academy award predictions are tough this year - the customary mud-slinging between gargantuan movie houses was shockingly absent, and it's hard to know if the new rules about screening copies for voters will favor films that have already gone to video. also i haven't seen several of the heavy hitters, but when has the absence of key information prevented me from having an opinion? let's trust southern californian native intuition. the x factor is either bill murray's anti-hollywood barbs or sean penn, but in both instances they were just playing themselves.

best actor

johnny depp - pirates of the caribbean...
ben kingsley - house of sand and fog
jude law - cold mountain
*bill murray - lost in translation
sean penn - mystic river

bill murray knocked it out of the park here. sofia coppola had him in mind as she wrote the screenplay, and in directing she showcased the winning comic pathos america has always loved about him. we also mustn't forget the robin williams effect - you could almost taste how badly the academy wanted to recognize him for the relatively decent good will hunting after the radioactive comedies he'd been doing in the early '90s. murray's working with a better role, film, and oeuvre here: he's got it.

best supporting actor

alec baldwin - the cooler
benicio del toro - 21 grams
djimon hounsou - in america
*tim robbins - mystic river
ken watanabe - the last samurai

not a lot of firecrackers here. while the novelty of an alec baldwin triumph would be interesting, i think that if sean penn doesn't take best actor, tim robbins will bring it home as his first mate: clint eastwood pictures are heavy hitters, as is robbins (solid performance in, honestly, a problematic film). benicio del toro has been turning in respectable performances since the usual suspects, but he may shape up to be the academy's version of susan lucci. check on him in ten years.

best actress

keisha castle-hughes - whale rider
*diane keaton - something's gotta give
samantha morton - in america
charlize theron - monster
naomi watts - 21 grams

while charlize theron has a strong nicole kidman-style bid with strong acting, stronger makeup - and the golden globe already - diane keaton got naked and co-starred with jack nicholson in a bittersweet movie (see helen hunt, as good as it gets).

best supporting actress

*shohreh aghdashloo - house of sand and fog
patricia clarkson - pieces of april
marcia gay harden - mystic river
holly hunter - thirteen
renee zellweger - cold mountain

this one goes exotic, i think. cold mountain was so obviously miramax's bid for awards that its cast will utterly fail to win them. holly hunter was very good, but her role was very quiet. ms. aghdashloo will take it here because ben kingsley can't.

best song

"belleville rendez-vous" - the triplets of belleville
*"into the west" - return of the king
"a kiss at the end of the rainbow" - a mighty wind
"scarlet tide" - cold mountain
"you will be my ain true love" - cold mountain

academy voters rarely see foreign cartoons, the cold mountain numbers cancel each other out (sorry, sting), and "a mighty wind" was a christopher guest spoof - a win there would be like a win for "blame canada" from the south park movie. and honestly, if you had the power to give annie lennox something she wanted, would you even hesitate?

best director

fernando meirelles - city of god
*peter jackson - return of the king
sofia coppola - lost in translation
peter weir - master and commander...
clint eastwood - mystic river

i think return of the king will nail this and best picture, but sofia coppola could complicate things. she'll get best screenplay, no question, but her stylized direction is an arty-farty favorite. i'm going with the hobbit-wrangler because j.r.r. tolkien is the #1 least annoying person on amiannoying.com, and peter jackson actually had to rebuild a hill in new zealand after building rohan on top of it.

best picture

*return of the king
lost in translation
master and commander...
mystic river

yeah, lord of the rings takes it. master and commander is also a "big" movie, but voters are going to want to recognize the tolkien trilogy in one fell swoop. as far as fantasy epics go, i can't think of a better adaptation...especially if you throw out science fiction and ignore blade runner. best in genre could mean best picture here, but i'll be satisfied if sofia coppola goes home a big winner instead. which reminds me -

best outfit (actor or actress)

*sofia coppola - marc jacobs
johnny depp - vanessa paradis and some weird period outfit
renee zellweger - carolina herrera (probably)
cate blanchett - maternity couture
scarlett johansson - anything

cate blanchett is usually the juggernaut here, but she's with child. scarlett johansson made a strong showing at the golden globes, so she could be one to watch. nicole kidman, normally a contender, shamed her family with that weird gold flapper thing at the golden globes, and she's too freakin' skinny lately. sofia takes it because she's marc jacobs's muse, and because she's capable of looking sexy in flats.

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