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The 79th Academy Awards

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The 79th Annual Academy Awards feature the most wide-open Best Picture race in years. In a pack that doesn’t yet have a clear-cut front-runner, only “The Departed” and “Babel” have separated themselves enough to be considered favorites. In fact, the most-nominated film, “Dreamgirls” (with eight nominations), failed to even receive a Best Picture nom, despite having won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy.

The acting awards, however, are the polar opposite. All of them are essentially locked up, with heavy favorites in each of the four major categories.

The biggest storyline revolves around director Martin Scorsese, who has never won a Best Director statuette. His film, “The Departed,” has a legitimate chance of winning Best Picture, which bodes well for the cinema legend. The Oscars are always an entertaining show, but this year promises to have more surprises and drama than usual.

Best Actress

Who will win: Helen Mirren, “The Queen”

Why she’ll win: Mirren is one of the few locks in this year’s Oscar race. Her pitch-perfect performance as Elizabeth II was the driving force behind one of the best-reviewed films of the year. If she were to lose, it would be nothing less than a stunning, almost inconceivable upset.

Who should win: Helen Mirren, “The Queen”

Why she should win: The Best Actress race is an odd mixture of old favorites (Meryl Streep? Judi Dench? Again?) and younger talent like Penelope Cruz and Kate Winslet. Both Streep and Judi Dench have already won, and it seems like Winslet and Cruz will have to wait until they are matched with better material. Mirren’s performance is genuinely the best of the bunch, which makes her a shoo-in for the award.

Best Actor

Who will win: Forest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland”

Why he’ll win: Another lock. It seems highly unlikely that Whitaker will lose, despite the fact that he’s in a very deep and talented pool of actors. Surprisingly, this is Whitaker’s first career nomination, and his brutal take on Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” earned positive critical notices – it is generally considered Whitaker’s best performance in an already long and distinguished career.

Who should win: Leonardo DiCaprio, “Blood Diamond”

Why he should win: A few years ago I picked DiCaprio as my choice for Best Actor for “The Aviator,” which was a pretty unpopular pick considering the actor’s pedigree and resume.

Two years later, nobody’s laughing.

DiCaprio gave a pair of fantastic performances this year, and while his paranoid turn in “The Departed” may have actually been the stronger of the two, he brings a lot of depth to “Blood Diamond.” Unlike “The Departed,” “Blood Diamond” is fully DiCaprio’s movie, and he dominates every scene. We are witnessing the emergence of one of the great actors of our time.

Best Supporting Actress

Who will win: Jennifer Hudson, “Dreamgirls”

Why she’ll win: Hudson already won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, and it seems that acting awards are going to be the consolation prizes for “Dreamgirls” (since the film itself failed to garner a Best Picture nomination). Hudson’s brash performance as singer Effie Melody White went over extremely well with critics and audiences, and she will likely be rewarded for her effort.

Who should win: Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”

Why she should win: Breslin’s sweet-natured, yet surprisingly mature performance is the heart and soul of “Little Miss Sunshine.” All of 10 years old, Breslin is one of the youngest nominees ever, but her age belies the fact that she really is good in this year’s Oscar sleeper.

Adriana Barraza was also fantastic as housekeeper Amelie in “Babel,” and her performance deserves its accolades, but it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to wrest the award away from Hudson.

Best Supporting Actor

Who will win: Eddie Murphy, “Dreamgirls”

Why he’ll win: You’ve got to wonder if the backlash of “Norbit” will come back to haunt Murphy on Oscar night. Murphy’s performance in “Dreamgirls” earned a ton of positive notices, including a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe, and seemed to indicate that the SNL alum is ready to come into his own as a dramatic actor.

The Academy has definitely taken notice, despite ill-advised projects like “Norbit,” which makes Murphy the frontrunner for the award.

Who should win: Mark Wahlberg, “The Departed”

Why he should win: Man, who would’ve guessed that Marky Mark would become a great actor. Proving once and for all that dramatic turns in “Boogie Nights” and “Invincible” were no flukes, Wahlberg gives arguably the best performance in “The Departed” – no small feat considering that he’s surrounded by the likes of Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Leonardo DiCaprio and Alec Baldwin.

As the acidic Officer Dignam, Wahlberg gets many of the film’s best lines, and delivers them with perfect sardonic wit.

Best Adapted Screenplay

What will win: “Children of Men,” Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby

Why it will win: Consider it the consolation prize for the criminal lack of nominations for Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant cautionary tale. Tarantino once quipped that the screenplay award is the consolation prize for the “cool” film that can’t win the big one, and while “Children of Men” doesn’t quite fall into that category, it’s nonetheless a great film that benefits from a concise and well-written script.

“Children of Men” tells more of its story through visuals than through dialogue, but the fact that the film is elegantly underwritten is one of its greatest strengths.

What should win: “The Departed,” William Monahan

Why it should win: There’s a very real chance that Monahan will take home this award, which would be a great sign. The screenplay for “The Departed” is as funny, profane and deep as Mamet or Tarantino, while maintaining its own identity. It’s got that great dialogue that actors just love to chew, and it adapts “Infernal Affairs” with aplomb, effortlessly translating the setting and cultural undertones.

Best Original Screenplay

What will win: “Babel,” Guillermo Arriaga

Why it will win: “Babel” is the latest in a long line of films – a list that includes last year’s Best Picture winner “Crash” and 2000’s “Traffic” – that deal with social issues through a twisting, interwoven script. Arriaga’s acute, smart screenplay balances the storylines quite well, and his social awareness and linguistic diversity (the film takes place in four different countries, with a variety of languages) make his script for “Babel” the clear favorite.

What should win: “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Iris Yamashita

Why it should win: It’s extremely difficult to write a good war film. Developed from a story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis (who was nominated for “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004 and won for “Crash” in 2005), “Letters from Iwo Jima” is an elegant, elegiac look at the Japanese who fought and died in one of the Pacific Theater’s bloodiest battles. The screenplay’s nomination alone is justified by one scene, in which General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) quietly listens to a radio transmission from the mainland.

Best Director

Who will win: Martin Scorsese, “The Departed”

Why he’ll win: Is this the year Scorsese gets it done? Endlessly shafted, rarely rewarded, the 64-year-old director is nothing less than an American treasure, with a handful of stone-cold classics to his name … and no Best Director Oscar. This is the director who wasn’t nominated for “Taxi Driver” (1976) and lost for “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1987), “Goodfellas” (1990), “Gangs of New York” (2002) and “The Aviator” (2004). You might’ve heard of a couple of those films.

It seems almost inconceivable that Mr. Martin Scorsese, possibly the greatest living director and no doubt one of the greatest of all time, will lose this year … unless Clint Eastwood beats him again.

Who should win: Martin Scorsese, “The Departed”

Why he should win: There’s something oddly comforting about the fact that Scorsese’s never won. It makes for a long-running joke, and puts him in good company – Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock never won for directing either.

Yet it seems pretty improbable that Scorsese will lose this year and rightfully so, since “The Departed” is an amazing picture. Scorsese has rarely directed with such verve and energy, which for him is saying a lot.

So take notice because this is the year, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – you wouldn’t just be throwing Scorsese a bone, you’d be rewarding him for his outstanding work on the year’s best film.

Best Picture

What will win: “Babel”

Why it’ll win: When was the last time that there was an Oscar race this wide-open? “Babel” is the default pick, if only because it won the Golden Globe for Best Picture. Yet, for perhaps the first time ever, every single film that has been nominated has a legitimate chance of winning, including dark horse nominee “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The race is essentially coming down to “Babel” vs. “The Departed,” but the possibility of a split vote means any of the other three films could take home the top prize. “Babel” might win, but it will certainly be close enough to cause a lot of debate.

What should win: “The Departed”

Why it should win: Simply put, “The Departed” is an instant classic, shooting into the upper echelons of Scorsese’s best work. As thrillingly entertaining as it is cinematically accomplished, “The Departed” is among the year’s most unpretentious and engaging works.

“The Departed” doesn’t have the aura of self-importance that surrounded films like “Babel” and “Dreamgirls.” Therefore, it didn’t make its mark and legitimize itself as an awards contender through marketing and snob appeal – it did it by being really good.

Oscar Oversights

u Despite leading the pack in total nominations with eight, “Dreamgirls” did not receive a Best Picture nod.

u Ken Watanabe failed to receive a nomination for his brilliant, compelling turn as General Kuribayashi in Clint Eastwood’s “The Departed.”

u Jack Nicholson, the most-nominated actor in Oscar history, failed to garner a nom for his work as Boston mobster Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

u Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” received no major nominations outside of screenplay. Notable omissions were Cuarón for directing, Clive Owen for acting and a Best Picture nomination.

u “Casino Royale,” the “reboot” of the James Bond franchise, received no major nominations, despite being a critical and commercial smash. Daniel Craig’s fierce, charismatic performance went un-nominated.

u Neither of the 9/11 themed films (Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”) received any major nominations.

u Sacha Baron Cohen, who won the Golden Globe for Best Actor, did not receive a nomination for “Borat!”

u Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” mired in controversy because of its director, received no major nominations.