Dec. 2, 2009 -- There could be plenty of fresh faces mixed in with the Hollywood veterans at next year's Academy Awards as the buzz builds for the 2010 Oscars.
That would put them in the company of perennial favorite Meryl Streep, who could earn her record 16th nomination for her performance as Julia Child in "Julie & Julia," and Jeff Bridges, who could finally win a trophy after four nods, for his role as a washed-up country singer in "Crazy Heart."
Despite some very good performances, critics aren't exactly cheering this year in film.
"I don't feel like it's been a spectacularly strong year in movies," New York Times critic A.O. Scott told ABCNews.com. "It kind of feels like the really exciting movies are fewer and farther between."
Despite one of the sparser years in film, the Academy decided to double the best picture nominees from five to 10.
"The Academy may be in the middle of an identity crisis," Scott said. "It's trying to figure out a way to get ratings for the broadcast and somehow reconnect with the broad mainstream audience."
More slots will likely make for a more interesting race for the top prize.
"It opens it up at both ends, for some of the more commercial movies and maybe some smaller and animated movies," Scott said.
Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, who co-hosts the syndicated show "At the Movies" with Scott, thinks the George Clooney-helmed film "Up in the Air" has gotten so much buzz because of the slim pickings in film this year.
"I think this is why people are responding as crazily to 'Up in the Air,' because there haven't been that many satisfying commercial Hollywood products to come off this year," Phillips told ABCNews.com. "It basically works, it's slight but appealing, now suddenly people are talking Oscar nomination."
Scott was warmer toward the film.
"It's a movie that speaks to the moment," he said. "When I was watching it, I thought of when people watch Frank Capra movies to see what life was like during the depression. Well this is a film for now, during this moment of financial anxiety."
Oscar Buzz: Which Stars and Which Films Are Getting It?
Entertainment Weekly senior writer Dave Karger agreed.
"I give the edge to 'Up in the Air," he told ABCNews.com. "It's a movie all the critics love. It has a Hollywood gloss to it. It also has something important to say. And that's an irresistible combination."
The film could earn nods for co-star Anna Kendricks and writer-director Jason Reitman ("Juno"), who "has a very light touch about serious things," according to Scott.
Here are some of the other films and stars generating Oscar buzz this year:
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"
This gritty urban drama directed by Lee Daniels ("Monster's Ball") and produced by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey has been getting buzz since it premiered at Sundance.
"'Precious' is the first one out of the gate," Scott said. "It has a lot of momentum."
Surprise co-star Mariah Carey could earn her first nod for best supporting actress for her role as a social worker, as could newcomer Sidibe, who plays the title role of Claireece "Precious" Jones, an obese illiterate Harlem teen who is abused by her mother and raped by her father, who has impregnated her for the second time.
"The acting branch doesn't always acknowledge newcomers, but I think Gabourey is terrific," Scott said. "It is Gabourey who holds the picture together."
But it is comedian Mo'Nique who is being widely touted as a serious contender for best supporting actress for her dark, brutal portrait of Precious' abusive mother.
"I think Mo'Nique has an amazing chance," said Karger. "Everyone is blown away by her performance. As villainous as she is, she has an amazing scene with Mariah Carey near the end that almost makes you feel sorry for her. It was an amazing feat able to pull off."
Many critics felt the Disney-Pixar animated feature "Wall-E" deserved to be among the 2009 best picture nominees.
Now Disney-Pixar has a new offering, the animated feature "Up," about an old man who lives out his wife's dream and finds adventure along the way. With the expanded best picture category, many critics think "Up" is a shoo-in for a nod.
"To me, the most interesting challenge for the Academy has been to get them to rethink the so-called animation ghetto of the 'best animated feature," Phillips said. "Frankly 'Up' is almost too good to be in that category. A movie like 'Up' damn well deserves to be one of the 10 (best pictures)."
Could it finally be Jeff Bridges' year?
In "Crazy Heart," Bridges plays a country singer who has gone through five wives and boozed away all his money. He also does his own singing, something Oscar voters love. Remember Sissy Spacek, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Duvall all sang their ways to a statue?
Bridges is the one critics can't wait to see.
"There is no actor who I would rather watch," Scott said, "Even when his movies are not that great, he's always consistently good, often underrated. He's been doing it 40 years."
Phillips agrees. "He's clearly a strong contender."
"The phrase 'role of a lifetime' gets overused," said Karger, who has seen the film. "But in Jeff Bridges' case, it really applies."
Karger said Bridges could be competing againstColin Firth, who plays a gay English professor reeling after his partner's death in "A Single Man," and Clooney, who plays a corporate downsizer in "Up in the Air."
For Firth, it would be his first nomination; for Clooney, it could be his first win in the best actor category; and for Jeff Bridges, it could be the clincher to his career after getting his first nomination 40 years ago.
Newcomer Carey Mulligan stars as a teenage girl who falls under the spell of an older never-do-well (Peter Sarsgaard) in this 1960s drama.
Mulligan is winning raves.
"I love it, I love her," Phillips said. "She's going to be around for decades. She's probably as good as Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren."
Though Scott is cooler on the film, he still likes Mulligan.
"She is very good, and think it's case where the movie wouldn't work without that performance," he said.
Karger thinks Mulligan and Sidibe will be competing against Streep in the best actress category. "It will be a race between the veterans and the rookies, the most nominated performer ever against two young upstarts."
"The Hurt Locker"
It may have been overlooked when it was released in the summer, but "The Hurt Locker," directed by Kathryn Bigelow about an Iraq bomb squad, is still on a lot of critics' best picture lists.
"I would be surprised if it wouldn't be in a field of 10," Scott said. "The more people who see that movie, the more impressed they are."
Karger said "The Hurt Locker," along with "Precious" and "Up in the Air," are the only films to be earning unanimous praise. The rest, including "Nine," "The Lovely Bones" and "Invictus," have as many detractors as fans, he said.
"'The Hurt Locker" is well regarded by just about everybody," Phillips said. "It's been way too long since a female director has been recognized. Gender issues aside, it's a really astute and gripping war film, without being wishy-washy. It's the first film about this conflict that manages to avoid polemics and intrigue audiences all along the political spectrum."
Quentin Tarantino's WWII film got mixed reviews, but nearly every critic agrees that Christoph Waltz's role as a villain who exudes evil in four different languages is worthy of a best supporting actor nod.
Karger calls him the frontrunner in a potential field of never-been nominated contenders, including Stanley Tucci for "The Lovely Bones," Alfred Molina in "An Education" and Christopher Plummer, who at nearly 80, could get his first nod for playing Tolstoy in "The Last Station."
"Julie & Julia"
"You can't have an Oscar season without Meryl Streep," Scott said.
Streep is at the top of her game, and with "Devil Wears Prada," "Mama Mia" and "Julie & Julia" she's also had a string of recent hits, Scott said.
"She's shown herself to be an amazingly good comic actress," he said. "You get the sense that without compromising, she's just having fun."