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Solid Gold 

At 76 years and counting, Oscar's got his second wind. Maybe it's the piracy scare that significantly altered the way the studios beg and borrow votes for big films, maybe it was just a better movie year or maybe it's the newly compressed awards show season, but this year's Academy Awards are giving off a decidedly different whiff and it smells a whole lot like a breath of fresh air.

Look at the nomination roster -- no Jack, no Nicole, new faces, familiar risk takers, foreign films all over the place, quality performances and production values, blockbusters with bite mixed with smaller, savvier fare. Comment étrange! Sure, the Academy didn't get everything right, but who really cares when it ignored Cold Mountain for the bigger awards, a move widely perceived to be nothing less than the Academy giving Harvey Weinstein the gold finger?

With a gift like that, the awards are almost secondary. But only almost. Last year's ceremony was so full of surprises that it's no leap to say that Feb. 29's could be as well. Here's what I think might happen:

Best Picture: It's nigh impossible to imagine the Academy letting the Lord of the Rings trilogy pass into film history unaccompanied by a golden statuette; it is one of the most ambitious -- and successful -- acts of movie madness ever perpetuated. So even though the third installment moved like mud and was weaker than Sam after the elven bread ran out, LOTR looks like the winner. And that's OK, although it will be sad to see what was probably the year's best Best Picture nominee, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, going out with the tide. The only picture missing from the Academy roundup is The Last Samurai, a gloriously staged epic whose many strengths were perhaps eclipsed by the minty fresh smile of its star Tom Cruise.

Best Director: In all likelihood, Hollywood will rob one Peter to pay ... another Peter. If voters are feeling as generous to the hobbits as they seem to be, LOTR's Peter Jackson will most probably take this one, too. Again, it's hard to argue against his preternatural artistic vision, his otherworldly stamina and his ability to get the job done right. Since Sofia Coppola has plenty of time and Mystic River has too many flaws, the only one who will truly suffer if Jackson wins is poor Peter Weir, whose Master and Commander is a near-masterpiece, quietly impressive and technically brilliant.

Best Actor: As lovely -- and fitting -- as it is to have Johnny Depp's delicious Capt. Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) in play, there is very little competition here. Bill Murray's angst in Lost in Translation is overrated enough to have a shot, but Sean Penn's performance as a grieving, raging father in Mystic River is a stunning reminder of why acting awards are handed out in the first place. The film's screenplay may not always make sense, but Penn's eyes never lie.

Best Actress: Diane Keaton (Something's Gotta Give) could be a sentimental favorite, and she's done all right on the awards circuit so far. But so has Charlize Theron, who thumbed her nose at the glamour gods for a turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster and was rewarded with a Golden Globe. The Academy's got a tough one here -- they love to honor one of their own almost as much as they relish plucking a starlet from relative obscurity. Ultimately, Hollywood's faith in its own sense of discovery -- and a collective self-congratulatory bent -- gives Theron a well-deserved advantage.

Best Supporting Actor: Baldwin's back, baby, and he's absolutely grand in The Cooler. But his wicked, melancholy casino boss just isn't enough to get in on the action. Tim Robbins (Mystic River) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) are in a two-man race. Robbins' showier man-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown will win; Watanabe's dignified dinosaur probably should.

Best Supporting Actress: Pushed from the spotlight last year by fellow Chicagoan Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger is the odds-on favorite for her affected acting in Cold Mountain. Her acceptance speech will no doubt be aneurysm-inducing, but surely not as excruciating as Marcia Gay Harden's train wreck of a performance in Mystic River, the most egregious nomination this year.

Best Animated Film: Finding Nemo, which represents the perfect union of animation brilliance and fairy tale narrative, will and should win.

Best Original Screenplay: This category could well give the Coppola clan a 21st century Oscar win. Lost in Translation relied much more on mood and milieu than on storytelling, but none of its fellow nominees even came close to reaching the same level of buzz.

Best Adapted Screenplay: This is one win that LOTR actually deserves. Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh channeled Tolkien in the eeriest ways imaginable, their fidelity to the text and its intentions bordering on too much of a good thing. A greater writing feat, however, did not exist this year. By comparison, it truly was just an honor for the sweet but slightly dull Seabiscuit to have been nominated.

click to enlarge The year's most deserving honoree would be Sean Penn, - whose performance in Mystic River was as - subtly authentic as it was frighteningly raw.
  • The year's most deserving honoree would be Sean Penn, whose performance in Mystic River was as subtly authentic as it was frighteningly raw.
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