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Why who should win an Oscar is only rarely who actually does

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There's been a lot of attention paid to the indie focus of this year's Oscars — there're no big blockbusters among the nominees — and whether that will affect how many people watch and how many people care. But it won't affect the eccentric and complicated calculus that seems to arise unbidden from the Academy's choices. Who leaves happy and who leaves disappointed is about so many things other than quality. It really is an honor to be nominated, and a nomination is almost always a genuine mark of excellence. Beyond the nomination point, it's all a matter of recognizing artists who've been overlooked in previous years, about spreading the wealth around in a way so that a goodly number of worthy films get pats on the back.

Surprising shutouts, and near-shutouts? There are always a few: Terence Malick's luminous The New World (just one nom, a worthy one, for cinematography, but still...); Werner Herzog's profoundly insightful documentary Grizzly Man (no noms at all? that's just crazy). But even they say something about the tenor of the Academy as a whole: weird and quirky is fine. Just don't be too weird and quirky.

Best Actor

Who's nominated: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line; David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck.

Who shoulda been nominated: Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence

Who's going home with Oscar: If only the Oscars were a catfight — a literal one, that is; it's already a figurative one — cuz then we'd get to see Phoenix and Ledger wrassle for the statue: it's a toss-up between the two for the best performance of the year (though Phoenix is my favorite). Watch for voters to split the difference and give it to Hoffman by default.

Best Actress

Who's nominated: Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents; Felicity Huffman, Transamerica; Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice; Charlize Theron, North Country; Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Who shoulda been nominated: Georgie Hensley, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Who's going home with Oscar: It comes down to this: who surprised us the most? Dench is awesome, as always, but she's phoning in her awesomeness this time. Thanks to Monster, we already knew Theron had chops. Huffman's got the Oscar bonus points for portraying a character suffering a strange affliction, but her performance is too mannered. Knightley's excellent but a tad young for this award. Look for Witherspoon to be making room on her mantel, her reward for proving she's more than merely charming and adorable.

Best Supporting Actor

Who's nominated: George Clooney, Syriana; Matt Dillon, Crash; Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man; Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain; William Hurt, A History of Violence

Who shoulda been nominated: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Serenity

Who's going home with Oscar: They're all worthy performances. This could be where the Academy shows it's not completely averse to Violence, but it's more likely to take this opportunity to recognize Clooney's impressive and multidisciplined body of work for the year. Expect some snarky political commentary in Clooney's acceptance speech.

Best Supporting Actress

Who's nominated: Amy Adams, Junebug; Catherine Keener, Capote; Frances McDormand, North Country; Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener; Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

Who shoulda been nominated: Maria Bello, A History of Violence

Who's going home with Oscar: Of all categories, this one is always where the voters are most adventurous. Capote and Brokeback will find love in other areas that night; Country is too weak overall, and McDormand isn't any more extraordinary than she usually is. If there could be ties, it'd be between Adams and Weisz, but expect the outta-nowhere nominee Adams to walk away with the prize for the sad amiability of her Southern girl.

Best Animated Feature Film

Who's nominated: Howl's Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, director; Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, Mike Johnson and Tim Burton, directors; Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Nick Park and Steve Box, directors

Who shoulda been nominated: Mirrormask

What's gonna win: With all the gorgeous and strikingly original imagery in the CGI-heavy Mirrormask, a nod here would have at least been an acknowledgement that the line between live-action and animation is rapidly disappearing. Still, if the very traditional claymation of Wallace & Gromit doesn't win, there's no justice in this universe. Castle's story is a mess, even if some of the animation is breathtaking, and Bride is a retread of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Only the cheese-loving Englishman and his trusty canine sidekick have a great film to their name, not merely a great-looking one.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Who's nominated: Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain; Dan Futterman, Capote; Jeffrey Caine, The Constant Gardener; Josh Olson, A History of Violence; Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich

Who shoulda been nominated: Debra Moggach, Pride & Prejudice

Who's going home with Oscar: The Academy loves actors who cross over into other categories, so they might have some especial sympathy for Capote's screenwriter ... except that surely even some voters are going "Dan who? And he's an actor, you say?" (Quite a fine one, actually.) If Hurt doesn't hog the limited love for Violence and snag Supporting Actor, the script could win here. This may be this year's hardest category to call, but I suspect Brokeback won't sweep, and the Academy will give Munich its sole award for the night to Kushner and Roth.

Best Original Screenplay

Who's nominated: Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco, Crash; George Clooney & Grant Heslov, Good Night, and Good Luck.; Woody Allen, Match Point; Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale; Stephen Gaghan, Syriana

Who shoulda been nominated: Joss Whedon, Serenity

Who's going home with Oscar: I'm not surprised by Whedon's omission — the Academy doesn't know what to do with sci-fi films beyond mooning over their FX — but Serenity is at least as full of sociopolitical import as three of the five nominees here. It could be Woody's turn here, for his clever Hitchcockian mystery, but the Academy members know he won't show up to accept, and that cheeses them off. So they'll give it to Baumbach, not just because his is the little movie that could, but also because they know he'll be ecstatic.

Best Director

Who's nominated: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain; Bennett Miller, Capote; Paul Haggis, Crash; George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck; Steven Spielberg, Munich

Who shoulda been nominated: David Cronenberg, A History of Violence

Who's going home with Oscar: Lee, without a doubt. He's owed it from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but more than that, the industry loves Brokeback, loves its dare to the flyover states that Hollywood's liberal bent doesn't apply everywhere, loves its warmth and humanity, loves its appeal to the political without being, you know, political about it.

Best Picture

Who's nominated: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck.; Munich

Who shoulda been nominated: A History of Violence

What's gonna win: Brokeback Mountain. See above. The film has it all: tragedy, romance, an historical aspect, an epic quality that doesn't diminish its intimacy, fabulous and daring performances, and artistically defensible sex. Me, I still contend that A History of Violence is the best film of the year, with its withering satiric eye on our society's schizophrenic attitudes toward brutality. But a heartbreaking commentary on our society's hypocritical attitudes toward sex and love? I'm all for that, too.

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