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Where is a slam dunk when you need it? Every once in a while a picture comes along, takes all the Academy Awards and makes writing an Oscar prediction column a piece of cake. Not this year. The most astonishing thing to note is the line the Academy has drawn between its judgment of overall film quality and outstanding film acting. Three of the Best Picture nominees captured no acting nominations whatsoever. And only one of the 10 lead and supporting actress nominations came in a film nominated for Best Picture. Only three of the 10 male actors appeared in Best Picture nominees.

But who can ever figure out the Academy Awards? This is a group that denied Paul Newman an Oscar for 30 years and then gave it to him for one of his less enduring roles. Kirk Douglas and Cary Grant never won Oscars. Neither have such other great film stars as Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. Albert Finney has shown tremendous range over a career that has now spanned four decades. But he doesn't have an Oscar to show for it.

In short, Oscar voting rides on sentiment and whim, and predicting winners is like making a living at the race track. But the former is my job, so here goes:

Best Picture nominees: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River and Seabiscuit. Who will win: Lord of the Rings is the front runner and will hold off Mystic River. What should win: Lost in Translation. What should have been nominated that wasn't: Whale Rider and Pieces of April instead of Master and Commander and Seabiscuit.

Best Actor nominees: Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog; Jude Law, Cold Mountain; Bill Murray, Lost in Translation; Sean Penn, Mystic River. Who will win: The nominees in this category are outstanding with only Law out of the running. Depp was terrific but won't win. Kingsley already has an Oscar and that will be held against him. So it's finally between Murray and Penn. A tie would be wonderful. But I think Murray will prevail. Who Should Win: Murray. Who's missing: Nicolas Cage from Matchstick Men or Jack Black for School of Rock instead of Law.

Best Actress nominees: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider; Diane Keaton, Something's Gotta Give; Samantha Morton, In America; Charlize Theron, Monster, Naomi Watts, 21 Grams. Another very strong category. The contest will come down to Keaton and Theron with the latter winning. Who should win: I could make an impassioned case for young Miss Castle-Hughes, the youngest Best Actress nominee in history, but in the end, I would have voted for Theron. Who's missing: Some will say Nicole Kidman for Cold Mountain, but there's nobody's spot I'd give her, admire her work though I do.

Best Supporting Actor nominees: Alec Baldwin, The Cooler; Benicio Del Toro, 21 Grams; Djimon Hounsou, In America; Tim Robbins, Mystic River; Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai. Who will win: Upsets abound in this category. Robbins is the safe choice. Del Toro won this award three years ago and that will count against him. Baldwin is the dark horse who could sneak across the wire. Who should win: Robbins. Who is missing: Rawiri Paratene, the stubborn, heartbreaking grandfather in Whale Rider for either Hounsou or Watanabe.

Best Supporting Actress nominees: Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog; Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April; Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River; Holly Hunter, Thirteen; Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain. Who will win: Still another strong category prone to upsets. Harden won three years ago and won't again. So the short odds are with Zellweger. Who Should Win: I love Renee Zellweger, but I'm rooting like hell for our home girl Patricia Clarkson, who is just about as talented as an actress can get. Who is missing: What in the world was the Academy thinking when it failed to nominate Scarlett Johansson for Lost in Translation. I'd have her ahead of Aghdashloo and even the estimable Hunter.

Best Director nominees: Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation; Clint Eastwood, Mystic River, Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings; Fernando Meirelles, City of God; Peter Weir, Master and Commander. Who will win: Probably a contest between Eastwood and Jackson with Coppola the dark horse. Jackson will win on a trilogy vote. Who Should Win: Coppola. Who's missing: Niki Caro for Whale Rider over Weir.

Other categories: Best Original Screenplay -- I think Sofia Coppola is a lock for Lost in Translation. Best Adapted Screenplay -- I'm betting on Brian Helgeland for Mystic River, although the Lord of the Rings team will be in the mix. Best Cinematography -- Certainly ought to go to Eduardo Serra for Girl With a Pearl Earring. Best Documentary Feature -- I haven't seen any of them, but I am rooting for the great Errol Morris to finally win for The Fog of War.

click to enlarge New Orleans, represent! Here's hoping that home girl - Patricia Clarkson takes home the statuette for Best - Supporting Actress for her work in Pieces of April.
  • New Orleans, represent! Here's hoping that home girl Patricia Clarkson takes home the statuette for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Pieces of April.


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