0

Oscars
Movie critic predicts who will take home the gold

Time once again to get down to brass tacks.

After 2006 proved to be one of the worst years in movie history, Hollywood bounced back and delivered one of its best in 2007. Having narrowly escaped catastrophe because of the now-resolved writers' strike, the Oscar show can go on in all of its pretentious glory. It will still be hard to determine whether or not the masses will tune in to root for movies many have not seen - or will ever want to see.

As there is no breakout title this year, it's likely the Academy will continue its recent trend of spreading the wealth among many titles. You can count on at least one shocking upset during the night, and I'm pretty sure one of them will be in the Best Picture category. Call it an educated hunch.

Here are the nominees in the major categories and my predictions of the probable winners:

ACTOR IN A LEAD ROLE

George Clooney in "Michael Clayton" - For him: Even though this is the strongest performance of his career, he's still perceived as a lightweight pretty boy by people that matter. Against him: Won recently in the Best Supporting category ("Syriana"), and Daniel Day-Lewis could eat him for lunch. Odds: 10-1.

Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" - For him: Everything. Has won every award in this category so far, and most of his competitors have already privately thrown in the towel. Against him: Other than the fact he plays a soulless, self-centered psychopath, absolutely nothing. Odds: 1-2.

Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" - For him: Adored by fans and critics and respected by his peers. A multiple past nominee with no wins. Against him: Played a remorseless serial killer in a musical, a genre that rarely gets rewarded in this category. Odds: 5-1.

Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah" - For him: Next to nothing. He played the distraught, yet determined father of a murdered Iraqi war veteran. Against him: The movie itself completely tanked at the box office and wasn't very good. This was a wasted nomination that should have instead gone to Denzel Washington in "American Gangster." Odds: 20-1.

Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" - For him: A measured and assured performance in a role that required immense subtlety. He played a mob character. Against him: Other than Day-Lewis, not much. The movie only did OK at the box office, and the subject matter was hard to take. Odds: 6-1

Who deserves to win: Day-Lewis.

Who will probably win: Day-Lewis.

Dark Horse: Depp.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" - For him: While not the best performance in the bunch, some voters might also consider his equally strong showing in "Gone Baby Gone." Against him: As the title suggests, he played an unlikable, shallow character, and this is probably the least talked about performance among other stronger showings. Odds: 20-1.

Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" - For him: Played the most memorable psychopath since Hannibal Lecter. Has already won every major award and topped most critics' association lists. Against him: Very little. Unlike Lecter, his character lacked anything resembling charm. Odds: 5-4.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War" - For him: Despite being rumpled and surly throughout, his was a most likable character. The movie itself also did pretty well at the box office. Against him: Recently won in the Best Lead category ("Capote"), and then there's Bardem. Odds: 10-1.

Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild" - For him: As hard as it is to believe, this is his first nomination, and he's an overwhelming sentimental favorite. This could be this year's "Lifetime Achievement" winner. Against him: The movie itself divided critics and didn't do too well at the box office. Odds:

3-1.

Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton" - For him: He's a previous nominee for "In the Bedroom" and is well-respected and liked by his peers. He and co-star George Clooney were the offbeat moral compasses in a movie that was swimming with sharks. Against him: Bardem and Holbrook. Odds: 8-1.

Who deserves to win: Bardem.

Who will probably win: Bardem.

Dark horse: Holbrook.

ACTRESS IN A LEAD ROLE

Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" - For her: She was the only good thing in a supremely weak and pointless sequel. Against her: Being a recent previous winner ("The Aviator") and her other nomination in the Best Supporting category could cancel her out for both awards. Odds: 50-1.

Julie Christie in "Away From Her" - For her: Turned in a throttling performance as an Alzheimer's patient that wasn't totally sympathetic, and she is a huge sentimental favorite. Against her: A previous winner in this category ("Darling") and as good as she was, Cotillard was better. Odds: 3-2.

Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose" - For her: This former model and perceived lightweight totally floored everyone by convincingly channeling troubled French singer Edith Piaf. Against her: Many feel she hasn't paid enough dues. Like Christie, hers was not a completely sympathetic part. This will be the closest contest of the night, and in all likelihood, she will come up short. Odds: 3-1.

Laura Linney in "The Savages" - For her: This is a nearly flawless performance from a little-known but highly respected stage performer. Against her: She played a conniving, dislikable character in an underperforming movie that left both critics and audiences sharply divided. Odds: 10-1.

Ellen Page in "Juno" - For her: Played the most likable nominated character of the year, who was spunky and edgy but also incredibly endearing. The movie did gangbusters at the box office. Against her: Comedic performances rarely win Oscars, she's perceived as being too young, and her competition is simply too strong. Odds: 8-1.

Who deserves to win: Cotillard.

Who will probably win: Christie.

Dark horse: Page.

Actress in a supporting role

Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There" - For her: The only other time someone received a nomination for playing a member of the opposite sex (Linda Hunt in "The Year of Living Dangerously"), they won. Against her: She's received a number of previous nominations (including a win in this category), and her nomination in the Best Lead category could hurt her in the long run. Odds: 3-1.

Ruby Dee in "American Gangster" - For her: Another sentimental favorite who was one of the few likable characters in a movie that made lots of money. Against her: This is one instance where the sentimental angle will be swimming upstream against other, far better performances. Odds: 5-1.

Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement" - For her: Made a completely unlikable character sympathetic. Against her: In addition to being perceived as too young, her character unnecessarily ruined the lives of people she supposedly loved, and she's got some major, heavy-duty competition. Odds: 8-1.

Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone" - For her: Note for note, the best performance in the bunch from a relative unknown. Against her: Lots. She played a totally unlikable and opportunistic character who favored fleeting fame and fortune over the life of her child. This one is a tough sell. Odds: 3-1.

Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton" - For her: A remarkably versatile performance playing a character concerned about the bottom line, yet rife with guilt. For a movie with multiple nominations that might not win anything else, she could be the night's biggest surprise. Against her: This was the third-best performance in the most talented overall category of this year. Odds: 4-1.

Who deserves to win: Ryan.

Who will probably win: Blanchett.

Dark horse: Swinton.

Directing

Paul Thomas Anderson for "There Will Be Blood" - For him: Even after the masterpieces "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," he was considered a talented flake. Now he's a bona fide genius. Against him: The movie was too dark, too artsy, and then there's the Coen juggernaut. Odds: 5-1.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen for "No Country for Old Men" - For them: Won the Director's Guild Award, the BAFTA. Against them: Creepy movie with an ending that left many feeling short-changed. The film will win in other categories, and voters might want to spread the wealth. Odds: 1-1.

Tony Gilroy for "Michael Clayton" - For him: Considering this is his first film, a lot. He crafted an intricate and involving thriller that wasn't impossible to follow. Against him: It's his first movie, and most voters will feel he hasn't paid enough dues. Odds: 8-1.

Jason Reitman for "Juno" - For him: He's made just two movies ("Thank You for Smoking" was the other), and both are letter perfect. Against him: Although it's not true, many voters will think he got to where he is because of his producer father Ivan. Voters hate nepotism. Also, comedy directors rarely win. Odds: 10-1.

Julian Schnabel for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" - For him: Has already won the Golden Globe. Made the most interesting and original looking movie of the year. Against him: The movie's groundbreaking style practically overshadows the so-so screenplay. Odds: 3-1.

Who deserves to win: The Coens.

Who will probably win: The Coens.

Dark horse: Schnabel.

Best Picture

"Atonement" - For it: Of the five nominees, it's the only one that has everything the Academy looks for in a Best Picture winner: Sweeping epic storyline, war backdrop, star-crossed lovers and an engaging villain. It just won the BAFTA Best Picture award. Against it: Has not done too well in other contests, only one cast member was nominated, and director Joe Wright was snubbed. Odds: 5-1.

"Juno" - For it: Best performer at the box office. It's the only upbeat movie in the lot and was also universally adored by both audiences and critics. Against it: The last comedy to win in this category was "Annie Hall" 30 years ago. As great as it was, it's still largely perceived as fluff, and big box office receipts rarely equate to winning the biggest prize of the night. Odds: 10-1.

"Michael Clayton" - For it: Well-told story about big business getting its due comeuppance after poisoning ordinary citizens. Voters always love "cause" movies. Against it: It's not nearly as dark as "No Country for Old Men" or "There Will Be Blood," but it's still pretty downbeat, and if members somehow feel like rewarding bleak, it will be one of those other two, not this. Odds: 12-1.

"No Country for Old Men" - For it: Has won virtually other prize awarded in this category so far. The Coen brothers have paid their dues and then some. Against it: It's not Best Picture material. Conservative voters might be turned off by the violence and the confusing, open-ended final scene. It will certainly win in other categories, and voters might spread the wealth. Odds: 2-1.

"There Will Be Blood" - For it: Unlike "No Country for Old Men," this one was old-school crazy, something with which voters are slightly more comfortable. It is a throwback film that worked in a modern score to great effect. Against it: It is simply not traditional Best Picture material, and the sick-puppy ending might be just enough to keep it from being a legitimate spoiler. Odds: 4-1.

What deserves to win: "Juno."

What will probably win: "Atonement" (in a stunning upset).

Dark horse: "Michael Clayton."

SideBar: Probable winner in other categories

Best Documentary Feature: "Taxi to the Dark Side"

Best Animated Feature: "Ratatouille"

Best Adapted Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen for "No Country for Old Men"

Best Original Screenplay: Diablo Cody for "Juno"

Best Original Score: Dario Marianelli for "Atonement"

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins for "No Country for Old Men"

Best Editing: Christopher Rouse for "The Bourne Ultimatum"

Best Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer for "Atonement"

Best Costume Design: Alexandra Byrne for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"

Best Sound: "The Bourne Ultimatum"

Best Make-up: "La Vie en Rose"

Best Visual Effects: "Transformers"

Best Original Song: "Falling Slowly" from "Once"