NEW YORK — For edge-of-your-seat suspense, this year's Oscar race deserves an Oscar all its own. It's the most wide-open competition in years, with few obvious frontrunners.
This doesn't mean Oscar handicappers lack clues for their predictions. "Chicago" is clearly a favorite, topping the field with 13 nominations. "Gangs of New York" is close on its heels with 10 nominations, followed by "The Hours" with nine. All have plenty of partisans - and are so different from each other that one-to-one comparisons are hard to make.
If there's one thing the top candidates do have in common, it's a downbeat mood, from the suicidal musings of "The Hours" to the Holocaust horrors of "The Pianist" and the mayhem of "Gangs of New York." "Chicago" may have toe-tapping tunes, but its story is closer to '40s film noir than to "Mary Poppins," the only other musical to garner 13 nominations, back in 1964.
Will voters choose the most downbeat of the bunch? Or will they look for escape in the fantasy world of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," itself a fairly grim yarn? The test of time is no help to predictors, either. All the best-picture entries arrived in the last two weeks of the year. All of which makes for an uncommonly interesting race. Of course there are glaring flaws. Why isn't "Far From Heaven" on the best-picture list? And how could "The Wild Thornberrys Movie" not be nominated for best animated feature?
But think of all the overhyped hits that aren't in the running either, despite the zillions of tickets they sold. Whether top honors this Sunday go to an inward-looking drama, an extroverted epic, or a quixotic musical, Hollywood will have saluted a quality it doesn't always live by: the willingness to spurn conventional wisdom and take a chance on something different.
This year, even the "smaller" races are difficult to call. For best foreign-language movie, the likely winner is "Nowhere in Africa," but I'm rooting for "The Man Without a Past," a breakthrough movie by Aki Kaurismäki, Finland's greatest filmmaker.
While it's always hard to predict the feature-documentary winner, chosen by voters who follow special rules, Michael Moore's outspoken "Bowling for Columbine" should be the victor. I'm cheering for "The Hours" as best adapted screenplay and "Far From Heaven" as best original screenplay. The former is a probable winner, the latter a possible one if "Gangs of New York" doesn't edge it out.
And here's a vote for "Father and Daughter," by Paul Simon, as best original song. "The Thornberrys" has to win something!
Likely winner: Chicago. The most important category is one of the toughest to call. Many pundits are picking "The Hours," which surely gained momentum during the voting period. There's also buzz surrounding "The Pianist," which plays into a revival of interest in Holocaust subjects - and don't forget that Holocaust films invariably win when they're nominated in the best-documentary race. Nor can you write off "Gangs of New York," the second-most-nominated movie.
"Chicago" is the razzle-dazzle leader of the pack, though, and razzle-dazzle is one of the things Hollywood's all about. Just as important, insiders are happy to support a picture that revives a genre - the Broadway-based musical - that's been given up for dead in recent years.
Sterritt's pick: The Hours. The film takes a deeply compassionate view of human problems, keeping the unorthodox structure of Michael Cunningham's moving novel while serving up the most awesome trio of female performances - and female characters - last year had to offer.
Overlooked: Far From Heaven, a film as morally rich as it is gorgeous to watch. Plus that sweeping Elmer Bernstein score!
Likely winner: Jack Nicholson, "About Schmidt." In the spirit of this wide-open race, possibilities abound. Michael Caine in "The Quiet American" has countless admirers, Daniel Day-Lewis acts up a storm in "Gangs of New York," and "Adaptation" contains Nicolas Cage's best portrayal(s) in ages.
But it's hard to disagree with most Oscar handicappers about Nicholson's nuanced performance. He and Schmidt are also on the right side of the generational divide, since the average age of academy voters is higher than the national norm.
Sterritt's pick: Jack Nicholson, if only for his amazing ability to play an utterly unglamorous character while remaining every inch the star he is.
Overlooked: Campbell Scott, "Roger Dodger." He does for a creepy character what Nicholson does for a crotchety one - no mean accomplishment, and one of the year's most daring career moves.
Likely winner: Nicole Kidman, "The Hours." The makeup department clearly helped - why didn't that Virginia Woolf nose get nominated? - but Kidman's performance is a tour de force, bringing a complex historical figure to vivid contemporary life. She's a sure winner unless a "Chicago" sweep carries Renée Zellweger to victory on its well-pressed 1920s coattails.
Sterritt's pick: Julianne Moore, "Far From Heaven." Kidman's performance is equally strong, but Moore is a more brilliant actress, and "Far From Heaven" deserves a win in at least one top category. In an ironic twist, Moore's superb talent is working against her, since voters may split support between this and her supporting nomination for "The Hours."
Overlooked: Isabelle Huppert, "The Piano Teacher." One of Europe's greatest actresses at the peak of her powers.
Likely winner: Chris Cooper, "Adaptation." Cooper is a favorite with critics and pundits. His strongest competition comes from Ed Harris in "The Hours" and John C. Reilly in "Chicago," either of whom could win if his respective picture turns into a sweep.
Sterritt's pick: Christopher Walken, "Catch Me If You Can." It isn't easy to create a profoundly poignant character in a Steven Spielberg movie, and Walken meets the challenge like the gifted professional he is, bursting out of the film's tightly controlled emotional boundaries every moment he's on the screen.
Overlooked: Philip Seymour Hoffman, "25th Hour." He also did extraordinary work last year in "Love Liza" and "Punch-Drunk Love." His name should be all over this contest.
Likely winner: Meryl Streep, "Adaptation." This nomination gives her the highest total for any performer in Oscar history, reflecting her status as one of Hollywood's most respected actresses, as well as one of the most popular. She'll gain support from voters who feel she was snubbed in the best-actress slot for "The Hours."
Sterritt's pick: Julianne Moore, "The Hours." If ever somebody deserved to be a double winner, she's the one. And if ever a race was wide-open enough for that to happen, this is the year.
Overlooked: Rosario Dawson, "25th Hour." She does smart, subtle, enchanting work.
Likely winner: Martin Scorsese, "Gangs of New York." This is one of my least confident calls. And it will be a typical Oscar irony if it comes true, since this sprawling historical yarn has less psychological and cinematic clout than earlier Scorsese pictures ("Taxi Driver," "GoodFellas," and more) that went unrecognized. Oscar likes to atone for past omissions, though, and everyone agrees this audacious director has been passed over far too often.
Prospects are also good for Rob Marshall, even if he is a Hollywood newcomer. He'll probably dance into the spotlight if "Chicago" proves a multiple winner.
Sterritt's pick: A tie between Stephen Daldry for "The Hours" and Pedro Almodóvar for "Talk to Her." Both use strikingly unusual styles to tell deeply moving tales.
Overlooked: Spike Lee for "25th Hour," a flawed movie by a director who regularly takes more inspired risks in a single scene than most filmmakers take in their whole careers.
SCREEN ACTORS GUILD AWARDS
Best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for "Gangs of New York"
Best actress: Renée Zellweger for "Chicago"
Best supporting actor: Christopher Walken, "Catch Me if You Can"
Best supporting actress: Catherine Zeta-Jones, "Chicago"
Cast of a theatrical motion picture: "Chicago"
GOLDEN GLOBE WINNERS
Best motion picture (drama): "The Hours"
Best actress (drama): Nicole Kidman for "The Hours"
Best actor (drama): Jack Nicholson for "About Schmidt"
Best motion picture (musical or comedy): "Chicago"
Best actress (musical or comedy): Renée Zellweger for "Chicago"
Best actor (musical or comedy): Richard Gere for "Chicago"
Best supporting actress: Meryl Streep for "Adaptation"
Best supporting actor: Chris Cooper for "Adaptation"
Best director: Martin Scorsese "Gangs of New York"