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I have serious movie-going friends who profess less interest in the Annual Academy Award ceremonies than watching paint dry. They decry the Oscars as an empty popularity contest concentrating on a handful of high-profile, relatively safe films. There are reasons for their contempt. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has landed screenplay nominations (but so far no wins) for three of the most arrestingly original films ever made: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but none was nominated for Best Picture. David Lynch's outre Blue Velvet went without a Best Picture nomination, too. If you're not the same, you're not in the game -- make that the same language, too. Few foreign language films even get nominated for Best Picture. None win.

My nay-saying friends also gripe that "small, character-oriented" films are expected to settle for supporting player and screenplay nominations, no matter how moving and well-wrought. Last year, for instance, Peter Hedges' Pieces of April was recognized only for Patricia Clarkson's supporting performance while Thomas McCarthy's The Station Agent was shut out. And how, my friends demand, can you take seriously an awards competition that has never managed to find a Best Actor nod for the likes of Cary Grant, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton and Albert Finney but voted awards for Ernest Borgnine, Art Carney and Broderick Crawford.

To all of this and sundry other complaints, I concede my friends are, of course, entirely right. But the show goes on, and as always, I'll be watching, handicapping the race as follows:

Best Picture nominees: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, Ray and Sideways. Who will win: Million Dollar Baby will overtake The Aviator and hold off Ray. The other two will be expected to be pleased with their nominations. What should win: The Aviator. What should have been nominated that wasn't: Hotel Rwanda and Eternal Sunshine.

Best Actor nominees: Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda; Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland; Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator; Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby; Jamie Foxx, Ray. Who will win: In a very strong category, it's neck and neck between Clint and Jamie, with the former getting a career award by a nose. Who should win: Cheadle by a nose over Foxx. Who's missing: Paul Giamatti for Sideways; Jim Carrey (yes! Jim Carrey) for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Best Actress nominees: Annette Benning, Being Julia; Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace; Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake; Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby; Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Who will win: Probably the safest bet of the night is to put your money on Swank. She's up against strong performances but the only thing holding her back is her earlier win for Boys Don't Cry. Who should win: I could make strong cases for both Staunton and Winslet, but I would have voted for Swank. Who's missing: It says something about the number of quality female roles that no one comes to mind. If forced to name a sub, I'd nominate Isabelle Adjani for Bon Voyage and Charlize Theron for Head in the Clouds.

Supporting Actor nominees: Alan Alda, The Aviator; Thomas Haden Church, Sideways; Jamie Foxx, Collateral; Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby; Clive Owen, Closer. Who will win: Upsets are common in this category, which, I suppose, gives Church a chance. I see the race as going to Freeman unless voters give it to Foxx as a consolation prize for giving best actor to Clint. Who should win: Freeman. Who is missing: Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland.

Supporting Actress nominees: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Laura Linney, Kinsey; Virgina Madsen, Sideways; Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda; and Natalie Portman, Closer. Who will win: This will be the night's most open category with all contestants in the race. If there's a favorite, it's probably Blanchett, who won the Screen Actors Guild award for this performance. Portman won the Golden Globe, but amateur voters should take into consideration that the Screen Actors Guild didn't even nominate her. Who should win: Hands down, Natalie Portman. And the last person who should win is Blanchett, whose impersonation of Katharine Hepburn brought all her scenes to a screeching halt. Who is missing: Kate Beckinsale, The Aviator; Cloris Leachman, Spanglish; Regina King, Ray.

Best Director nominees: Clint Eastwood, The Aviator; Taylor Hackford, Ray; Mike Leigh, Vera Drake; Alexander Payne, Sideways; Martin Scorsese, The Aviator. Who will win: A contest between Eastwood and Scorsese with Clint possessing the late momentum. Who should win: I have sentimental feelings about every nominee here, but I'd vote for Hackford. Who's missing: Marc Forster, Finding Neverland; Terry George, Hotel Rwanda. Other categories: Original Screenplay: I think Charlie Kaufman could finally claim his Oscar for Eternal Sunshine shared with Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth. Adapted screenplay ought to go to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor for Sideways and ought not to go to Paul Haggis for Million Dollar Baby, who may win it anyway. And with Fahrenheit 9/11 not even nominated, I can't take the documentary category seriously.

click to enlarge Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby will probably nudge out The Aviator for Best Picture.
  • Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby will probably nudge out The Aviator for Best Picture.
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