Ed’s annual predictions

This year's Academy Awards broadcast (Sunday night at 8 p.m. on ABC) faces two big problems: a dearth of widely-seen films and a lack of viewer passion. Of course, movie buffs are all fired up for the festivities, but the academy wants to reach a much broader audience. A battle between blockbusters would draw a larger crowd, but the box office for this year's Best Picture titles is on the shaky side. Of the Big Five nominees, Martin Scorsese's The Departed is the only film to break the $100 million barrier (around $130 million as of this writing) and achieve blockbuster status. As for its competition, Little Miss Sunshine (just under $60 million) and The Queen ($49 million) are solid hits, Babel ($32 million) is doing so-so and Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is struggling at less than $10 million.

Art shouldn't be measured by money, but half the fun of the Oscars is arguing the relative merits of the films with your friends and, unfortunately, most of your friends haven't seen most of the nominees.

But wait a minute, you say, last year's Best Picture nominees (Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck and Munich) made even less money and everybody was talking about the awards. The difference between now and then is Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's sad, haunting tale of a tortured love affair between two young ranch hands, was quickly dubbed "the gay cowboy movie" and became a hot topic months before its release, with late-night talk show hosts and wise guys everywhere retooling every tired gay joke in the book to fit the premise. The incessant mocking irked a lot of people and somewhere along the line, Brokeback stopped being just a movie and became a symbol for the gay rights movement in general to a substantial number of folks on both sides of the issue.

The Brokeback Mountain debate stirred up a tremendous amount of heat, and that passion affected the whole Academy Award experience. In fact, the conversations became even more heated when, after winning virtually every other award on the circuit, the film lost the Best Picture Oscar to the ensemble drama Crash.

You won't find that kind of passion this year. The only controversy so far was over the films and actors that didn't get nominated. More about that later.

The bottom line is that water cooler chatter about this year's Oscars has been less than lively, but don't despair. We still have the actual program coming up, with numerous exceptional films and memorable artists in contention for the gold statue. And even if the nominees aren't all that exciting, the show has great potential. Host Ellen Degeneres has proven herself to be a solid, if perhaps a bit too polite, host on other award shows. Hopefully, she'll really let rip here. Also, the possibility of big, juicy gaffes is great, since, with the public now soundly against the Iraq war, some of the presenters and winners will likely decide the time is perfect to make a stirring celebrity political statement. Oh, how would the world carry on without celebrities to show us the way? And even if the participants (anticipatory shudder) behave themselves, fashion lovers can always amuse themselves by cheering or booing the women's evening gowns.

So here we go with the office betting pool tip sheet awards overview. As always, I want to remind you that, while pitting art against art for prizes is ridiculous, some good things come of the nonsense. Lesser-known actors get major career boosts and the hoopla draws attention to smaller films that might otherwise have been overlooked. And with that, let's look at the listings.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 79th Annual Academy Awards Nominations

Best Motion Picture of the Year


The Departed

Letters From Iwo Jima

Little Miss Sunshine

The Queen

Welcome to the blurriest Best Picture race in years. The frontrunner would be Dreamgirls, except — oops — it didn't get nominated in this category. So what's up with that? How does a hit musical — the academy loves musicals — get nods for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, along with several other categories, while being shut out of the Best Picture list? For fun you can encourage your Oscar party guests to create their very own conspiracy theory.

Of the films that did receive nominations, Letters From Iwo Jima is least likely to win, I think, because while it's very well-done and admirable and all, it suffers from being unrelentingly fatalistic and a tad too reserved. The Queen is an exceptional character study of the royal family, but again, the film is probably too reserved for the academy.

Babel could win. It's a multistory drama with a big cast, like last year's winner, Crash. I found each of the plotlines long-winded and thought the Tokyo story was too thinly tied to the rest of the film, but hey, I don't get to vote.

Little Miss Sunshine was a surprise nomination. The academy rarely picks comedies for the Best Picture category, but Little Miss Sunshine has had a charmed run, culminating in winning the top prize at the recent Screen Actors Guild ceremony. On the downside, the film has a well-worn sitcom premise and the ending is sloppy as hell. On the upside, the dysfunctional family road comedy is funny as hell and it boasts an ensemble cast that mostly lives in the Los Angeles area (think Crash). Comedies rarely win and this is a flawed comedy, but count Little Miss Sunshine as a contender.

Which brings us to the last, and best, film in the category. The Departed is a corker of a gangster movie, a smart, snappy, suspenseful, violent-as-all-get-out cops and robbers story adapted by Martin Scorsese mostly from the acclaimed 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. The premise is great, the cast is great, the director is … you get the idea. The buzz is that the movie is too violent for the conservative academy. Hopefully the buzz will prove wrong, because it would be a real drag if the best picture doesn't win Best Picture.

SHOULD WIN: The Departed

WILL WIN: It's a toss-up between The Departed, Babel and Little Miss Sunshine, but I'm optimistically betting on The Departed.

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond

Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson

Peter O'Toole, Venus

Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness

Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Forest Whitaker, who was amazing in The Last King of Scotland, will win the award. I'm 99 percent sure on this one. The only alternative I can imagine is if the academy, which gave Peter O'Toole an honorary Oscar a few years ago, opts to award him a real one for his ripping good performance in Venus. As for the others, the very talented Ryan Gosling's award was in getting nominated, Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for the wrong film (Blood Diamond instead of The Departed? Egads!) and Will Smith, having established his dramatic actor credentials this year, will have to wait until he's a little older to take home the big prize. Forest Whitaker will win and let's hope he gives a better acceptance speech than he has at all the other awards shows. Enough with the stammering and acting surprised. He knows he's going to win as much as we do, so he needs to take a few minutes and compose a coherent acceptance speech.

SHOULD WIN: I love you, Peter, and you were fantastic, but I've got to go with Forest Whitaker.

WILL WIN: Forest Whitaker

Best Actress

Penélope Cruz, Volver

Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal

Helen Mirren, The Queen

Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada

Kate Winslet, Little Children

Helen Mirren will win the award. Absolutely. Positively. You could bet the farm on this one, except that no one would take the bet because they also know she is going to win. The incredibly versatile actor gave a quietly stunning performance in The Queen and has been mowed down by the awards show competition for weeks and weeks. I could assess the other performers in the category, but it would be a waste of words, because Helen has it nailed. Her acceptance speeches are pretty good, too.

SHOULD WIN: Penélope Cruz, who is so much stronger and more appealing when speaking her native Spanish, was exceptional in Volver, but Helen Mirren takes the cake.

WILL WIN: Helen Mirren

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine

Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children

Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond

Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

Alan Arkin was a hoot in Little Miss Sunshine and Djimon Hounsou was powerful as the desperate father in Blood Diamond. Little Children star Jackie Earle Haley, missing in action since Breaking Away and The Bad News Bears, proved to be the comeback kid of the year. Good on ya, Jackie! Many people were surprised when Mark Wahlberg got the supporting actor nomination over his much more celebrated co-stars, but the ex-pop star/poster boy gave the best performance of his career as the wise-mouth, tough as nails cop in The Departed. Wahlberg's successful career-turnabout is quite an achievement (Fun Fact: In 1992, he dedicated his autobiography to his dick.) and he'll get a lot of votes for that, but not enough to beat Eddie Murphy, who managed to play a dramatic role as an out-of-control singer in Dreamgirls without ever causing viewers to think about his comic portrayals of similar characters back in his SNL days.

SHOULD WIN: I'd vote for Wahlberg, in part because of his performance and in part because I'm mad at Murphy for making me sit through Norbit.

WILL WIN: Eddie Murphy

Best Supporting Actress

Adriana Barraza, Babel

Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal

Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine

Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

What a strong field. Cute young Abigail Breslin was dandy in Little Miss Sunshine, but not dandy enough to win. Rinko Kikuchi's sad, disturbing performance as a depressed teen in Babel was certainly memorable and her cast mate Adriana Barraza was also quite effective as a housekeeper/nanny who gets swept into a nightmare. Cate Blanchett was great in Notes on a Scandal, but then again, when isn't she great? You could make an argument for each of the women, were it not for the Jennifer Hudson Cinderella story. The American Idol runner-up proved to be an effective actor in Dreamgirls and she brought down the house with her singing. Jennifer has taken home lots of awards from groups that love her talent and her rags to riches personal story. Some unpleasant yapping to various entertainment tabloids may have turned off some voters, but not enough to keep her from snagging the trophy.

SHOULD WIN: Jennifer Hudson

WILL WIN: Jennifer Hudson

Best Director

Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima

Stephen Frears, The Queen

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel

Paul Greengrass, United 93

Martin Scorsese, The Departed

The Departed is the best movie of the past year. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the man behind Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and Goodfellas, has never won an Academy Award. He will win this year because it would be a crime if he didn't. The other directors did excellent work as well, but give me a break. Scorsese deserves it for this movie. He deserves it for being passed over all those other times. And he deserves an honorary Oscar for Best Eyebrows.

SHOULD WIN: Martin Scorsese

WILL WIN: Martin Scorsese

Best Adapted Screenplay

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Children of Men

The Departed

Little Children

Notes on a Scandal

Children of Men is a powerful film, but there have been grumblings that it's not nearly as rich as the book. For Little Children and Notes on a Scandal, the nomination is their prize. Hey, how bizarre, not to mention entertaining, would it be if Borat won? It won't though, because the screenplay for The Departed is so well-crafted and packed with quotable lines.

SHOULD WIN: The Departed

WILL WIN: The Departed

Best Original Screenplay


Letters From Iwo Jima

Little Miss Sunshine

Pan's Labyrinth

The Queen

The real contenders here are Babel, Little Miss Sunshine and The Queen. If Babel wins, don't be surprised if it takes Best Picture, too. I'd opt to reward the tight-as-a-drum screenplay for The Queen, but my guess is the only Oscar destined for the film is in the Best Actress category. As I mentioned before, Little Miss Sunshine suffers from a sit-com premise and a messy ending, but the fact that the writers made it work despite the not-insignificant problem areas is impressive enough to draw the majority of academy votes.


WILL WIN: Little Miss Sunshine

Best Animated Film


Happy Feet

Monster House

The Pixar folks are famed for the innovative feel of their CGI features, but Cars, though technically impressive, was nothing special in the screenplay department. Happy Feet got preachy near the end, but overall the film had a bright feel. Monster House was flat, despite all its efforts to be kinetic, and the motion capture animation was creepy. Hey, and where is the nomination for A Scanner Darkly?

SHOULD WIN: Happy Feet


Best Art Direction


The Good Shepherd

Pan's Labyrinth

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

The Prestige

Dreamgirls is the winner here. The other nominees are deserving, but Dreamgirls beautifully recreated an era bursting with cheesy clothes and hairstyles and did so without succumbing to campiness.

SHOULD WIN: Dreamgirls

WILL WIN: Dreamgirls

Best Cinematography

The Black Dahlia

Children of Men

The Illusionist

Pan's Labyrinth

The Prestige

The camerawork in Children of Men was a crucial part of the film's appeal. The choices were bold and smart, and it neve"


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