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Some sure bets and wild cards for awards

Shortly after 7:30 a.m. (CST) Tuesday, Motion Picture Academy President Frank Pierson and actress Sigourney Weaver will walk onstage at the Kodak Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and announce the nominations for the 76th Academy Awards, and this article will instantly become obsolete. But until that moment, we can guess and speculate and predict about this year's nominees, and here goes.

This will be the year of the coronation of "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which will certainly be nominated as one of the year's best films and will very likely win. The awesome sweep of the trilogy has impressed Hollywood on every level, not least the profit level, and "LOTR" also will win many nominations in the technical and craft categories. It's an interesting question whether individual actors will be singled out, although Viggo Mortensen or Sean Astin may have a chance, and wouldn't it be interesting if Andy Serkis got nominated for his work as the body model and voice of Gollum?

Other likely titles for best picture include Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," which has been gathering increasing respect for its power and craftsmanship; Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," which made more critics' best 10 lists than any other title; Jim Sheridan's heartwarming "In America," reminding the academy of his equally touching "My Left Foot"; the naval epic "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," and, in the fifth spot, a surprise: Maybe "House of Sand and Fog" or "Seabiscuit"? Miramax has been campaigning hard for its "Cold Mountain," and has a way of getting nominations for its titles, but is the movie that compelling?

For best actor: You can bet the house on Bill Murray, whose work in "Lost in Translation" showcases a deeper, more tender side of the beloved actor.

Three other sure bets: Ben Kingsley, an academy favorite (he won for "Gandhi," was nominated for "Bugsy" and even the obscure "Sexy Beast"); Sean Penn, a great actor in a great role in "Mystic River," and Russell Crowe for "Master and Commander"; he took a year off in 2003 after being nominated for "The Insider" (1999) and "A Beautiful Mind" (2002) and winning for "Gladiator" (2000). That leaves a fifth slot for ... I'm going out on a limb here and guessing that Johnny Depp's work in the enormously successful "Pirates of the Caribbean" was so goofy and mannered, it attracted enough attention and grins to get a nomination. But Sean Penn will win the Oscar.

Best actress: Apart from "LOTR," the one sure thing at this year's Oscars looks like Charlize Theron, for "Monster." I called it "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema," and so I believe. That sounds like one of those hysterical blurbs you see in the movie ads, but I believe it is literally true. Theron will be nominated, and she will win.

The category will also honor Naomi Watts, who is gaining increasing respect, for her work in "21 Grams," and Diane Keaton, because the academy likes her and she portrayed a sex life they could identify with in "Something's Gotta Give." (Keaton's co-star, Jack Nicholson, will be passed over for once, but with three Oscars and nine additional nominations, he'll get over it.) Nicole Kidman is being mentioned as a possibility for "Cold Mountain," but I'm lukewarm on the film and think the other three nominees will be Jennifer Connelly, for "The House of Sand and Fog" (they respect her transition from sexpot to serious actress) and Patricia Clarkson for the low-profile but much appreciated "The Station Agent."

Best supporting actress: Here's where Scarlett Johansson will be honored for the wrong performance: The academy will nominate her for "Lost in Translation," where she was indeed wonderful as the young newlywed who becomes Bill Murray's late-night soul mate, instead of "The Girl With a Pearl Earring," where with only a handful of spoken words, she tells us everything we need to know about a young woman who could have achieved anything, if only she had been born in a different time and place. Also sure to be nominated: Renee Zellweger, whose helpful and pushy neighbor brings "Cold Mountain" to life, and Marcia Gay Harden, who has an almost frightening presence in "Mystic River."

After those three, it's up for grabs, but I'm guessing Sarah Bolger has a chance as the young daughter who holds the family together in "In America," and that the academy, which always gives us one big surprise in this category, will also nominate Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Kingsley's wife in "The House of Sand and Fog." Winner: Zellweger.

Best supporting actor: The sure bet is Tim Robbins for "Mystic River," where he has a monologue about how he feels persecuted by vampires, because vampire movies on TV have given him his only vocabulary for describing how he feels. Benicio Del Toro, very respected for his recent work, will be honored for "21 Grams," and look for Crowe's co-star Paul Bettany, for "Master and Commander."

The academy loves Albert Finney (five nominations), and may name him for "Big Fish," although it was not one of his great roles. And someone from "LOTR" may be nominated; I'm guessing Viggo Mortensen, but maybe Sean Astin. Winner: Tim Robbins.

Best director: Clint Eastwood ("Mystic River"), Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation"), Peter Jackson ("LOTR"), Peter Weir ("Master and Commander") and Gary Ross, for "Seabiscuit." But I'm cheating. Those are the nominees for the Directors Guild of America Awards, and the academy follows them between 80 percent and 100 percent of the time. I have a hunch Ross will be replaced by Jim Sheridan ("In America"). Winner: Eastwood.

Overall, "Mystic River" will lead in top-category nominations, and "LOTR" will lead in total nominations. And we will know if that is true at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, when most of the morning programs will cut away to the academy's news conference.

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