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Ebert predicts the nominations

PARK CITY, Utah -- Sundance, which parties late, will be up early and groping for the coffee Tuesday morning to watch the announcement of the 77th annual Academy Awards.

This year is a tricky one to handicap, because there are two or three obvious shoo-ins in each of the major categories, and then a list of hopefuls.

Everybody is sure, for example, that "Sideways," "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Aviator" will lead in overall nominations, and the only question is, how much does Hollywood really love "Sideways," an indie buddy comedy that came out of obscurity to become an unlikely favorite.

Related questions: Can Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese stop the "Sideways" bandwagon? "Sideways" is a wonderful film, yes. "Million Dollar Baby" is stronger and surer, but it's dark and has become controversial, and the academy is forever conscious of its image.

Other candidates for the top five picture slots include "Finding Neverland," a film I liked but do not see as Oscar material; "Ray," the Ray Charles biopic, and "Hotel Rwanda," a sleeper that is doing terrific business on a per-screen average and has a powerful emotional appeal. Of the three, I think "Neverland" is the title likely to be absent.

Oddly enough, if the academy hadn't created a category for best animation, "The Incredibles" might have had a real shot at a best picture nomination. In the animation category, it will be nominated along with "Shrek 2" and "The Polar Express."

Jamie Foxx, of course, for "Ray." His revival-meeting acceptance speech at the Golden Globes did him nothing but good. To some degree, academy voters are casting and writing the Oscarcast when they mark their ballots, and some of them, watching Foxx on the Globes, will have decided they'd love a speech like that at the Oscars. Not to mention that his performance is deserving, of course.

Also likely nominees: Paul Giamatti from "Sideways," who could be the dark horse. Leonardo DiCaprio from "The Aviator," a film the academy will have admired for its solid artistry and its Hollywood insider romance. And I'm predicting Don Cheadle will be a nominee for "Hotel Rwanda," simply because those who have seen it were so moved by it.

That leaves the fifth spot, and such contenders as Clint Eastwood, for "Million Dollar Baby." Of the other names mentioned, I don't think Johnny Depp's "Neverland" reached enough voters with its strange, quiet story; Liam Neeson's "Kinsey" is way too controversial, and so is Jim Caviezel in "The Passion of the Christ," and how many voters actually saw Jim Carrey in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"? That may leave Javier Bardem's heartbreaking performance in "The Sea Inside," although picketers will protest the decision of the quadriplegic character to end his own life.

Hilary Swank will be nominated for "Million Dollar Baby," and I expect her to win. Imelda Staunton will be nominated for "Vera Drake," and if Swank doesn't win, Staunton will, despite the controversy involving her role as an abortionist. The character is so naive and innocent, and so well-played, it draws attention away from the issue. The academy likes Mike Leigh's work, and honored Brenda Blethyn with a nomination for Leigh's "Secrets and Lies."

Annette Bening will probably be nominated for "Being Julia," because she is well-liked and because the academy enjoyed the story of a veteran actress getting her revenge. But the performance is not of Oscar caliber.

One that is: Catalina Sandino Moreno in "Maria Full of Grace," if only enough voters have seen it. I have no idea who the fifth nominee will be, unless Emmy Rossum's personal triumph overshadows the disappointing "Phantom of the Opera."

Morgan Freeman of "Million Dollar Baby" and Thomas Haden Church of "Sideways" have locks. Freeman is brilliant and has been for a long time, and Church has the kind of story Hollywood likes, where an obscure sitcom star wins the role of a lifetime. Jamie Foxx could get a second nomination, by turning up in this category for "Collateral," and James Garner is the kind of beloved industry figure with so many friends that he may be nominated for "The Notebook." Does Clive Owen have a chance for "Closer"? He was very good, but as a real rotter.

If there is justice, Virginia Madsen will be nominated for "Sideways," and win. But Cate Blanchett delighted audiences with the wit and eccentricity of her Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator," and may be the favorite here. There's also a case for Natalie Portman, playing her first adult role in "Closer." The academy loves to nominate Meryl Streep, and may name her again, for "The Manchurian Candidate" (2004). In the supporting actress category the academy has a way of coming up with one really surprising choice; this year, I think it will be Sophie Okonedo, as Cheadle's wife in "Hotel Rwanda."

Martin Scorsese is widely thought to be the best active American director. He has never won an Oscar for directing. Is this finally his year, or is there some kind of dark cloud of fate overshadowing his Oscar chances? He deserves to win because of his body of work and because "The Aviator" is a great exuberant triumph, but the best-directed picture of the year, I think, is "Million Dollar Baby." Clint Eastwood will be nominated, and so, of course, will Alexander Payne, for "Sideways." Even if there's a "Sideways" groundswell, the Oscar here will go to Scorsese or Eastwood. Other possibilities: Taylor Hackford for "Ray" and Mike Nichols for "Closer."

Overall, I expect "The Aviator" to lead in total nominations, because it will clean up in the technical categories where "Sideways" will not figure.

This year's Academy Awards will be held Feb. 27. That means just over a month for the Oscar campaigns. And it means that Thomas Haden Church will be on more talk shows than he ever knew existed.

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