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The 78th Annual Academy Awards

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, March 1, 2006

For the first time in almost a decade, the Oscars are a competition between small, independent films.

No huge blockbusters, few overwhelming prestige films, no Miramax – most of the Best Picture nominees are from the art-oriented offshoots of the major studios (Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classic, Warner Independent). Not since 1996, when Miramax’s “The English Patient” beat out critical favorite “Fargo,” has there been an Oscar race oriented around so many smaller films. In other years, it’s possible to make the argument that the films that emerge as classics and/or the true best pictures of the year aren’t even nominated (2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” 2000’s “Almost Famous” and “Memento”). That doesn’t seem to be the case this year, as the gravitation toward independent films means that the pictures nominated may truly be the five best of the year.

Still, 2005 has a clear favorite: Ang Lee’s exquisite “Brokeback Mountain.” It leads the race with eight nominations, including most of the major categories.

In other nominations, Spielberg’s “Munich,” mired in controversy and less-than-stellar box office returns, seems like an afterthought (though it garnered a few key nominations), while George Clooney finally comes into his own as a regular Orson Welles with no less than three nominations (acting, directing and writing, and his film “Good Night and Good Luck” was also nominated for Best Picture).

In an unusual turn of events, all five of the Best Picture nominees were matched by nominations for their directors, something that has only happened three times before (in 1957, 1964 and 1981).

While few of these categories are wide-open races, there’s also no Scorsese, which means no guaranteed loser either. The 78th Annual Academy Awards will be aired on Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC. Here’s a look at the major categories:

Best Picture

What will win: Brokeback Mountain

Why it will win: Bluntly put, there’s not a whole lot of competition. “Crash” may be the closest contender, but mixed critical consensus and the ensemble cast will sink its chances. “Brokeback Mountain” has everything the Oscars look for: an all-star cast, a talented and proven director, a topical and relevant plotline, a quotable script. “Brokeback Mountain” is also one of the most beautifully and exquisite made films in years, and the Academy’s love of high production values will certainly bolster its chances.

What should win: Brokeback Mountain

Why it should win: If “Brokeback Mountain” wins, it will mark the finest Best Picture winner in a decade – maybe longer. Prestige and marketing often overshadow the actual content of a film, which is how “The English Patient” won in 1996 and “Shakespeare in Love” won in 1998. “Brokeback Mountain” is an accomplished, amazingly effective film that will remain in the public consciousness for years later. Its stature will grow, rather than diminish, in ensuing years.

Best Actor

Who will win: Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”

Why he will win: What a fantastic actor Hoffman is! He’s one of the few actors who steals the show in every picture he’s in, playing everything from a porn industry soundman (“Boogie Nights”) to rock critic Lester Bangs (“Almost Famous”). “Capote” may be his finest work, as Hoffman controls the film with a perfectly modulated performance, proving once and for all that the one-time character actor is capable of carrying a picture by himself. Hoffman is an actor known for disappearing into his characters, and his affected turn as the eponymous ornery writer-journalist is both memorable and effective. The Academy will certainly not overlook Hoffman, who has become a critical favorite over the years.

Who should win: Heath Ledger, “Brokeback Mountain”

Why he should win: His staggeringly brave performance – an absolute revelation. Ledger does so much with so little that he commands the screen throughout “Brokeback Mountain,” acting as the aching emotional core of the film, anchoring it with such presence that it’s hard to believe that this is an actor whose past credits include “A Knight’s Tale” and “Ten Things I Hate About You.” His turn as the cowboy Ennis is heartbreaking in its emotional scope and breathtaking in its measured control. Without doubt one of the best performances of the year, it should instantly move Ledger to the top of the A-list in Hollywood and make him a future Academy Award candidate.

Best Actress

Who will win: Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line”

Why she will win: She’s a lock. Look at the competition – two past winners (Judi Dench for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” and Charlize Theron for 2003’s “Monster”), a still as yet unproven talent (Keira Knightley) and the largely untouted Felicity Huffman. Aside from Knightley’s “Pride and Prejudice,” nobody has seen any of the other films (Dench’s “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” Theron’s “North Country” and Huffman’s “Transamerica”), which gives Witherspoon a major publicity boost. Plus, she’s actually pretty good as June Carter in “Walk the Line,” which makes this one of the least contestable categories in the entire show.

Who should win: Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line”

Why she should win: Again, lack of competition. Huffman’s performance in “Transamerica” has been praised, but it’s hard to win as a good actress in a bad film. Witherspoon’s dead-on performance as June Carter was one of the most notable of the year, as she even overshadowed fellow lead Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash.

Best Supporting Actor

Who will win: Paul Giamatti, “Cinderella Man”

Why he will win: Consider it a consolation prize. Giamatti has been snubbed time and time again by the Academy (he didn’t even get nominated for last year’s “Sideways”), so they’ll compensate him with a gold statuette this year. It’s not the finest performance of his career, but Giamatti’s turn as fast-talking manager Joe Gould was one of the highlights of “Cinderella Man.” If he wins, he deserves it, but it’s more of a make-up award for “Sideways” and “American Splendor.”

Who should win: Matt Dillon, “Crash”

Why he should win: Yes, that Matt Dillon. His performance as bigot cop Jack Ryan is moving, subtle and deep – surprising and heartening from the guy who was in “Wild Things” and “There’s Something About Mary.” In a fantastic ensemble cast that featured Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard and Sandra Bullock, Dillon stood tall above them all, dominating his scenes and allowing them to linger. He gives his character dimension and provides the crux of Haggis’ film.

Best Supporting Actress

Who will win: Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”

Why she will win: Weisz was one of the best things about Fernando Meirelles’ largely inconsistent “The Constant Gardener.” Her steady performance as the activist Tessa gave the film an emotional anchor and she brought strong emotional impact to the difficult role. Weisz, whose previous credits include “The Mummy” and “Envy,” has emerged as the leading critical favorite after a win at the Golden Globes. An acting award here would also be an award for “The Constant Gardener” as a whole, which failed to garner any other major nominations.

Who should win: Catherine Keener, “Capote”

Why she should win: This was a tough, tough call. Keener is an excellent actress, veering from comedy (“The 40 Year-Old Virgin”) to drama seemingly at ease. Her turn as “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee was touchingly sensitive without being cloying. Does Keener deserve the award more than Weisz? The fact is that Keener is in a better film, and that makes her performance stand out more. None of the actresses in this category dominated their picture (Weisz alongside Ralph Fiennes, Keener alongside Hoffman, Michelle Williams alongside Ledger), but Keener held her own against Hoffman, which is no small feat. She did the same against Steve Carrell in “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” which, while slightly easier than playing against Hoffman, is still difficult.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Who will win: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, “Brokeback Mountain”

Why they will win: This is a tough call. The screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain” has been mocked almost as much as it has been praised, but it is still a solid achievement. The writing is generally good, aside from a few poor lines (all of which apparently made it into the film’s trailer). McMurtry is a Pulitzer Prize-winner, which should give him some leverage with Academy voters who like his prestige factor.

Who should win: Dan Futterman, “Capote”

Why he should win: Futterman’s screenplay for “Capote” is about as measured and exquisite as they come. Overshadowed by Hoffman’s performance, it’s easy to forget just how well written this film is – yet the skillful dialogue and strong characterization is evident throughout. Futterman, who was also executive producer of the film, is better known as an actor (he starred in “The Birdcage” and the TV show “Judging Amy”) but it’s obvious that he could have quite the career in screenwriting.

Best Original Screenplay

Who will win: Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, “Crash”

Why they will win: Quentin Tarantino once quipped that the screenplay Oscar is the consolation prize for being the hippest film of the year. And no film was hipper than “Crash,” with its interlocking storylines, clever dialogue and topical subject matter. Haggis’ script for “Million Dollar Baby” lost to Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” last year, so expect a win here for the talented writer/director.

Who should win: George Clooney and Grant Heslov, “Good Night and Good Luck”

Why they should win: Clooney and Heslov’s acute, insightful screenplay isn’t as flashy as Haggis’ work on “Crash,” but it is in many ways more impressive. The examination of McCarthy-era hypocrisy is subtle and shaded (“Crash,” for all its many attributes, is anything but subtle). Unlike many of the other nominees in this category, “Good Night and Good Luck” survives on the strength of its words alone. The writing handles a controversial topic with grace, fortitude and even a little style.

Oscar Oversights

u “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” received only a single nomination, for Best Makeup, inexplicably failing to garner even a Best Visual Effects nomination (marking the first “Star Wars” film to not receive even an Effects nomination).

u David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” failed to receive a Best Picture nomination or a Best Director nomination.

u Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man,” a box office disappointment during its summer release, received no nomination for Best Picture, Best Actor (Russell Crowe) or Best Director.

u Terrence Malick’s “The New World” received no major nominations. It also failed to garner a nomination for James Horner’s excellent score.

u Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” praised by critics as his finest in years, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but no other major awards.

u Fernando Meirelle’s “The Constant Gardener” received only an acting nomination, for lead Rachel Weisz, overlooking lead Ralph Fiennes.

u Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” received no major nominations.

u Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” received only a single nomination, for Best Cinematography.