Dear Troy and Kim,
Oscar-predicting is a movie critic's equivalent of paying taxes. It's dull, you have no idea what you're doing, and you're probably screwing it up royally, but once a year you have to grit your teeth and get through it. (Watching the ceremony, on the other hand, is always an unexpected kick, like getting your tax refund in the mail.) To get our conversation going, I'll stake my bet in a few of the major categories:
Best actress: Helen Mirren. This is not a prediction but a statement of simple orthodoxy, like "Credo in unum Deum …". For anyone else to win it would be one of the biggest Oscar upsets in memory and also, for what it's worth, unfair. Meryl Streep's monstrous fashion editor in The Devil Wears Prada is really more of a supporting role. Judi Dench does a great job with a poorly written character in Notes on a Scandal. Penélope Cruz, though she's divine in Volver, still has to convince American audiences she can act after a string of lousy English-language performances. Kate Winslet is an actress to whom I maintain a personal shrine, and she's been shut out five times already, but she has her whole career ahead of her to win an Oscar. Mirren has been earning hers for 25 years.
Best actor: I was at a press round table—one of those awkward celebrity junket sessions held in corporate boardrooms—with Samuel L. Jackson this week, and someone asked him for his Oscar predictions. He tossed out the two safest possible bets as he left the room: Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker. Peter O'Toole is starting to emerge as a dark horse in this category—remember the academy's perennial pro-old-guy stance—but Sam Jackson is far too righteous to contradict, so I'm going with Whitaker.
Best director: If Martin Scorsese doesn't win this award at long bloody last, he might as well leave the Kodak Theatre in sackcloth and ashes, holding a sign that reads "The End Is Nigh." But it could happen. Academy voters do love their Clint Eastwood, and Letters From Iwo Jima has more substance and gravitas than The Departed, which, for all its graphic violence, plays in retrospect like a giddy genre romp.
Best picture: In a very split field—almost any of the five nominees could plausibly take the prize, though The Queen would be a long shot—I'd vote for The Departed or Little Miss Sunshine. (I love the image of these two slugging it out in some allegorical boxing ring: Jack Nicholson with his purple dildo vs. Abigail Breslin in her glasses and Walkman headphones.) Babel is starting to creep up as a favorite on the big Oscar blogs, but I think people are too starkly divided on that movie (cf. the brutal smackdown Wesley Morris gave me when I defended it in this year's "Movie Club.")
Best supporting actress: Either Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls or Abigail Breslin for Little Miss Sunshine. When you get right down to it, academy voters' hearts are made of gingerbread and moonbeams, and they'll want to see one of these two charming young women re-enact the Cinderella stories their characters got to live out on-screen.
Best supporting actor: Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls. It would be really cool if it were Jackie Earle Haley for Little Children orAlan Arkinfor Little Miss Sunshine, but child molesters and junkie grandpas aren't as dear to the academy's heart as martyred pop stars.
Best documentary:An Inconvenient Truth. This is a little unfortunate, given that it's the only doc in the category that doesn't need the word-of-mouth boost at the box office. But wouldn't it be a blast to see Al Gore step up and accept that award while the Hollywood establishment solemnly applauded the planet? Yay, globe! Sorry about that whole warming thing.
Kim, from inside the velvet rope in Los Angeles, do things look wildly different than this? And Troy, weren't you preparing a rant about Oscar-on-Oprah, and how the whole notion of awards season is becoming obsolete? Lay it on me.