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The Oscars: Spreading the wealth

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OK, we've had plenty of time to get over the fact that The Dark Knight wasn't nominated for Best Picture, and just as much time to come to terms that Bruce Springsteen's title tune from The Wrestler was also ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But now there are new developments pertaining to this Sunday's ceremony.

First, there are rumors that the nominees and presenters are being asked to skip the Red Carpet and sneak into the auditorium so they can dazzle audiences from the podium rather than the street (I personally don't care about this, but I realize countless folks watch the Oscars mainly so they can soak in the pre-awards glamour and glitz). And now there's word that the great Peter Gabriel has declined to perform his nominated song from WALL-E on the telecast, because he (rightly) objects to the way the tune will be included as only a 30-second snippet in a medley with the other two nominated songs.

Is the Academy deliberately trying to run its already sinking ratings into the ground?

No matter: My job isn't to save the Academy from itself but to offer predictions in the hotly contested races. Here, then, are the contenders in the eight major categories.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Eric Roth, Robin Swicord; Doubt, John Patrick Shanley; Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan; The Reader, David Hare; Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy.

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire. It's hard to imagine anything besting Slumdog for this award. Beaufoy has already won numerous honors for his adaptation, including prizes from the Writers Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press (the folks behind the Golden Globes). Unless the evening breaks the way of Benjamin Button, this one's in the bag.

Preference: Frost/Nixon. I'd go along with Slumdog Millionaire if the final half-hour didn't collapse into a heap of clichés, but that narrative coasting hurts what up until then had been a powerful and imaginative viewing experience. That makes Frost/Nixon my choice, thus marking scripter Morgan as a repeat alternate pick of mine (he deserved -- but didn't get -- the Best Original Screenplay Oscar two years ago for The Queen). Morgan turns the wordplay between Richard Nixon and David Frost into a compelling chess match; viewers who love dialogue won't be disappointed with the resultant fireworks.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Frozen River, Courtney Hunt; Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh; In Bruges, Martin McDonagh; Milk, Dustin Lance Black; WALL-E, Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter.

Prediction: Milk. A handful of Pixar films have been nominated before in this category, but none have ever won. WALL-E's chance at an upset seems stronger than those of its predecessors, for two reasons: 1) WALL-E was the best-reviewed film of 2008, and there might be many voters who feel it deserves more than just a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar; and 2) if the homophobia that resulted in Brokeback Mountain's Crash-and-burn three years ago is still a factor (and, given that intolerant geezers like Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine are still with us, who knows?), this stands a far better chance at an upset than the other contenders. Having said that, Milk is clearly the frontrunner, given its standing as the only Best Picture nominee in this category, its Writers Guild win, and its topicality.

Preference: Milk. This category offers a fine crop of unique material, but nothing matches Black's effort. Somehow, he has managed to take the most traditional of the templates on display here -- the respectful biopic -- and infused it with enough wit, passion and vision to revitalize the genre.

BEST DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire; Stephen Daldry, The Reader; David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon; Gus Van Sant, Milk.

Prediction: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire. Awards-season prognosticators know that the Directors Guild prize is a remarkably accurate barometer of who will go on to win the Academy Award, so it's a good bet that Boyle already has his Oscar acceptance speech memorized. Daldry and Howard have no chance; Van Sant, next to none. Fincher looms as the upset special if Academy members decide that it must have been a bitch to helm such a lengthy, FX-laden achievement like Benjamin Button.

Preference: Gus Van Sant, Milk. The directors' branch of the Academy often likes to throw one maverick pick into the mix (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly's Julian Schnabel last year, United 93's Paul Greengrass the year before), which is why the Best Picture and Best Director nominees rarely line up. Unfortunately, the branch ignored the deserving likes of Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), leading to a disappointing lineup that matches the Best Picture candidates right down the line. Van Sant stands above the rest: Like his screenwriter, he makes plenty of interesting decisions that guarantee Milk never settles down into historical redundancy.

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