WHO'S GOING TO WIN? Our Oscar choices

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. If nothing else, this year's Oscar ceremony promises to be as much of a nail-biter as January's Super Bowl. The possibilities for dramatic, come-from-behind victories are positively endless. The smart money says that the real horse race is between "Lord of the Rings" and "A Beautiful Mind," the two biggest box-office hits. According to one scenario, "Rings" is a lock because the movie with the most nominations -- in this case 13 -- invariably takes home the top prize. Of course, Oscar has never given this award to a fantasy epic before ("Star Wars" and "The Wizard of Oz" both came away empty-handed). Another hypothesis is that "A Beautiful Mind" must win because sanctimonious drivel pushes all the Academy's favorite buttons: Big themes; "spiritual uplift;" over-the-top acting; etc. and makes them feel good about themselves. Yet another popular theory insists that "Moulin Rouge" will pull an upset because it's the movie that has the most ardent fan base, many of whom are still indignant that Baz Luhrmann failed to get a directing nod. (Historical footnote: "Driving Miss Daisy" won Best Picture despite the fact that its director, Bruce Beresford, didn't receive a nomination.) I guess that means neither "Gosford Park" nor "In the Bedroom" should even bother showing up Sunday.
Will Russell Crowe do what only Tom Hanks and Spencer Tracy have done before in Academy history by winning Best Actor two years in a row? Or, will the well-respected (and considerably better-liked) Denzel Washington be the first black actor to ace lead category honors since Sidney Poitier nearly 40 years ago? Tom Wilkinson (too unknown in Hollywood circles), Sean Penn (a great actor in a very bad movie), and Will Smith (hurt by "Ali"'s box-office failure) appear to be also-rans.
Nicole Kidman got nominated for the wrong film. She should have received her nomination for "The Others"; Renee Zellweger will suffer from the Academy's traditional disdain of comedy; Judi Dench's movie was too "small" and not seen by enough people; and Halle Berry is hurt for the same reasons as Dench. That leaves industry favorite (and former winner) Sissy Spacek for what was, in all fairness, a supporting role.
A tough category with no real front-runner. Ben Kingsley peaked last summer, when "Sexy Beast" was first released, whereas Jon Voight and Ethan Hawke's surprise nominations are their own reward. That leaves Brits Ian McKellen and Jim Broadbent to duke it out for the spoils. If McKellen wins, it could foreshadow a "Rings" sweep. But Broadbent was the heart and soul of "Iris," and had a banner year with additional stellar turns in "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Moulin Rouge."
The "Gosford Park" grand dames, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, will likely cancel each other out, and Kate Winslet's part isn't showy enough. I would love to see the consistently undervalued Marisa Tomei emerge triumphant, finally putting to rest the Tinseltown myth that Jack Palance read her name by mistake when she won for this same category in 1993. Alas, Jennifer Connelly is probably the closest thing to a lock all evening for her overrated performance in "A Beautiful Mind."
Let's automatically eliminate David Lynch and Ridley Scott since their films ("Mulholland Drive" and "Black Hawk Down") weren't nominated. While Peter Jackson and Ron Howard will likely battle it out for Best Picture, 76-year-old veteran Robert Altman seems to have the inside track on the directing trophy as a sort of career award. Still, Altman didn't receive a DGA nomination, and the winner there usually repeats at the Oscars. So, as heartsick as it makes me to write this, Howard could conceivably win because of his presumed underdog status.
Somebody obviously confused this category with "Best Animated Kids Movie," which could explain why the wonderfully creative (and adult) "Waking Life" didn't make the cut. The only way instant classic "Shrek" can lose is if Disney CEO Michael Eisner personally phones every voting member of the academy and threatens to blackball them for life.
The clear choice is the universally beloved "Amelie," right? Maybe not. Don't count out "No Man's Land," which shocked everyone by winning the Golden Globe. Nobody's heard of, let alone seen, the other nominees ("Elling," "Son of the Bride," and "Lagaan," a 3 1/2-hour Indian musical about cricket) which doesn't mean that they can't win. Considering this notoriously wacky category's history, anything is possible. I have a hard time believing that "Amelie" can really lose, though. As last year's victor, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," proved, sometimes the most popular movie does win.
Should and will win: "Amelie"
Shoulda been a contender:
"The Son's Room" (Italy)
As usual this is a disgraceful category with only one tune (Enya's "Lord of the Rings" ballad) deserving a nomination, which probably means that it doesn't have a prayer. Will this be the year that Randy Newman finally brings home the gold (for his dreary "Monsters, Inc." song)? Or will aging British rockers Sting and Paul McCartney fight over the prize for their equally anemic ditties? Yawn; does anyone even care?
Should win: Enya "May It Be", "Lord of the Rings."
Will win: Sting "Until...", "Kate and Leopold."
Shoulda been a contender: R.E.M. "All the Right Friends", "Vanilla Sky."