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Marty's moment

Or will Oscars offer a ray of Sunshine — or a lot of Babel?

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When it comes to the Oscars, we can handle a two-way race. Brokeback Mountain vs. Crash. Saving Private Ryan vs. Shakespeare In Love. The Aviator vs. Million Dollar Baby. But this notion of a three-way race -- that's a tough one to grasp.

Yet that's the scenario that has unfolded in this year's contest, a development that won't be answered until the last award is handed out at the 79th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, airing live this Sunday, Feb. 25, on ABC. After the scandal that erupted from last year's ceremony -- when homophobia within the Academy ranks prevented Brokeback Mountain from logically claiming the top prize, which went to the largely despised Crash instead -- the organization has this year demonstrated some degree of sanity and good taste with a fairly strong roster of Oscar contenders in all categories. But the group spread the wealth around so much that the most honored film, the eight-time nominee Dreamgirls, isn't even up for Best Picture; in turn, this diffusion has made it impossible for anyone to even reach a consensus on the front-runner.

Most folks at least agree that it's a race between Babel, The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine. Yet there are also pockets of people who believe that either Letters From Iwo Jima or The Queen can take advantage of the showdown between the aforementioned trio and pick up enough stray votes to push its way to the top. The acting categories, on the other hand, have pretty much been locked down for several weeks, though even here, a surprise might emerge on Oscar night.

Here, then, are the contenders in the eight major categories. Last year, I went 7-for-8, only missing Best Picture. Let's hope I don't miss much more than that this year.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, Todd Phillips; Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby; The Departed, William Monahan; Little Children, Todd Field, Tom Perrotta; Notes On a Scandal, Patrick Marber.

Prediction: The Departed. The Departed is actually a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, and Monahan's peers were impressed enough by his interpretation to honor him with the Writers Guild award. The fact that this is the only nominee in this category to score a Best Picture nod also doesn't hurt.

Preference: Little Children. I could just as easily cite Children of Men, but I'm slightly more impressed with the manner in which Field and Perrotta were able to present us with a large number of townspeople who aren't always likable and make us hang on their every word and action.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Babel, Guillermo Arriaga; Letters From Iwo Jima, Iris Yamashita, Paul Haggis; Little Miss Sunshine, Michael Arndt; Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro; The Queen, Peter Morgan.

Prediction: Little Miss Sunshine. Morgan won several hefty awards early on for The Queen (he's also the writer of The Last King of Scotland), but his momentum has slowed down considerably. Babel seems like the logical choice here, given its heavy (and, I daresay, heavy-handed) treatment of significant topics and crosscutting between various storylines. But Little Miss Sunshine just won the Writers Guild award in this category, meaning that many are still basking in the feel-good vibes of this summer sleeper hit. In the midst of so much gloom and doom in this category, look for Arndt's shiny, happy comedy to pull out the pageant win.

Preference: The Queen. Anybody who states that this movie is only about Helen Mirren's performance clearly isn't paying attention. Equally important to its success is Morgan's deft screenplay, which takes a subject that in the wrong hands could have turned out either exploitive or merely dull and brings it to vibrant life. I prefer it by just a sliver to the Pan's Labyrinth script, and a win by either would be fab.

BEST DIRECTOR

Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima; Stephen Frears, The Queen; Paul Greengrass, United 93; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel; Martin Scorsese, The Departed.

Prediction: Martin Scorsese, The Departed. Just give him the damn Oscar already! Yes, it would have been nice if the living legend had been awarded the statue for one of his classic films like GoodFellas or Raging Bull. But let's face it, the Academy has a history of handing out better-late-than-never Oscars for the wrong works (Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman?), so why should this time be any different? At any rate, it's hardly an undeserved honor: Scorsese's work on the film is typically dazzling, and it's nice that he'll be recognized for a crime flick, since that's been his primary calling card. The only possible spoiler is Inarritu, who might be carried along if Babel sweeps.

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