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Outguess Ebert '09: Who wants to bet on 'Millionaire'?

The Outguess Ebert contest is now closed. Winners will be announced sometime after the Academy Awards.

Academy Awards season is unfolding with alarming speed this year. The nominees were announced Jan. 22, I'm writing less than two weeks later, and here comes the Oscarcast on Feb. 22. One month, start to finish.

So we get less time to second-guess ourselves, and buzz has barely reached takeoff speed. Nevertheless, I offer my Oscar predictions in the annual Outguess Ebert contest. Do better than I do, and you'll win the grand prize of a trip to the premiere of the Disney/Pixar film "Up."

Best Picture

"Slumdog Millionaire," for a lot of reasons, one of them being that it is a superb entertainment. If ever there was a rags-to-riches story, this is it. If ever there was a Dickens story for the 21st century, this is it. And if ever there was a blockbuster that seemed to break every rule of Hollywood marketing, this is certainly it.

The movie has no stars (if you're a star in India, like Anil Kapoor, Oscar doesn't care). The first third of the film is in Hindi. It takes place in a world that for most North Americans is not only far away but, in a sense, long ago. And yet was there a more exuberant, exhilarating entertainment all year? It benefits, too, I think, from a growing interest here about India, now that more Indians are among us and Indian novels are so popular. India is the most exotic place in the world where you have a good chance of speaking English.

Another indicator: Danny Boyle, the film's director, won the Directors Guild Award on Jan. 31, and in 52 of the last 58 years, the DGA winner's film has won the Oscar as best picture. So don't bet against it.

Best Actor

Sean Penn. What an astonishing actor he has come to be, embodying a character without any obvious artifice. How did he choose here to play a proudly gay man? With complete naturalism. You never feel Penn is reaching. He plays Harvey Milk with ease, never self-conscious, not the hero of a biopic but just this nice man who was made political by society's injustice.

Milk's uncertain earlier years, his lack of direction, are transformed when he moves to San Francisco and finds a large gay community where he feels welcome -- within a larger community that denies his right to be himself. Penn makes these points in one of his best performances.

The runner-up is Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler." His performance, composed of brutal fight scenes and touching personal ones, was deeply moving. But I sense that as the voters decide on "Slumdog" as their best film, they will find Penn the way to express their love for "Milk."

Best Actress

It's between Meryl Streep in "Doubt" and Kate Winslet in "The Reader" -- and too bad, because my heart votes for Melissa Leo in "Frozen River." The question is, did enough voters see "Frozen River"? If voters were required to see all the nominees, predicting the winners would be a lot easier. But they aren't.

Between Streep and Winslet, not much to choose. Both performances are superb. It has absolutely nothing to do with it, but here's how the voters will think: Streep has been nominated 15 times (!) and won twice. Enough, already? Winslet has been nominated six times and has never won. And she gave a second great 2008 performance in "Revolutionary Road." So Kate Winslet.

Best Supporting Actor

Heath Ledger for "The Dark Knight," period. Bet the house. No dark horses.

Best Supporting Actress

I'm going out on a limb: Viola Davis for "Doubt." She was responsible for the most devastating scene of the year, and opposite Meryl Streep, no less.

The other prime contenders are Marisa Tomei for "The Wrestler," and Penelope Cruz for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." The changes that Woody Allen's story put Cruz through were fascinating -- especially since the film's buried subject was how the character's mind worked.

As more voters see "The Wrestler," the tough sweetness of Marisa Tomei's character will sink in, however, and she is an Oscar favorite.

Best Director

Danny Boyle for "Slumdog Millionaire," not only because it was an awesome directorial challenge, using untrained actors on unfamiliar locations, but because he won the Directors Guild Award, a usually reliable omen.

Best Animated Film

"Wall-E" is as safe a bet as Heath Ledger. Almost.

Best Documentary

I think the winner will be "Man on Wire," the spellbinding story of how tightwire artist Philippe Petit walked between the towers of the World Trade Center. Mixing archival and new footage and reconstructed scenes, it somehow builds suspense even though we've seen the present-day Petit in this film and therefore know he made it.

The dark horse is "Trouble the Water," the gripping doc about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, incorporating video footage shot during the hurricane by a gutsy Ninth Ward couple. Note: I haven't seen two of the nominees, and the voters will have, so surprises could happen.

Best Foreign Film

My pick: "Waltz with Bashir." The animated drama from Israel reconstructs a controversial massacre in Lebanon in 1982 with the fragmented memories of those who were there. The effect is like "Rashomon": Every witness can see from only one point of view. Animation gives director Ari Folman the freedom to show situations and points of view that would be impossible in a live-action film.

The other contender is probably "The Class," a deeply perceptive French film about a man who wants to be a great teacher, and the students who teach him he doesn't have greatness in him.

Best Original Screenplay

Dustin Lance Black for "Milk," a deeply felt portrait of a man who was inspired to greatness by his life and times. Charting his way through romantic and political complications, Black prepares the way for Sean Penn's remarkable leading performance.

The other leading contenders are probably Mike Leigh for "Happy-Go-Lucky," about a cheerful woman with hidden depths, and Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon for "Wall-E," which was, in addition to being entertaining, a radical critique of wasteful American lifestyles.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Simon Beaufoy for "Slumdog Millionaire." It took enormous research and energy to create this story spanning 20 years and parallel narrative strands, and employ traditional narrative formulas in a film that seemed so wholly original.

The other contender may be Eric Roth, for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." But if he wins, there may be the rare possibility of actual booing from the audience. Too many now realize that what Roth adapted was not so much the F. Scott Fitzgerald story, but his own screenplay for "Forrest Gump." Some half a million users saw a funny YouTube "trailer" comparing scene-by-scene parallels in the two films, before Paramount's complaints forced the site to take it down. Cynics say Roth has already won an Oscar for this material.

Best Cinematography

Wally Pfister for "The Dark Knight." Because it was the best-photographed film of the year, that's why.

Best Visual Effects

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron. Astonishing. Brad Pitt scarcely appears in the flesh in the first 50 minutes of the film, although he did all the acting; effects made him old, before giving way to ...

Best Makeup

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Greg Cannom, for characters aging in both directions.

Tie breaker

Predict which film will win the most awards and give the number. I know, it's a comedown to tie for getting the most correct predictions and then settling it with something almost random. But as a consolation, the next 10 finishers will get a personally autographed copy of my new Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2009.

What if I get every category right? That has never happened, and I don't expect to start now.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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