Best Picture — “Black Swan”

When director Darren Aronofsky set out to make a movie centered around the visual beauty that is the art of ballet dancing, who knew that he would actually expose us to one of the greatest psychological thrillers of all time? While all 10 of the Best Picture nominees definitely deserve the company of such a prestigious award, “Black Swan” stands out above the rest of its competition because it’s something new and refreshing that as an audience we haven’t been exposed to before. Aronofsky has managed to take the world of ballet and turn it on its head with Natalie Portman as our tour guide on this expedition into a place where dancing is not just a passion, but something that can consume you whole. Never have I sat through a movie and felt so intensely every emotion and every physical pain and weakness that the character on screen was emoting. “Black Swan” certainly crept its way into my psyche. Let’s just be grateful that none of us experienced the same metamorphosis that Portman’s character Nina Sayers does at the end of the movie, although I’m sure I came pretty close.

Best Actor — Colin Firth

For every woman who loves a man in a sweater, this moment has been a long time in coming — 16 years, to be exact. Ever since Colin Firth first donned the waistcoat of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in BBC’s miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice,” women have been dreaming about his sideburns and ruffled cravat.

All jokes aside, however, we really do love Colin Firth. Last year’s turn in “A Single Man” warranted a nod at the Oscars, and we challenge anyone to watch that film without being moved by his performance. This year he is back on the ballot, and his role in “The King’s Speech” is more than just brooding in a corner, giving off the occasional meaningful glance. He gave an exceptionally strong, and affecting, performance as England’s George VI — flawlessly transitioning between comedic and serious moments in the defining first years of the British monarch’s reign. Firth brings life to the story behind the headlines of history and puts a human face on the man who led his country through World War II. Firth does not just play the king — he is the king. He convincingly makes the audience believe that the king’s struggle with elocution is actually his own and completely embodies the role.

But let’s be honest, Firth is our pick for best actor in a leading role because no one else on Earth can make stammering look so damn sexy.

Best Supporting Actor — Christian Bale

This is the first Oscar nom for Welsh actor Christian Bale. When “The Fighter” was originally advertised, it seemed to be just another sports movie with a cliché formula. Audiences were quickly surprised. Bale’s dedication to the role was evident, from his Boston accent to his extreme weight loss. What was even more impressive, however, was his ability to make such a deplorable character into a lovable, and at times hilarious, one. Bale may be a newbie in the Oscar pool but he definitely knows how to hold his own.

Best Costume Design — “Alice in Wonderland”

Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” was a continuation of the original Disney animated movie “Alice in Wonderland.” It explored new adventures with the familiar characters, who look just a little different, that we all know from our childhood days. This movie, from the first preview, was known for its amazing costume design.

One glance at the transformed Johnny Depp or the enormously big head of Helena Bonham Carter is all it takes to see the amazing talent of Colleen Atwood, the film’s costume designer. She was able to take Johnny Depp, a world-famous actor, and turn him into a Mad Hatter that truly appears as if he was transported from another universe. She was able to take the character of the Red Queen and make her seem more powerful and terrifying than she had ever appeared before.

It takes a lot of people to make and sell a movie. But in a movie that is based in another world, where everything is supposed to be magical and wonderful, it takes a unique team of people, led by a person like Colleen Atwood, to transform regular people into these fantastic creatures.

Best Animated Film — “Toy Story 3”

Lee Unkrich’s “Toy Story 3” continued the story of Andy, who is now older and heading off to college. The film follows Andy’s toys as they end up in a corrupt day care center run by an evil teddy bear. “Toy Story 3” was not simply the completion of a Pixar trilogy, but the completion of a generation. So many people, especially today’s college students, grew up with Woody and Buzz, aging right along with Andy. Out of all the nominated animated films, Release unanimously votes this film to be the winner because no other movie can attempt to compete with such a classic. The coming of age and reality of growing up is a theme that can be identifiable to pretty much everyone, which is why it is the favorite to win the Oscar.

Best Actress — Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman may be the only actress in the history of Hollywood to garner not only a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award and an Oscar, but also a husband and a baby from one role in a single film. While her resulting real-life love story — the now pregnant Portman met her fiancee, film choreographer Benjamin Millepied, on the set — may overshadow her actual performance in the media, make no mistake that Portman’s portrayal of Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” was a brilliant one.

The Harvard-educated actress plays a professional ballerina struggling with her desire for perfection and the glaring competition with the understudy for her role, all while battling her personal psychological demons. The contrast between the characteristics of the typical graceful ballerina and the typical delusional psychopath are striking, but Portman switches from one persona to the other in a seemingly effortless fashion while allowing viewers to sympathize with a character that embodies both the protagonist and the antagonist in the film. For a role that took 10 years of intensive physical and psychological preparation, and was executed with all the precision and skill of a performance of “Swan Lake,” Natalie Portman should, and likely will, win the Oscar.

Best Supporting Actress — Melissa Leo

Leo played Alice Ward, the mother and manager of boxers Micky and Dicky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. Leo isn’t much older than Wahlberg and Bale, which is shocking because of how well she was presented for the age she was portraying — not only in her costume appearance, but also in her actions, voice, mannerisms and behavior. She so perfectly melted into character. Watching her act during the movie felt like more of a home movie than a feature film.

Leo so flawlessly molded into character it was almost too real. The way she tied her mannerisms into what she was saying and doing proves her exceptional talent. “That’s probably the biggest secret of acting: If the actor believes it themselves, they can make you believe it,” Leo told NPR. This is exactly what she did.

Best Director — David Fincher

David Fincher has previously been the man behind the camera of box office hits like “Se7en,” “Fight Club” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The talented director may finally win Oscar gold with his latest film, “The Social Network.” Fincher has already secured the Golden Globe award in the category, as well as the BAFTA — the British equivalent of the Academy Awards — David Lean Award for Achievement in Direction, so it is only logical to assume that a win is expected on Oscar night. One of Hollywood’s most elite directors, Fincher is long overdue for his Oscar fame. He has only been nominated once before, in 2009 for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” He lost out that year to “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle, but with the buzz and critical acclaim surrounding his work on this year’s Facebook biopic, 2011 is looking far more promising.