Pro: Voters may finally discover artsy director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, thanks to an A-list cast and a timely message about irrational hysteria over terrorism.
Con: Older academy members may balk at "Babel's" violence and avant-garde interweaving of four globe-scattered stories.
Pro: Slick entertainment with political message. DiCaprio really sparkles.
Con: Looks like an action film, so may not be taken seriously.
Pro: Looks like "Titanic" with lots of celebs on course to collide with historical tragedy. Poignant clips of real Bobby Kennedy a plus.
Con: Detractors say it's really "The Love Boat" with pop stars like Lindsay Lohan and Ashton Kutcher aboard.
"Catch a Fire"
Pro: Voters like real struggles against Third World oppression ("The Constant Gardener").
Con: African political drama "Hotel Rwanda" was nommed for best pic at Globes, not Oscars.
Pro: Take Martin Scorsese, add heartthrobs, blood, guns and let Jack wig out. Box-office gold = Oscar gold.
Con: Boys misbehavin' is fun, but not weighty.
Pro: Nearly a dozen musicals have won best picture, and this one's a B'way classic about showbiz.
Con: Recent film tuners flopped ("The Phantom of the Opera," "The Producers").
"Flags of Our Fathers"
Pro: Clint. "Flags' " theme of disillusioned soldiers facing civilian life is a proven Oscar conqueror ("The Best Years of Our Lives," "Coming Home").
Con: Could it be "Jarhead" without Jake?
"The Good German"
Pro: Oscar champ Steven Soderbergh directs Oscar A-listers George Clooney and Cate Blanchett in big December pic.
Con: Popcorn pix aside, Soderbergh has crashed since "Traffic."
"The Good Shepherd"
Pro: Academy loves movies directed by actors (Robert De Niro), plus dramas based on real life (this is about the early days of the CIA).
Con: De Niro hasn't proved himself as a director.
"The Last King of Scotland"
Pro: Forest Whitaker is bewitching as Ugandan devil Idi Amin.
Con: Amin is so creepy it's hard not to penalize the pic.
Pro: Kate Winslet aches magnificently for love. Jackie Earle Haley is hauntingly creepy.
Con: The icky subplot about a tortured sex offender forces viewers to -- eeew -- feel for him.
"Little Miss Sunshine"
Pro: Like "Crash," it's an inspirational story that keeps chuggin' at the box office.
Con: Is it more like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a box office juggernaut that was ignored at the Oscars?
"The Pursuit of Happyness"
Pro: Superstar Will Smith is winning as a destitute dad determined to succeed so he may provide for his son.
Con: Too sappy?
Pro: Oscar embraces small biopics ("Capote") and everything British ("Shakespeare in Love").
Con: In the best-actress race, Helen Mirren faces a real age bias: Women older than 40 rarely rule.
"Running With Scissors"
Pro: The long-overdue Annette Bening gets a flashy role. Based on a book that's a cult fave.
Con: Bening's nutty role is often unsympathetic.
Pro: With seven defeats, Peter O'Toole is Oscar's biggest acting loser. (That's a plus.) He's also great as a lecherous, booze-swilling actor inches from the grave.
Con: It's hard to sympathize with a bully geezer lusting after a young tart.
"World Trade Center"
Pro: Oliver Stone is a proven Oscar plus ("Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July") and handles this Sept. 11 drama deftly. Plus, it's all about heroes.
Con: It's a bit schmaltzy and may have opened too soon.
Tom O'Neil writes the Gold Derby blog at TheEnvelope.com.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
O'TOOLE'S YEAR? IT'S ALL IN THE WILD CARDS
Peter O'Toole is considered the best actor front-runner because Oscar voters are sentimental folk who respond to guilt.
They gave statues to long-snubbed legends Paul Newman and John Wayne for dubious work. Never has an actor suffered eight losses with no wins. So, odds favor seven-time loser O'Toole for his work in this year's "Venus." There are some variables, however.
OH, THE DRAMA
If "Venus" is classified as a drama at the Golden Globes, O'Toole will probably win easily. But if it's put in the comedy/musical race, he might be beaten by Sacha Baron Cohen, who portrays a wacky Kazakh TV reporter in "Borat." Being pegged a loser at the Globes could hurt O'Toole at the Oscars.
SPOILER? THE PITTS!
And watch out for surprises among the Oscar nominations. For example: Although campaigning in the supporting race, Brad Pitt ("Babel") could pop up in the lead category (voters can put actors anywhere they wish) and become O'Toole's spoiler.
-- Tom O'Neil
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
ACADEMY AWARDS: BEST PICTURE
*--* 1 Babel 2 The Queen 3 Dreamgirls 4 Flags of Our Fathers 5 Little Miss Sunshine
"Babel" enters the top five. Helen Mirren's "The Queen" is generating early buzz, as is Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers." Is "Dreamgirls" poised to be this year's "Chicago"? The Envelope taps some of the entertainment industry's top pundits to gauge who's hot and who's not in key awards races. These experts take the pulse of the awards community to rank the leading contenders in a variety of categories. Results above as of Friday. For more weekly Buzzmeter rankings and updates, go to TheEnvelope.com.