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December 12, 2007|TOM O'NEIL

AFTER the award for best picture, the most important Oscars are for directing and writing. In fact, those prizes often go to the movie that wins the top race, underscoring how important voters consider the basics of plotting, dialogue and helming when declaring a film's greatness. Ace acting is key too, of course, but two-time Oscar champ Spencer Tracy once put that into cruel perspective by summing up the actor's job this way: "Show up on time, know your lines and don't bump into the furniture."

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Favorites

BEST DIRECTOR

Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"

Tim Burton, "Sweeney Todd"

Ethan and Joel Coen, "No Country for Old Men"

Marc Forster, "The Kite Runner"

Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"

Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages"

Sidney Lumet, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

James Mangold, "3:10 to Yuma"

Sean Penn, "Into the Wild"

Jason Reitman, "Juno"

Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

Ridley Scott, "American Gangster"

Denzel Washington, "The Great Debaters"

Joe Wright, "Atonement"

Spotlight: This award is often bestowed on directors as payback for past snubs, as Martin Scorsese ("The Departed") discovered last year. Now "Atonement" may benefit from the widespread belief that director Joe Wright should've been nominated for "Pride & Prejudice" in 2005. Tim Burton holds the biggest IOU. He's never been nominated for director despite helming such great films over two decades as "Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood" and "Big Fish." If "Sweeney Todd" is successful, it could be hailed as his greatest accomplishment: Not only did he hold the creative reins, he dared to reimagine the classic Broadway musical as a Hollywood horror flick.

Possible

Ben Affleck, "Gone Baby Gone"

John Carney, "Once"

David Cronenberg, "Eastern Promises"

Todd Haynes, "I'm Not There"

Ang Lee, "Lust, Caution"

Mira Nair, "The Namesake"

Mike Nichols, "Charlie Wilson's War"

Rob Reiner, "The Bucket List"

Adam Shankman, "Hairspray"

Robert Zemeckis, "Beowulf"

SPOTLIGHT: It took Ang Lee ("Lust, Caution") a long time to be embraced by the academy. He was snubbed for a directing nom in 1995 when his "Sense and Sensibility" was up for best picture, but he's been nominated since ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000) and even won ("Brokeback Mountain" in 2005). Now Lee may even be one of those esteemed veterans who gets nominated in the directors' race even though his film doesn't make the best picture list, as with Mike Leigh ("Vera Drake") and Pedro Almodovar ("Talk to Her").

Longshots

Fatih Akin, "The Edge of Heaven"

Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, "Ratatouille"

Olivier Dahan, "La Vie en Rose"

David Fincher, "Zodiac"

Eran Kolirin, "The Band's Visit"

Cristian Mungiu, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"

Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi, "Persepolis"

Sarah Polley, "Away From Her"

Julie Taymor, "Across the Universe"

SPOTLIGHT: Members of the directors' branch like to hail obscure helmers of artsy foreign films praised by critics. That's how Brazilian Fernando Meirelles scored a nomination for 2002's "City of God." This year, Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and now the brusque drama about illegal abortions in Romania is a top Oscar contender for foreign-language film.

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ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Favorites

"Atonement," Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan

"Charlie Wilson's War," Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby

"Into the Wild," Sean Penn, based on the book by Jon Krakauer

"The Kite Runner," David Benioff, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini

"The Namesake," Sooni Taraporevala, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

"No Country for Old Men," Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," John Logan, based on the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler

"There Will Be Blood," Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel "Oil!" by Upton Sinclair

SPOTLIGHT: Over the last half-century, 24 best picture champs won adapted screenplay (with another eight competing in this category unsuccessfully). Fifteen of the winners were, like "Atonement," based on novels. Its screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, took home an Oscar in 1988 for adapting his Broadway play "Dangerous Liaisons." He tried several approaches to McEwan's complex story, including one that employed the heavy use of a narrator, but ultimately retooled it in such a way that, if you haven't read the book, you don't foresee the whopper of an ending.

Possible

"Away From Her," Sarah Polley, based on the novel by Alice Munro

"Gone Baby Gone," Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane

"Hairspray," Leslie Dixon, based on the musical by Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

"Lust, Caution," Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, based on the short story by Eileen Chang

"A Mighty Heart," John Orloff, based on the book by Mariane Pearl

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