It's never too early to start predicting Oscar nominees, and with the Academy roster due out on January 25, there's all the more reason to be a little hasty. In less than three weeks, the National Board of Review will fit their usual bill as the first critics group to announce their annual honorees. So, no time like the present to hop on this awards-season train.

Come to think of it, I don't even know why I'm making excuses for the "hastiness" of this feature. I know people—and, if you're reading this, you probably know people—who had already started this guessing game before Charlize even got home to redecorate her mantel. Without further ado, then, here's how the big races look to me right now. (Of course, that was all then; this is now.)


Picture/DirectorLead ActorsSupporting ActorsScreenplays
BEST PICTURE



The Aviator
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Fahrenheit 9/11
Finding Neverland
Ray


Scorsese's film is starry and expensive.
Sunshine's appeal has held on all year.
Moore is more for burning-mad liberals.
Escapism in period dress is Oscar's wet dream.
Who doesn't love Ray Charles?



Close Competition
Closer
The Sea Inside
But only if reviews are huge and receipts are respectable

Hotel Rwanda
Kinsey
But only if voters don't feel lectured to

Sideways
But only if Fox Searchlight can keep the film alive

The Motorcycle Diaries
But only if Focus Features can keep the film alive

The Phantom of the Opera
But only if pure cheese is reasonably well-averted

Alexander
A Very Long Engagement
But only if the spectacles have heart, not just looks

The Incredibles
Shrek 2
But only if the Animated category isn't deemed enough

The Passion of the Christ
But only if Gibson has enough loyal pals

BEST DIRECTOR



Marc Forster, Finding Neverland
Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michael Moore, Fahrenheit 9/11
Mike Nichols, Closer
Martin Scorsese, The Aviator


Forster's an up-and-comer swinging on the right stars.
Gondry kept tone, plot, and performance in synch.
Sure, they booed him, but you know they still love him.
An old pro to dignify all the new tykes.
Surely this man is going to win eventually?



Close Competition
Bill Condon, Kinsey
Taylor Hackford, Ray
But only if they're credited with more than performances

Alexander Payne, Sideways
But only if the box office and word-of-mouth keep building

Pedro Almodóvar, Bad Education
Alejandro Amenábar, The Sea Inside
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, A Very Long Engagement
Walter Salles, The Motorcycle Diaries
Zhang Yimou, House of Flying Daggers
But only if the subtitle crowd can agree on a favorite

Oliver Stone, Alexander
But only if it's a huge hit and a return to form

Richard Linklater, Before Sunset
Michael Mann, Collateral
But only if the directors feel like rallying behind pure craft

Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Terry George, Hotel Rwanda
But only if the films score bigger than anyone's expecting

Brad Bird, The Incredibles
But only if animation can finally get real respect


BEST ACTRESS



Annette Bening, Being Julia
Téa Leoni, Spanglish
Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Bening's the rare woman with a punchy vehicle all to herself.
If Columbia starts marketing this thing, Leoni is likely.
The DVD is well-timed, and the performance is immaculate.
Buzz has built since Venice; another topical lefty choice.
Surely this woman is going to win eventually?



Close Competition
Lynn Collins, The Merchant of Venice
But only if critics help, and Pacino doesn't outshine her

Julie Delpy, Before Sunset
But only if critics help, and voters catch the DVD

Paz Vega, Spanglish
But only if she clicks, and she isn't classed as Supporting

Audrey Tautou, A Very Long Engagement
But only if the passion of Audrey is a real second coming

Nicole Kidman, Dogville
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill, Vol. 2
But only if early releases and harsh content don't sink them

Helen Mirren, The Clearing
But only if anyone even distantly remembers the film

Emmy Rossum, The Phantom of the Opera
But only if Christine seems like more than a silly twit

Julia Roberts, Closer
But only if anyone really feels like she needs another nod

BEST ACTOR



Javier Bardem, The Sea Inside
Jeff Bridges, The Door in the Floor
Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland
Jamie Foxx, Ray
Liam Neeson, Kinsey

Bardem's an ill, aging, sympathetic martyr. Hello!
Raffish actor everyone likes scores big with critics.
Depp pulls a 180° and still entertains all ages.
That sound you hear is the clamor of front-runner buzz.
Another likable actor in another showy, chancy part.



Close Competition
Al Pacino, The Merchant of Venice
But only if one of the five front-runners takes a spill

Gael García Bernal, The Motorcycle Diaries
But only if Hollywood really wants to break him out

Jude Law, Closer
But only if his fans pick this role to reward a year of work

Kevin Bacon, The Woodsman
Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda
Sean Penn, The Assassination of Richard Nixon
But only if these last-minute releases hit big, fast, and loud

Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
But only if the Academy has finally beaten their envy problem

Paul Giamatti, Sideways
But only if this critics' darling can finally connect more broadly

Gerald Butler, The Phantom of the Opera
Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ
Tom Cruise, Collateral
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator
Kevin Spacey, Beyond the Sea
But only if this year were a little less competitive


BEST SUPPORING ACTRESS



Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
Cloris Leachman, Spanglish
Laura Linney, Kinsey
Virginia Madsen, Sideways
Natalie Portman, Closer


Surely this woman is going to win eventually?
Few are funnier, and Oscar likes to laugh in this race.
A highly regarded pro in an Oscar-tailored role.
Critics could be key, as they were with Linney in 2000.
Hollywood can't wait for her to become a headliner.



Close Competition
Julie Christie, Finding Neverland
Regina King, Ray
But only if their films have long coattails

Laura Dern, We Don't Live Here Anymore
But only if one of the critics' groups singles her out

Barbra Streisand, Meet the Fockers
Lily Tomlin, I ♥ Huckabees
But only if Leachman relinquishes the funnywoman slot

Paz Vega, Spanglish
Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
But only if cautious studios campaign for them here

Irma P. Hall, The Ladykillers
Maia Morgenstern, The Passion of the Christ
But only if voters have long and adventurous memories

Meryl Streep, The Manchurian Candidate
But only if voters can't fight the reflex

Kate Bosworth, Beyond the Sea
Jodie Foster, A Very Long Engagement
Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda
Kyra Sedgwick, The Woodsman
But only if these holiday releases hit big, fast, and loud

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



David Carradine, Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Willem Dafoe, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Jude Law, I ♥ Huckabees
Clive Owen, Closer
Peter Sarsgaard, Kinsey

Key supports in QT films have historically done well.
Sympathetically kooky comic relief à la Chris Cooper.
Oscar seems to like him, and this is spit-polished work.
Another matinée idol who only needs a first nod to break out.
After last year's omission, a Pieces of April-type payback.



Close Competition
Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby
Nick Nolte, Hotel Rwanda
But only if these Oscar-less pros get the roles they need

Liev Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate
But only if the Golden Globe voters include him in the race

Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland
But only if Hollywood's heart has room for another precocious kid

Tom Cruise, Collateral
But only if Paramount and DreamWorks see an opening here

Mark Wahlberg, I ♥ Huckabees
But only if the Actors Branch is patient with the film

Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Rodrigo De la Serna, The Motorcycle Diaries
But only if voters are willing to learn a new name

John Lithgow, Kinsey
Peter O'Toole, Troy
But only if voters get abjectly nostalgic for a familiar name


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY



The Aviator
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Incredibles
Kinsey
Ray


If Gangs got a writing nod, why not this?
They liked the half-mature Kaufman, but they love the new one.
Clever animation tends to make inroads in this race.
The provocations of the material will be taken as a script virtue.
Enthusiasm for the film and the man should be contagious.



Close Competition
Bad Education
Spanglish
But only if these winning writers are back on top form

I ♥ Huckabees
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
But only if voters can handle more than one surreal comedy

Shrek 2
But only if there's room for more than one hot cartoon

Before Sunset
Vera Drake
But only if paid writers go in for semi-improvisations

Hotel Rwanda
But only if the movie scores big, fast, and loud

Garden State
Napoleon Dynamite
But only if the big dogs make room for a frisky puppy

Fahrenheit 9/11
But only if the Guild endorses it as they did Columbine

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY



Closer
The Door in the Floor
Finding Neverland
The Motorcycle Diaries
Sideways

A playwright adapts his own high-profile work.
Reviewers were kind, and Irving's name spells "class" to voters.
Good place to reward an also-ran for the bigger prizes.
Ché's story is timely and the film's tone is perfect for Oscar.
Despite the Schmidt snub, Payne is still well-respected.



Close Competition
A Very Long Engagement
But only if the recent taste for foreign flavors persists

The Merchant of Venice
But only if Radford brings Shakespeare fully alive

We Don't Live Here Anymore
But only if voters like Dubus better than Irving

A Home at the End of the World
But only if voters like Cunningham better than Dubus

The Phantom of the Opera
But only if the reviews are really solid and the story coheres

Being Julia
But only if Annette sweeps it in, Passion Fish-style

Before Sunset
But only if this absurd studio classification stays in place

Stage Beauty
But only if this film isn't a distant memory by Christmas


Meanwhile, as we await the late-year releases, take a look back at
my own mid-year picks of the year's best, covering January through August.

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