If you think it's early to be reading an Oscar prediction piece, think of how premature it feels to be actually writing one. Usually Hollywood's hard-core Academy Award prognosticators have several more weeks to take the temperature of the voters and judge how specific films are going down, but this year's truncated voting schedule makes that kind of leisure a luxury of the past.
Still, even if it is rushing to judgment, the academy is the academy, and its preferences are more or less (often less) known quantities. And a survey of veteran Oscar watchers reveals that in almost every category this year, from best picture on down, there are a number of sure shots and a few tantalizingly uncertain possibilities. (The nominations will be announced Jan. 27.)
In that best picture group, it's difficult to imagine that the academy will ignore either Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" or Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." "Mystic" is a dark film, not always an academy preference, but it may be the best-reviewed work in the long career of one of Hollywood's most respected figures. As for "The Return of the King," having already nominated the first two parts of the Rings trilogy, it's more than likely the academy will follow suit with the third.
Four other films look to be the likeliest candidates for the other three slots. Though Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain" was snubbed by the DGA, it has the epic qualities that won this award for "The English Patient" seven years ago. The sentimentality that hurt "Seabiscuit" with critics will likely be as much of a plus for academy voters as it was for audiences, and the film has worked hard to jog memories and overcome the handicap of a midyear release.
Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" has the visual scope of an Oscar nominee, but its lack of the kind of emotion that "Seabiscuit" has in abundance may hurt it enough to allow a smaller film to get in. Though "In America" and "The House of Sand and Fog" have outside chances, the likeliest indie nominee is Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," a will-o'-the-wisp film that has had surprising staying power.
The directing category will, as always, mirror the DGA nominations but only to a point, because the directors' branch, one of the academy's smallest and crankiest, likes to go its own way. Eastwood and Jackson are, once again, sure things, with industry veterans Minghella (though slighted by the DGA) and Weir also likely.
The fifth slot, however, feels up for grabs, with "Seabiscuit's" DGA-nominated Gary Ross facing stiff competition from "The Last Samurai's" Ed Zwick, "In America's" Jim Sheridan and, the strongest of all, "Lost in Translation's" DGA-nominated Coppola, whose status as Francis' daughter may help her become the rare female nominee from this cantankerous group.
The best actor category appears to be the most clear-cut, with five actors looking to have such locks on nominations that it's hard to see anyone else breaking in: Sean Penn for "Mystic River," Ben Kingsley for "House of Sand and Fog," Russell Crowe for "Master and Commander," Jude Law for "Cold Mountain" and, everyone's sentimental favorite, Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation."
By way of inevitable contrast, the best actress category looks exceptionally fluid. Two women seem to be almost sure nominees: the canny veteran Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give" and Charlize Theron in "Monster," because there's nothing like beautiful women putting on the pounds to get the academy's attention.
In the next tier are Naomi Watts in a career-best performance in "21 Grams" and Jennifer Connelly, whose work in "House of Sand and Fog" is an even stronger performance than her Oscar-winning part in "A Beautiful Mind."
Also genuine contenders are "Cold Mountain's" Nicole Kidman and "Sylvia's" Gwyneth Paltrow, both gifted academy favorites in difficult roles, as well as "Missing's" Cate Blanchett, who gave a brilliant performance in a film that did not find universal favor. The long shot here looks to be Helen Mirren in "Calendar Girls," a highly respected actress in a film that should appeal to the academy's demographic.
The supporting actress nominees break more neatly into two levels of likely. In the dominant category are Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain," Holly Hunter in "Thirteen," the super-versatile Patricia Clarkson in "Pieces of April" and the heartbreaking Shohreh Aghdashloo, the major surprise of "House of Sand and Fog."
Fated to be fighting it out for the final spot are Marcia Gay Harden for "Mystic River," Scarlett Johansson for "Lost in Translation" (and a best actress longshot for "Girl With a Pearl Earring") and Melissa Leo's breakthrough performance in "21 Grams."