Oscar 2005: The Hunches, By Kurt Loder

Who deserves to win, and who might deserve to be bitch-slapped.

Can anybody really predict the winners of Sunday night’s Academy Awards? Well, anybody can try …

Best Actor: Jamie Foxx, “Ray”

Is there any doubt about this? Leonardo DiCaprio does give a commanding performance in “The Aviator.” Don Cheadle is quietly compelling in “Hotel Rwanda.” And Clint Eastwood is simply masterful in “Million Dollar Baby.” But Foxx’s uncanny channeling of the late Ray Charles is an awesome feat — there’s nothing else like it. (I like Johnny Depp as much as anybody else, but I think the nomination he received in this category, for “Finding Neverland,” really belongs to the scandalously snubbed Paul Giamatti, for “Sideways.” Not to mention the similarly un-nominated Jim Carrey, who gave one of his most moving performances in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”)

Best Actress: Hilary Swank, “Million Dollar Baby”

Is there any doubt about this? The most serious competition is Kate Winslet, who was so effervescently kooky in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” First-time film actress Catalina Sandino Moreno was a serene and centering presence in the drug-smuggling odyssey “Maria Full of Grace,” but it was a recessive performance. Annette Bening (“Being Julia”) and Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”) have many critical enthusiasts, but their respective films may be too low-key to launch a winner in this category. Hilary Swank’s desperately optimistic boxer, on the other hand, is a big achievement: a fully fleshed-out character that seems to have been assembled entirely within the heart and soul of Hilary Swank. She’s a winner.

Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, “Million Dollar Baby”

Is there any doubt about this? Well … yes, I suppose there could be. But Jamie Foxx isn’t going to score a second win (for his performance in “Collateral”). Alan Alda’s scumball senator in “The Aviator” is too small-scale a turn for the company he’s keeping here. Clive Owen’s spectacularly nasty performance in “Closer” may be too spectacularly nasty for Oscar love. And if Thomas Haden Church wins for “Sideways,” when Paul Giamatti’s not even nominated, surely the gods of cinema will descend upon the Kodak Theatre and personally bitch-slap each and every one of the 5,800 Academy voters who either contrived or condoned such a travesty. No, Morgan Freeman’s the man. Or else.

Best Supporting Actress: Virginia Madsen, “Sideways”

Natalie Portman exudes a gritty new power in “Closer,” but the movie is an awfully chilly piece of work. (It’s too bad she wasn’t nominated for “Garden State,” a film in which she’s fizzy and spritelike and altogether lovable.) Laura Linney (“Kinsey”) and Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) aren’t going to win in this category, if only because Cate Blanchett’s in it, too, with her Academy-pleasing portrayal of Old Hollywood star Katharine Hepburn, in “The Aviator.” Blanchett is arresting, as always; but the skill she brings to bear on the part is distracting — you can’t help noting her every expert flourish, and the performance ends up seeming a little hollow. Virginia Madsen’s portrayal of the love-weary wine-lover Maya, on the other hand, has a rich, soulful glow. It has also instantly resuscitated Madsen’s odd career, which should have flourished long before this. Here’s to her.

Best Picture: “Million Dollar Baby”

“Sideways” is a wonderful movie, but it’s probably too modestly conceived to win here; and “Finding Neverland” seems too marginal, somehow. There’s more to “Ray” than Jamie Foxx’s monumental performance, but it wouldn’t be at all the same picture without him. Which leaves either “The Aviator” — a superbly constructed movie built around a cold, unsympathetic character — or “Million Dollar Baby.” And “Million Dollar Baby,” with its big beating heart, is the best picture of the year.

Best Director: Clint Eastwood

Eastwood has already scored in this category (for “Unforgiven,” in 1992), while Martin Scorsese, a long-celebrated filmmaker who’s been nominated four times previously, has never once won. But while “The Aviator” is a work of considerable cinematic brilliance (especially in its aerial sequences), it’s emotionally remote. “Million Dollar Baby,” on the other hand, is both rich in emotion and, at the same time, a triumph of emotional restraint. And Eastwood is the reason why.

Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson, “The Aviator”

Since Zhang Yimou, who made the ravishing “House of Flying Daggers,” isn’t nominated for Best Director (a nod for which he certainly qualifies), and since the picture isn’t nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category (a puzzlement), it’d be nice if Zhao Xiaoding, who shot the film, were to win this. Caleb Deschanel’s dark and lustrous work on “The Passion of the Christ” is also a strong contender. But Richardson’s rocketing airborne sequences and his innovative color-process effects have big-time panache, and that usually goes over well in Filmville. It helps that the movie is worthy in other ways as well.

Best Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

Kaufman has received screenwriting nominations before, for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” (He should’ve been nominated for “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” too.) As our most wildly gifted movie conceptualist, he deserves a win. Happily, this particular script deserves one, too.

Kurt Loder

For all the latest Oscar news and awards-season fashion photos, check out “Movies on MTV.com: Oscars 2005.”