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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Deep Vote predicts the Oscars: Last year, he batted 1000

His code name is Deep Vote. He reads the mind of the Academy. He will reveal to me the names of this year's nominees. Our annual rendezvous is in the Anime section of a small Blockbuster in an obscure Midwestern city. He pulls on latex gloves and uses a fingernail knife to slit open a fresh pack of 3X5 cards. He writes down his predictions.

"Best Supporting Actor," he writes, "will be won by Heath Ledger. Period. For the other contenders, the nomination itself will be their reward."

"Best Picture, "Slumdog Millionaire," "Frost/Nixon," "Doubt," "Revolutionary Road," "The Reader." Maybe "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Extremely strong possibility of "The Dark Knight." "Wall-E" is good enough, but voters will cover it in the best animation category. "Synecdoche, New York" is easily good enough, but they're embarrassed you had to explain it to them."

I haven't seen four of Deep Vote's picks, so I don't have an opinion.

He starts on a fresh card. "Best actor," he writes, "Frank Langella as Richard M. Nixon in "Frost/Nixon," a lock. Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler," also a lock. Sean Penn in "Milk," another lock." He mentions Brad Pitt, Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins, Ralph Fiennes. Can't say. He opens a fresh pack of 3x5s and writes down five words: Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino."

I ask him why the special treatment. He writes down: "You seen it?"

"Not yet," I said.

"When you see it," he wrote, "you'll understand. Don't be surprised." A fanboy sidles down the aisle with his head cocked at an angle, searching for a title. He looks at us sideways, and asks, "Bakugan, Volume One: Battle Brawlers?" Deep Vote points him to War Movies, and moves on to Best Actress.

"Meryl Streep in "Doubt," he writes. "The best actress alive, maybe the nicest. But her 15th nomination will be her award. She's building on her world record for the most nominations. She's won twice, but will probably never catch Katharine Hepburn, with four. Kate Winslet, but she may split her vote between "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road." Quite possily Kristin Scott Thomas in "I've Loved You So Long." She's now starring on Ibsen on Broadway. That never hurts. Academy voters can't stand Ibsen, but they like to be associated with him. Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married." Showed her serious acting chops. Might be Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky." Devilishly tricky role, and she was brilliant."

"Who will win?" I whisper.

"Melissa Leo in "Frozen River," he writes. "Best performance of the year, hands down. The public isn't sure who she is, but she's been working since 1984 and has 76 film and TV credits. Every actor in the business has worked with her, except for Kevin Bacon. If they work together, the Game grows exponentially. Actors nominate actors.

"Best Supporting Actress," he writes, 'Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Marisa Tomei, fabulous in "The Wrestler." Rosemarie DeWitt and/or Debra Winger in "Rachel Getting Married." Viola Davis in "Doubt." Coming up fast on the far turn, looking like she may cross the finish line with the rest of the pack, Sophie Okonedo in "The Secret Life of Bees.''

"Best Supporting Actor, you know about."

'Best director, Jonathan Demme for "Rachel Getting Married." A lock. Ron Howard for "Frost/Nixon." Utterly fascinating. David Fincher for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Danny Boyle for "Slumdog Millionaire"--looks like it was a tough location shoot. Gus Van Sant, for "Milk." Very powerful.'

"Who will win?" I ask.

He speaks for the first time all evening. "Clint may squeeze in," he whispers. "Don't be surprised."

He nods significantly, and disappears into the Foreign Classics section, at this late hour nearly deserted. Does Deep Vote know what he's talking about? He showed me Entertainment Weekly's list of last year's Oscar winners. He had a check-mark beside every single one.

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