild Award, he's undoubtedly the favorite.

My prediction: Michel Hazanavicius

For Best Actor, nominees are Demian Bichir for "A Better Life," George Clooney for "The Descendants," Jean Dujardin for "The Artist," Gary Oldman for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and Brad Pitt for "Moneyball." Significantly, Dujardin has been acclaimed by fellow actors, who make up the largest branch of the Academy, and every SAG winner has gone on to win Best Actor in the last seven years. As a foreigner with a sly wink, he evokes memories of Italian Roberto Begnini's 1998 dash to the podium. And acting-without-speaking has been golden before -- for Jane Wyman in "Johnny Belinda," Marlee Matlin in "Children of a Lesser God," "Holly Hunter in "The Piano" and Adrien Brody in "The Pianist." But never discount Clooney's popularity in Tinsel Town. He's garnered three Best Actor nominations in four years since he won Best Supporting Actor for "Syriana." So he could pull a surprise.

My prediction: Jean Dujardin

For Best Actress, nominees are Glenn Close for "Albert Nobbs," Viola Davis for "The Help," Rooney Mara for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady" and Michelle Williams for "My Week With Marilyn." It's a strong field but there are really only two contenders: Viola Davis, who won the Critics' Choice and SAG Award, and Meryl Streep, who won the Golden Globe. As America's greatest contemporary actress, Streep is a 17-time Oscar nominee and it's been 29 years since she won her first and only Best Actress for "Sophie's Choice," although she's won a Supporting Oscar for "Kramer vs. Kramer." Favoring Streep, in the past 12 years, an astounding 14 of the 24 lead acting awards have gone to actors who portrayed real, not fictional people. But Davis' revelatory performance anchored "The Help," which is a far better picture than "The Iron Lady."

My prediction: Viola Davis

For Best Supporting Actor, nominees are Kenneth Branagh for "My Week With Marilyn," Jonah Hill for "Moneyball," Nick Nolte for "Warrior," Christopher Plummer for "Beginners" and Max von Sydow for "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." This is a battle of the vets with young Jonah Hill facing old pros. At age 82, Plummer's already swept the Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG Awards.

My prediction: Christopher Plummer

For Best Supporting Actress, nominees are Berenice Bejo for "The Artist," Jessica Chastain for "The Help," Melissa McCarthy for "Bridesmaids," Janet McTeer for "Albert Nobbs" and Octovia Spencer for "The Help." Spencer's already won the Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG Awards.

My prediction: Octavia Spencer

For Best Editing, nominees are "The Artist," "The Descendants," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Hugo" and "Moneyball." Ever since this category was introduced in 1934, only nine movies have won Best Picture without at least being nominated for editing and Editing usually accompanies Best Picture.

My prediction: "The Artist"

For Best Cinematography, nominees are "The Artist," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "Hugo," "The Tree of Life" and "War Horse" -- all superb but "The Tree of Life" won the Guild Award.

My prediction: "The Tree of Life"

For Best Animated Feature, nominees are "A Cat in Paris," "Chico & Rita," "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Puss in Boots" and "Rango," which won the Annie Award as the animators' favorite. Why did Steven Spielberg's "Adventures of TinTin" lose out? Because it's in Motion Capture, a device that's never been popular within the industry.

My prediction: "Rango"

For Best Adapted Screenplay, nominees are writers of "The Descendants," "Hugo," "The Ides of March," "Moneyball" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

My prediction: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for "The Descendants"

For Best Original Screenplay, nominees are writers of "The Artist," "Bridesmaids," "Margin Call," "Midnight in Paris" and "A Separation." Although he's only attended the Oscars once and that was to pay tribute to New York after the 9/11 attacks, this is Allen's 22nd and 23rd nominations, bypassing Billy Wilder and setting a record as a seven-time double nominee for writing and directing on the same film.

My prediction: Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris"

For Best Foreign Language film, nominees are "Bullhead" (Belgium), "Footnote" (Israel), "In Darkness" (Poland), "Monsieur Lazhar (Canada) and "A Separation" (Iran).

My prediction: "A Separation"

For Art Direction, nominees are "The Artist," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," "Hugo," "Midnight in Paris" and "War Horse." What distinguishes "Hugo" is its marriage of 3-D technology with a story about the origins of cinema.

My prediction: "Hugo"

For Best Song, nominees are "Real in Rio" from "Rio" and "Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets." Due to their complicated voting system, the music branch ignored artists like Elton John, Madonna, Mary J. Blige and Sinead O'Connor.

My prediction: "Man or Muppet"

In the Best Documentary category, favorites, like "Project Nim," "Nostalgia for the Light," "Being Elmo," "Senna," "Into the Abyss" and "Buck" were ignored, leaving "Hell and Back Again," "If a Tree Falls," "Pina," "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" and "Undefeated."

Best Documentary Feature: "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"

In other categories, these are my picks:

Best Documentary (short subject): "God is the Bigger Elvis" about my friend Mother Dolores (a.k.a.: Dolores Hart) who left Hollywood to join the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT

Best Animated Short Film: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"

Best Live Action Short Film: "The Shore"

Best Visual Effects: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Best Costume Design: "The Artist"

Best Make-Up: "The Iron Lady"

Best Sound Mixing: "Hugo"

Best Sound Editing: "Hugo"

Best Original Score: "The Artist"