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The Contestants
Michael Clark predicts who will win at the Academy Awards

In a year which saw almost every other industry hanging on for dear life, the movie business continued to flourish and set yet another box office record. After nearly a decade of artistic spiraling, 2008 picked up right where 2007 left off and Hollywood's output continued its quality upswing.

As always seems the case, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn't give a hoot about box office take and it regularly snubs crowd-pleasing, blockbuster, popcorn movies. In most years, this would be valid and expected, but 2009 was a watershed year because quality mainstream films and the majority of "prestige" titles failed to deliver on their usual highfalutin promise. The Academy is more out of touch with the public than they've ever been. Unlike 2008, this year the competition in the six major categories is minimal. There will be two slam-dunk winners and only two races providing any real drama. Here are the nominees in the major categories and my predictions of the winners:

Actor in a lead role

Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor" - For him: Next to nothing. A nuanced performance in a movie too few saw that was released too long ago. Against him: Every other nominee has a higher profile and a delivers a better performance. Odds: 25-1

Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon" - For him: the best performance of the bunch. Played a well-known, disliked historical figure and made him sympathetic. Against him: He's something of an arrogant and snooty Hollywood outsider who often doesn't play well with others. Odds: 6-1

Sean Penn in "Milk" - For him: Plays against type as a tragic, real-life figure who is gay; won the Screen Actor's Guild award. Against him: Lost the Golden Globe and BAFTA, won in this same category recently and also has the considerable sentimental Rourke factor to deal with. Odds: 5-3

Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" - For him: He's the most famous actor in the world and has never won. Against him: Some say the success of the performance is due more to CGI effects than real acting, and he's still considered by some to be a lightweight. Odds: 12-1

Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" - For him: Almost everything. One of the best comeback stories in memory while playing a character that reflects his own life story. It's peaking at just the right time. He won the Golden Globe and BAFTA. Against him: Lost the SAG to Penn. Recently made homophobic remarks that were caught on tape and put on YouTube. Odds: 1-1

Who deserves to win: Langella

Who will win: Rourke

Dark horse: Penn

Actor in a supporting role

Josh Brolin in "Milk" - For him: Has delivered six straight stellar performances over the past two years; has escaped from the shadow of his father James. Against him: Played an unlikable, homophobic assassin who was responsible for the now infamous "Twinkie" defense. Odds: 16-1

Robert Downey, Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" - For him: Played a white man playing a black man in an action comedy and made it all believable. Against him: The Academy rarely awards comedic performances and this one also comes with perceived (but inaccurate) racist undercurrents. Odds: 30-1

Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" - For him: Went toe-to-toe with legend Meryl Streep and didn't flinch. Against him: Won recently in the lead acting category and many consider this to be a lead performance.

Odds: 14-1

Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" - For him: You name it. He won the SAG, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe for a role in an action movie - a near impossible feat. He's the overwhelming sentimental favorite. Against him: Nothing. If he doesn't win, fans the world over will riot. Odds: 1-1

Michael Shannon in "Revolutionary Road" - For him: Stole the movie from Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio with just two brief scenes. Against him: The most unknown nominee in any category in a movie that got very mixed reviews and tanked at the box office. Odds: 16-1

Who deserves to win: Ledger

Who will win: Ledger

Dark Horse: None

Actress in a lead role

Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" - For her: The Cinderella story of the year. She could follow in the footsteps of past "pretty girl" winners Charlize Theron and Halle Berry. Against her: Too young, lost the SAG, BAFTA and Golden Globe and the movie peaked way too soon. Odds: 3-2

Angelina Jolie in "The Changeling" - For her: Played a grieving mother in an otherwise lackluster film. Against her: Too many thought her performance was way over the top. She's a previous winner and like her real-life partner Brad Pitt, is still perceived as a lightweight. Odds: 12-1

Melissa Leo in "Frozen River" - For her: Long admired by her peers; one of the few nominees known mostly for her stellar work on TV. Against her: Few people saw the film which was released in the early fall. Odds: 15-1

Meryl Streep in "Doubt" - For her: She's Meryl Streep. Against her: She played a very unlikable character, she's won twice and the sentiment is leaning heavily toward Winslet. Odds: 2-1

Kate Winslet in "The Reader" - For her: Lots. For one, it's the best performance in a very strong field. This is her sixth lifetime nomination and she's way overdue. She won the BAFTA and the Golden Globe in the lead category and the SAG in the supporting bracket. Against her: Many voters are too enamored with Hathaway. Odds: 1-1

Who deserves to win: Winslet

Who will win: Winslet

Dark horse: Hathaway

Actress in a supporting role

Amy Adams in "Doubt" - For her: Not much. Might get some pity from voters who rightly feel she got shafted in this same category a few years ago for her turn in "Junebug." Against her: Sharing a nomination with another performer from the same film and category always results in both losing. Odds: 12-1

Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" - For her: She was utterly possessed in the role and proved to any remaining doubters that her leading role in "Volver" was no fluke. Won the BAFTA. Against her: Nothing. Odds: 1-1

Viola Davis in "Doubt" - For her: Appeared in a single scene in the movie and made Meryl Streep come off looking like a rank amateur. Against her: See Adams. Odds: 3-1

Taraji P. Henson in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" - For her: Her character ages over a half century and she is convincing in every scene. Against her: Many feel the film itself wasn't so much about good acting as it was masterful CGI manipulation. Odds: 10-1

Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler" - For her: Mostly escaped the "stripper/hooker with the heart of gold" cliches and she could ride in on Rourke's coattails. Against her: Won in this same category years ago for "My Cousin Vinny." Odds: 4-1

Who deserves to win: Cruz

Who will win: Cruz

Dark horse: Tomei

Best picture

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" - For it: It has all the right ingredients older voters love: sweeping romance, epic length with just enough tragedy. Against it: Too many computer bells and whistles, not enough real elbow grease. Looks and feels too much like "Forrest Gump." Odds: 9-2

"Frost/Nixon" - For it: Barely anything. It's the kind of film the Academy doesn't like to ignore, but also doesn't usually reward with anything other than a nomination. Against it: Too stodgy and along with "The Reader," many felt this nomination really belonged to "The Dark Knight." Odds: 12-1

"Milk" - For it: Thoughtful, unflinching bio-pic about a little-known civil rights pioneer featuring a terrific ensemble cast. Against it: Movies with gay characters generate a lot of industry and water-cooler kudos, but that rarely impresses the Academy. Remember "Brokeback Mountain?" Odds: 9-1

"The Reader" - For it: In a year littered with mostly bad Holocaust movies, it was the only stand out. Well told and beautifully acted. Against it: It was a major downer that alienated audiences and divided critics. Rewarding it and "Frost/Nixon" with nominations while ignoring "The Dark Knight" shows just how out of touch the Academy is. Odds: 20-1

"Slumdog Millionaire" - For it: Like "Crash," the sleeper hit of this year is also the most overrated nominee in this category. Against it: It's won practically every award in every category in every other competition and it might just be too big for its britches, but don't bet against it. Odds: 1-1

What deserves to win: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

What will win: "Slumdog Millionaire."

Dark Horse: "Milk."

Directing

Danny Boyle For "Slumdog Millionaire" - For him: The film has momentum; won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and the Director and Producer's Guild awards. Humble to a fault, versatile and he helmed a sprawling, multi-lingual film on a shoestring budget. Against him: Absolutely nothing. Odds: 1-1

Stephen Daldry For "The Reader" - For him: Very British and well respected. Many feel he should have won For "The Hours," which is quite similar in tone. Against him: British nominees in this category rarely win, but this year one will - Boyle. Odds: 10-1

David Fincher For "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" - For him: has yet to make a bad film and there's a mounting "lifetime achievement" support for him. Some voters don't want "Slumdog" to win everything. Against him: Too many F/X and too much "Forrest Gump." Odds: 7-2

Ron Howard For "Frost/Nixon" - For him: One of the most likable people in the movie business. Against him: A bunch. The movie is dialogue heavy and static. Directing two people talking while sitting down isn't that impressive. He's a recent winner and the weakest nominee. Odds: 10-1

Gus Van Zant For "Milk" - For him: Fought the temptation to turn in a slick, over-sentimentalized bio of a slain martyr. He's a maverick with an impressive body of work. Against him: May be too much of a maverick. The movie purposefully looked dated and was technologically wanting. Odds: 8-1

Who deserves to win: Fincher.

Who will win: Boyle.

Dark horse: Van Zant.

Probable Winners in Other Categories

· Best Documentary Feature: "Man on Wire"

· Best Animated Feature: "Wall-E"

· Best Foreign Language Feature: "Waltz with Bashir"

· Best Adapted Screenplay: "Slumdog Millionaire"

· Best Original Screenplay: "Milk"

· Best Original Score: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

· Best Original Song: "Down to Earth" from "WALL-E"

· Best Cinematography: "The Dark Knight"

· Best Editing: "Slumdog Millionaire"

· Best Art Direction: "The Duchess"

· Best Costume Design: "The Duchess"

· Best Sound: "The Dark Knight"

· Best Make-up: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

· Best Production Design: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

· Best Visual Effects: "Iron Man"