Story Highlights• Tom Charity: "Dreamgirls," "Queen," "Departed" shoo-ins
• Baron Cohen, Winslet, Wahlberg on the bubble
• Many fine films probably don't stand a chance at nomination
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- The first-round votes are in, the top fives are being finalized, and now all that's left is the announcement of the nominations for the 79th annual Academy Awards. The big moment is slated for Tuesday morning at 8:38 a.m. ET (5:38 a.m. on the West Coast).
After last year's upset win for "Crash," this year is shaping up to be another tight race. The critics' awards spread the love, with "The Queen," "The Departed," "United 93," "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Little Children" all honored. The Golden Globes gave "Babel" a last-minute push.
And then there's the popular favorite, "Dreamgirls," which looks like a good bet to pick up the lion's share of nominations. Adding Forest Whitaker, who's way out in front in the best actor race, this could be an exceptional year for the recognition of African-American performers.
But questions will be asked about the many well-regarded movies, which for one reason or another haven't been able to capitalize on strong reviews to mount a serious Oscar push.
All that being said, here are one man's Oscar possibilities. Caveat lector, of course. (And tell us what you think the nominees will be.)
Shoo-ins: "The Departed," "Dreamgirls," "The Queen"
On the bubble: "Babel," "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Little Children," "Little Miss Sunshine," "United 93"
Deserves it but doesn't stand a chance: "Children of Men," "The Good Shepherd," "Pan's Labyrinth"
This looks likely to become a straight-out tussle between the instinct to reward Martin Scorsese before it's too late and the perennial lure of old-fashioned showbiz glitz. "The Queen" has replaced "Little Miss Sunshine" as the little movie everybody loves to love, while "Little Children" is probably a shade too seedy for comfort. Though I wouldn't rule it out completely, uncertain studio handling has probably finished the chances of "Letters From Iwo Jima" and the also-rans in this category (a better list, in my opinion, than the shoo-ins). But even with a concerted campaign and strong critical support, "United 93" may be too near-the-knuckle for Oscar -- which could be good news for "Babel."
Shoo-ins: Peter O'Toole ("Venus"), Will Smith ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland")
On the bubble: Sacha Baron Cohen ("Borat"), Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Departed"), Ryan Gosling ("Half Nelson")
Deserves it but doesn't stand a chance: Matt Damon ("The Good Shepherd"), Aaron Eckhart ("Thank You for Smoking"), Clive Owen ("Children of Men"), Ken Watanabe ("Letters From Iwo Jima")
For my money Sacha Baron Cohen gave the most inspired performance of the year, and after his Golden Globe win he may just become a welcome wild card in the Oscar fold. Ryan Gosling is electrifying as a drug-addicted teacher in "Half Nelson," but the edgy indie movie has grossed less than $3 million. DiCaprio is a likelier candidate, though Oscar voters will have to choose between the showier role in "Blood Diamond" or the superior film, "The Departed."
Shoo-ins: Helen Mirren ("The Queen"), Meryl Streep ("The Devil Wears Prada"), Judi Dench ("Notes on a Scandal")
On the bubble: Annette Bening ("Running with Scissors"), Penelope Cruz ("Volver"), Kate Winslet ("Little Children")
Deserves it but doesn't stand a chance: Laura Dern ("Inland Empire"), Naomi Watts ("The Painted Veil")
And they say that actresses disappear after 40! Mirren's two Globe wins put her in the front row -- Oscar could very well go for a King and Queen this year -- though Meryl Streep (who also a Globe winner, in the musical or comedy division) also gives a formidable performance. (Admittedly, it's a supporting performance, but as with "The Last King of Scotland," the Academy will certainly overlook the picture's ostensible lead, Anne Hathaway.) Kate Winslet could make it three British contenders here, and I'm hoping Penelope Cruz nabs the fifth spot for "Volver."
Best supporting actor
Shoo-ins: Eddie Murphy ("Dreamgirls"), Jack Nicholson ("The Departed"), Brad Pitt ("Babel"), Michael Sheen ("The Queen")
On the bubble: Alan Arkin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Jackie Earle Haley ("Little Children"), Mark Wahlberg ("The Departed")
Deserves it but doesn't stand a chance: Ben Affleck ("Hollywoodland"), Adam Beach ("Flags of Our Fathers"), Michael Caine ("Children of Men"), Ken Davitian ("Borat"), Danny Huston ("The Proposition")
For good or ill, it was impossible to ignore Jack Nicholson in "The Departed," and a nomination is in the bag for one of Oscar's most loyal attendants. Brad Pitt and Eddie Murphy showed us something new this year, and will reap the rewards. After that it gets tricky: a pedophile? A homophobic drug-taking grandpa? Or Mark Wahlberg's exercise in creative profanity? It would be nice if enough members widened the net to show some respect to Ben Affleck for "Hollywoodland" (and his costar Diane Lane, for that matter), but my hunch is Wahlberg will get the nod.
Best supporting actress
Shoo-ins: Adrianna Barraza ("Babel"), Cate Blanchett ("Notes on a Scandal"), Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls")
On the bubble: Emily Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada"), Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Toni Collette ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Phyllis Somerville ("Little Children")
Deserves it but doesn't stand a chance: Vera Farmiga ("The Departed"), Rinko Kikuchi ("Babel"), Diane Lane ("Hollywoodland"), Catherine O'Hara ("For Your Consideration")
This could break in a number of ways. Cate Blanchett could theoretically be nominated for three fine supporting performances this year (the others came in "The Good German" and "Babel"). Similarly, three "Babel" costars could walk up the red carpet together. Emily Blunt was sensational in "The Devil Wears Prada," and surely deserves a promotion. Vera Farmiga is another name to watch after her keenly observed roles in "The Departed" and "Breaking and Entering." But which ever way the nominations fall, there is only going to be one winner, and her name is (drum roll please) ... Jennifer Hudson.
Shoo-ins: Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls"), Martin Scorsese ("The Departed")
On the bubble: Clint Eastwood ("Letters From Iwo Jima"), Todd Field ("Little Children"), Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton ("Little Miss Sunshine"), Stephen Frears ("The Queen"), Paul Greengrass ("United 93"), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel")
Deserves it but doesn't stand a chance: Pedro Almodovar ("Volver"), Robert Altman ("A Prairie Home Companion"), Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men"), Michel Gondry ("The Science of Sleep"), Guillermo Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth")
Is it going to be Scorsese's year at last? Surely he won't be caught at the wire by Clint Eastwood again? Condon is a sure thing for pulling off "Dreamgirls" (even if the Hollywood Foreign Press overlooked him entirely). The Directors Guild nominated Faris and Dayton, but the Academy may hesitate to go with co-directors (when "City of God" was nominated a few years ago, one of the two directors never even made it onto the ballot paper). Frears might push them out, with Inarritu the most likely of the three Mexican amigos (Inarritu, Cuaron and Del Toro) to nab the last spot.
"Dreamgirls," the film version of the Broadway musical, is considered an Oscar front-runner.