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Up the Academy

Putting the guesswork into this year's Oscars.

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I love the Academy Awards. They are like a religious holiday for me and have been ever since the first Oscar-cast I remember watching: the 1987 ceremony that honored Cher as Best Actress for Moonstruck and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" from Dirty Dancing as Best Song. I get very involved in the politics of who wins, who doesn't, and why, and I become obsessed with what I perceive as crimes against art when the wrong person wins or when the right person wins for the wrong thing. For instance, I was miffed back in 1991 when Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for The Silence of the Lambs over Robin Williams in The Fisher King and Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides -- /I>both of whom I shortsightedly didn't think had more nominations in them and gave superior leading performances. The Oscars, are, after all, glorified popularity contests that juggle sentiment, innovation, and sometimes excellence. Anyway, these are the things that I think about come award time, and this is the mindset with which I complicatedly compile my predictions for this year's winners and bemoan those films unadorned by Oscar's sweet, golden kiss.

The Nominees

Best Picture: Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Pianist, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Let us immediately discount The Two Towers. The first Lord of the Rings was an impressive achievement, and the sequel is merely a continuation -- less its own film than it is a second act. Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese's much-anticipated but critically mixed pet project, is too bloated and uneven to be considered the finest in this category. If nothing else, the extreme violence and not entirely patriotic bent will alienate squeamish voters. Chicago may be reviving the movie musical, but it does nothing to reinvent.

Should win: The Hours.

Will win: Chicago, in a victory of style over substance.

Far from nominated: Far from Heaven, which managed to combine daring, stylish vision with substantive and heartbreaking perception.

Best Actress: Salma Hayek, Frida; Nicole Kidman, The Hours; Diane Lane, Unfaithful; Julianne Moore, Far from Heaven; Renée Zellweger, Chicago

Out of the running: Hayek. She was great in Frida, if not astonishing, and the nomination is enough to reward her years-long quest to get the movie made. Also, probably out of it: Lane. Unfaithful was released in May, and the buzzier buzz surrounding the other women will probably overshadow her, though her performance as the all-too contented housewife is the stuff that superstars are made of: strong, vulnerable, unafraid. I would have taken Zellweger out of consideration, except that she just won the Screen Actors Guild award and many of the same people vote for both. And she sings, dances, and acts.

Should win: Lane, who gives the best performance and who's been paying dues since 1979.

Will win: Kidman, by a nose.

Finest hours: Nonnominated Meryl Streep, the best of the bunch and a conspicuous omission.

Best Actor: Adrien Brody, The Pianist; Nicolas Cage, Adaptation; Michael Caine, The Quiet American; Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt; Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York

Brody, the relative unknown, will not win but will hopefully ride this nomination to better recognition and high-profile projects. Cage, not for all tastes, gives two not-for-all-tastes performances in a film that is -- well, you know. Caine won recently for The Cider House Rules and needs no further Oscars for clout. This is a match between Nicholson and Day-Lewis.

Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis.

Will win: Jack Nicholson.

Undeveloped: Nonnodded Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, who, in a more thorough transformation than Nicholson, buried his worst Robin-isms in order to concoct the harrowing, sympathetic Sy the Photo Guy.

Best Supporting Actress: Kathy Bates, About Schmidt; Julianne Moore, The Hours; Queen Latifah, Chicago; Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago; Meryl Streep, Adaptation

Gone: Latifah, whose nomination is thanks enough and whose contribution to the film is outclassed by other nominees. Gone: Bates, who is wonderful in Schmidt (and nude as a bee!) but has no Oscar Moment and is merely delightful. Gone: Moore, though she gives the most sensitive work in the category and is one of the most challenging performers working today. This is between Streep (at 13 career nominations, the Queen) and Zeta-Jones, who gives her film All That Jazz and dances like a demon.

Should win: Moore.

Will win: La Dame Streep, for this and, unofficially, The Hours.

Gratefully nonnominated: Cameron Diaz, Gangs of New York. I would like to thank the Academy

Best Supporting Actor: Chris Cooper, Adaptation; Ed Harris, The Hours; Paul Newman, Road to Perdition; John C. Reilly, Chicago; Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can

If Ed Harris wins, it will be for his excellent (if brief) Hours work and for years of nominated, awardable work. If Reilly wins, it is because he was great in Chicago. If Newman wins, it's for his against-type thuggery and for six decades of consistently fine work. If Walken wins, it will bridge a 25-year gap between this and his previous win, 1978's The Deer Hunter.

Should win: Cooper.

Will win: Cooper.

And the Bizarro-Land Academy Award goes to: Charlton Heston, as the Alzheimer's-stricken NRA president who turns his back on the picture of a slain child in Bowling for Columbine. Can you get an Oscar for a nonfiction performance?

Best Director: Pedro Almodovar, Talk to Her; Stephen Daldry, The Hours; Rob Marshall, Chicago; Roman Polanski, The Pianist; Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York

This category, unfortunately, probably belongs to Scorsese -- for the least-interesting film in the category and for his least-compelling work in years. But he has gone undernominated and unawarded for so many years and for so many good films that the academy will feel obligated to reward him for this sprawling mess of a movie. This rules out the delicate, almost musical work of The Hours' Daldry, Spanish mainstay Almodovar's unconventionally compelling craft, and Polanski's masterpiece, The Pianist. Since Polanski, is still dodging the cops for a 1977 statutory-rape conviction, the academy may have reservations about awarding an evasive felon. The only other real contender is Marshall.

Should win: Polanski.

Will win: Scorsese.

Fallen from grace: Todd Haynes for Far from Heaven, whose meticulous work, in short, was equal parts homage and innovation.

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