Like yourself, perhaps, and surely several of your friends, I too know exactly who'll be winning the major Oscars this Sunday night. Not who I think should prevail in each category, but whom the Academy will actually be statuetting. My annual certainty in this regard has been a source of considerable financial gain over the years — although not always for myself, it's true. Nevertheless, I recommend that you put your faith in my uncanny prognostic powers and place your bets as follows. We'll clean up. Your friends can fend for themselves.
BEST ACTOR: Forest Whitaker, "The Last King of Scotland"
Ryan Gosling ("Half Nelson") and Will Smith ("The Pursuit of Happyness") are dark horses here, however worthy; and Leonardo DiCaprio ("Blood Diamond") is an unlikely steed as well. It does seem wrong that Peter O'Toole ("Venus") has never won a non-honorary Oscar (this is his eighth nomination), but his last two nominated performances, in "My Favorite Year" (1982) and "The Stunt Man" (1980), were possibly more undeniable. In any case, this is Forest Whitaker's moment. His portrayal of Idi Amin, the chuckling, homicidal president of Uganda in the 1970s, managed the remarkable feat of bringing human dimension, and even flickers of humor, to an infamous psychopath.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Eddie Murphy, "Dreamgirls"
I think we can pass over Alan Arkin ("Little Miss Sunshine") and Djimon Hounsou ("Blood Diamond") in this category, because the competition's just too strong. Jackie Earle Haley, the former child star who made a spectacular return to the screen in 2006 after years in the wilderness (spent delivering pizza, among other things), gave an enthralling performance as Ronnie, the pitiful pedophile in Todd Field's "Little Children." And Mark Wahlberg brought a bitter fury to his portrayal of the blue-collar police sergeant in "The Departed." But Eddie Murphy has the edge here. As the fading '60s R&B star James "Thunder" Early, Murphy — singing and shouting and falling to the floor — not only got the star-power right, he got the R&B right, too.
BEST ACTRESS: Helen Mirren, "The Queen"
A dartboard category. How can you really choose among Kate Winslet ("Little Children"), Penélope Cruz ("Volver"), Judi Dench ("Notes on a Scandal"), and Meryl Streep ("The Devil Wears Prada")? But Mirren managed a difficult feat: taking a real character — Britain's Queen Elizabeth — who's best known as a remote and colorless presence, and, without tarting her up, turning her into a figure of homely fascination.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Jennifer Hudson, "Dreamgirls"
Hudson's movie debut cries out for a category of its own — Best Musical Performance, maybe. Because while she turned out to be a surprisingly effective actress, it was her soaring wail that really grabbed you. The other nominees here — Cate Blanchett ("Notes on a Scandal"), 10-year-old Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), and Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza (both for "Babel") — were notable in more traditional ways, but they're probably no match for a force of nature blowing in from out of left field.
BEST DOCUMENTARY: "An Inconvenient Truth"
Actually, the best film in this category is Amy Berg's devastating "Deliver Us from Evil," a true investigative report on a shameful cover-up by the Roman Catholic Church of 20 years of child-molesting by one of its priests, Oliver O'Grady. But Al Gore's environmental alarmism — much of it since heavily questioned — no doubt plays better in Beverly Hills.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: "Pan's Labyrinth"
Shouldn't "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Apocalypto" both be under consideration here? Whatever. This is where the Academy gives a pat on the head to Guillermo del Toro's critically celebrated but oddly unenjoyable quasi fairy tale. Let's move on.
BEST DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese, "The Departed"
Even though "The Departed" isn't his best movie, I figure this is the year, after seven nominations, that the Academy finally gives Marty his Oscar. If only to make up for finding his 1990 mob classic, "Goodfellas," somehow inferior to "Dances with Wolves" — the first directorial effort by Kevin Costner. (An early instance of Beverly Hills PC posturing.) Of the other directors nominated in this category, Paul Greengrass ("United 93") is entirely deserving for his 9/11 tale, which was exhilarating, horrifying and heartbreaking all at once. (It made a lot of people queasy, though — not a plus in Oscar Land.) As for Clint Eastwood ("Letters from Iwo Jima") he already has two Oscars (for more gripping — and more commercial — pictures). Alejandro González ñárritu's "Babel" sprawls too much (and seems overrated to me). And Stephen Frears' "The Queen" isn't a movie you walk out of thinking about the director (although, come to think of it, that may be a tribute to the director). So Scorsese it is, I'd wager.
BEST PICTURE: "Little Miss Sunshine"
Going way out on a limb here, but if Martin Scorsese gets his Best Director Oscar, there's really no reason to toss one to "The Departed" itself. The picture may have made a lot of money (a record amount for Scorsese), but it has some serious flaws (the rat, of course; and Jack Nicholson's entire hambone performance). "Little Miss Sunshine," on the other hand, is that rare thing, a guileless feel-good movie, and a genuine word-of-mouth popular hit, too. It deserves something. In fact, it deserves this.
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