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Who will take home Oscar?

Last year was the Year of the Hobbit at the Academy Awards. This year the academy will move away from the land of blockbusters and honor a film whose budget was less than the cost of the opening week's ads for just one-third of the "Rings" trilogy. Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," which seemed to appear out of nowhere in mid-December, which had no pre-release publicity, which played no festivals and was screened for no focus groups, will win the Oscar as best picture.

Only "Sideways," at about $17 million, came in under Eastwood's $25 million budget. But Eastwood, at 74 and with more than two dozen movies under his belt as a director, has made his best film, and "Million Dollar Baby" will win because it affects almost everyone who sees it, including Oscar voters, so powerfully. The critics who came out of its first screenings in December 2004 realized the Oscar race had been rewritten while the movie was playing.

It was the first movie she'd ever made, actress Hilary Swank told me, where they shot the first draft of the screenplay. No revisions. No studio committees. Eastwood read the story of a veteran fight trainer and a waitress who wants to be a boxer, and he admired it, and he filmed it. So well did he film it that all three leading performances -- his own, and those of Swank and Morgan Freeman, playing his best friend -- were nominated.

Yes, the film has drawn controversy, and there will be pickets at the Kodak Theater on Oscar night. They disagree with a decision the Eastwood character makes at the end. So do I; it's not what I think he should have done, but I believe the decision is consistent with what these characters would do in this film. And I believe "MDB" will inspire, and has already inspired, a useful discussion of the subject.

Prediction: "Million Dollar Baby" My preference: "Million Dollar Baby"

Sometimes I suspect academy voters are trying to write the script for the Oscarcast when they mark their ballots. In some categories, they don't vote for the best performance so much as the actor who they'd most like to see on the stage. Jamie Foxx is wonderful as Ray Charles in "Ray," evoking the man's complexities and perfectly capturing his distinctive body language, but Foxx will win not only because of his performance but because of his speech when he won the Golden Globe.

The Globes do not necessarily influence Oscar most of the time. But "Ray," which opened in early October, was beginning to fade a little in voters' memories, compared to the performances in three movies that opened in December: Eastwood in "MDB," Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Aviator" and Don Cheadle in "Hotel Rwanda." Johnny Depp's "Finding Neverland" opened in early November.

On the morning of the Globes, the front-runners for the Oscar were Eastwood and DiCaprio, I think. Then the Globes chose Jamie Foxx, and he made that passionate acceptance speech, spoken in a rush of feeling and emotion. Oscar voters would like to hear another one like that on Feb. 27.

If Foxx doesn't win, it will be because he split his own vote after also being nominated as best supporting actor for "Collateral." He could have more total votes than anyone else, and still lose both categories. Should that happen, I think the Oscar will go to Clint Eastwood.

Prediction: Jamie Foxx Preference: Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda"

Hilary Swank. As simple as that. Her performance as the "Million Dollar Baby" is the most powerful of the year, and achieved with the same focused intensity that distinguishes the entire film. She isn't the most beautiful actress in Hollywood, or always the best, but in the right role, she is unstoppable. She won in 2000 for "Boys Don't Cry," a low-budget independent film, because voters couldn't overlook the emotional impact of the performance, and this year the impact is even greater.

In 2000, Swank defeated Annette Bening ("American Beauty"), who is nominated again this year, for "Being Julia." She also outpolled Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Janet McTeer. This year, I don't believe Bening is even the second choice; her film told an entertaining backstage story, but didn't reach the hearts of the viewers -- indeed, was probably not aimed that way. The dark horse in the category, for a performance which did have a strong emotional impact, is Imelda Staunton, for Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake."

Prediction: Hilary Swank Preference: Hilary Swank

Best supporting actor

Here I think the veteran, Morgan Freeman, will take home the gold. He has been a great actor for a long time, is beloved and respected, and just won the Screen Actors Guild award; since actors represent the largest slice of the academy membership, that can be an omen.

The possible surprise winner is Thomas Haden Church, for "Sideways." Audiences love the movie, they can't understand why Paul Giamatti wasn't nominated for best actor, they understand that Church is essentially playing the other leading role, and they admire the way he finds pathos and sympathy in a character who is, after all, a liar and cheater.

Looking over the rest of the field, they'll consider that Jamie Foxx is really the lead in "Collateral," the first of two 2004 films that forever redefined his career, but more will vote for him in "Ray." That leaves Clive Owen in "Closer," playing a cold, hard man we're not supposed to like; a good performance, but not the winner here. Alan Alda's nomination is his reward.

Prediction: Morgan Freeman Preference: Morgan Freeman, with a tug toward Thomas Haden Church

Here I sense a two-person race between Virginia Madsen, in "Sideways," and Cate Blanchett, in "The Aviator." Either could win, but Madsen would make the better story: Hard-working and popular for 20 years, she gets a role that allows her to shine, and runs with it. On the other hand, audiences were much amused by Blanchett's eccentric turn as Katharine Hepburn.

The academy showed reach and imagination by nominating Sophie Okonedo for "Hotel Rwanda." Natalie Portman was playing her first grown-up in "Closer," but the movie has inspired more respect than affection. Laura Linney does a wonderful job as the wife of an impossible man, in "Kinsey," and gets a show-stopping laugh. But still, it's Madsen vs. Blanchett.

Prediction: Virginia Madsen Preference: Virginia Madsen

Best director

On the one hand, Martin Scorsese is due to win an Oscar. He deserves it. It is shameful that the academy has passed over this great director so many times. On the other hand, there is something like a 96 percent correspondence between the winner of the Directors Guild of America Award and the Oscar, and Clint Eastwood won the DGA Award this year. So if you want to play the safe odds, you go with Eastwood no matter what you think. He did, after all, direct a very good movie. The other three nominees are not contenders.

Prediction: Clint Eastwood Preference: Martin Scorsese

Best animated film

"The Incredibles," don't you think? It was fresher and edgier than the also entertaining "Shrek 2." The ringer is "Shark Tale," which has no business being nominated over the brilliant and original "The Polar Express."

Prediction: "The Incredibles" Preference: "The Incredibles"

Many Oscar-watchers thought Javier Bardem had a shot at a best actor nomination for his work as a quadriplegic in "The Sea Inside." Certainly he will lead the picture to a foreign-language Oscar. The other leading contender is probably the sweet but old-fashioned and predictable "The Chorus."

I have not seen Sweden's "As It Is in Heaven" or Germany's "Downfall." I have seen the powerful, moving drama "Yesterday," from South Africa, the story of a village woman whose husband works in the mines of Johannesburg and brings trouble home with him. The voters in this category are required to see all five films, which means "Yesterday" has a real chance, but ...

Prediction: "The Sea Inside" Preference: "Yesterday"

Here, too, the voters are required to see all five nominees. I've seen four of them. "Born Into Brothels," the story of children in the red-light district of Calcutta, is probably the favorite, because of the emotional subject matter, although the filmmakers were handicapped by the impossibility of filming most of the people in the area, and ended up with a film about bright kids taking photography classes. Still, powerful.

"Super Size Me," the anti-McDonald's doc, is the box-office winner, but lacks the emotional appeal of "Born into Brothels" or "The Story of the Weeping Camel," which is a scripted film using real people (and camels). "Tupac: Resurrection" is the sleeper; it is a superb, clear-eyed biography of the slain rapper, who left so many tapes behind that he narrates his own story. "Twist of Fate" is unseen by me.

Prediction: "Born Into Brothels" Preference: "Tupac: Resurrection.

Charlie Kaufman is the superstar of Hollywood screenwriters right now, and won his third nomination for the quirky, labyrinthine, much-loved "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Mike Leigh is an academy favorite and arguably the leading British filmmaker right now; his "Vera Drake" is much admired, and could win here; he is listed as the nominee, although he famously "devises" his screenplays with his cast. Keir Pearson and Terry George wrote the sincerely admired "Hotel Rwanda," based on George's personal trip to Rwanda to see what the media only hinted at. Probably not in the running: John Logan's screenplay for "The Aviator" and Brad Bird for "The Incredibles."

Prediction: "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" Preference: "Hotel Rwanda"

Paul Haggis' screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby" is that rarity, a final draft that was filmed just as it was written, without any changes. It has a clarity and power in the way it goes directly for its effect, establishing characters and telling its story without anything unnecessary.

I was pleased to see Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater nominated for "Before Sunset," which achieves the difficult trick of creating nearly two hours of nonstop dialogue and making it compelling. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor made a human and comic story out of "Sideways." Probably out of the running: "Finding Neverland" and "The Motorcycle Diaries."

Prediction: "Million Dollar Baby" Preference: "Million Dollar Baby"

Other predictions (except for documentary short and live action short, where I haven't yet seen the nominees):

Art direction: "The Aviator," Dante Ferretti, with set decoration by Francesca Lo Schiavo.

Cinematography: "The Aviator," Robert Richardson.

Costume design: "The Aviator," Sandy Powell.

Editing: "The Aviator," Thelma Schoonmaker.

Makeup: "The Passion of the Christ," Keith Vanderlaan and Christien Tinsley. Enough voters will feel the Oscars should recognize it in some way.

Original score: "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," John Williams.

Original song: "Accidentally in Love" from "Shrek 2," with music by Adam Duritz, Charles Gillingham, Jim Bogios, David Immergluck, Matthew Mallery and David Bryson, and lyrics by Adam Duritz and Daniel Vickrey.

Animated short: "Ryan," by Chris Landreth.

Sound editing: "Spider-Man 2," Paul N.J. Ottosson.

Sound mixing: "Ray," Scott Millan, Greg Orloff, Bob Beemer and Steve Cantamessa. Well, of course.

Visual effects: "Spider-Man 2," John Dykstra, Scott Stokdyk, Anthony LaMolinara and John Frazier. Also of course.

The ballots went out Feb. 2, the polls close on Feb. 22, and the Oscars are awarded on Feb. 27, with Chris Rock hosting the telecast at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles.

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