This year, the Academy Awards has something it hasn't had in ages: A neck-and-neck race for Best Picture.
The nominations for the 77th annual Oscar ceremony, announced Tuesday morning, pitted "Million Dollar Baby," a boxing movie with a third-act plot twist that not even M. Night Shyamalan could have predicted, against "The Aviator," a biopic of Howard Hughes that celebrates vintage American capitalism during Hollywood's golden age.
In the end, it will be a closely fought contest between two veteran directors from opposite coasts. One is the don of filmmakers from the mean streets of New York. The other is an iconic actor from the clean streets of Carmel, Calif.
Yet for all their differences, Martin Scorsese ("The Aviator") and Clint Eastwood ("Million Dollar Baby") have each forged careers out of assaying the wild frontiers of America, places where the moral fabric of society is tested as men struggle to do the right thing.
"The best films are the ones that can find uplifting messages in dark material, and 'The Aviator' and 'Million Dollar Baby' exemplify that," says Dave Karger, the resident Oscar expert at Entertainment Weekly. "Movies that Oscar voters are attracted to often have an element of redemption."
In "The Aviator," it's the character of Howard Hughes, owner of an airline company, who has to overcome personal demons even as he fights a competitor that has a powerful senator in its pocket. "Million Dollar Baby" climaxes with a scene in which a man has to make a terrible choice and live with the moral consequences.
For the Academy, the choice of Best Picture and Best Director will be a pick between two larger-than-life personalities.
Start with Clint Eastwood, a man whose piercing squint can fell a man within 100 paces. In person and in character, the grizzled Californian's slow drawl belies how quick he is on the draw - during a recent Awards function speech, the Republican told Michael Moore that if Mr. Moore ever showed up on his doorstep with a camera, he'd kill him. That curmudgeonly demeanor explains why no one ever questioned Mr. Eastwood's masculinity when he wore a poncho in a Western. Yet his face of weathered parchment wears an easy smile. His humble humor has served him well as an actor - Eastwood has been nominated this year in the Best Actor category - and endeared him to the Academy, which awarded him Best Picture and Best Director for 1992's "Unforgiven."
By contrast, Martin Scorsese is renowned for his effusiveness. The New Yorker isn't tall enough for most roller-coaster rides, but his stature in the industry is that of a titan, an intellectual whose eyebrows crinkle every time he taps his encyclopedic knowledge of film history. Yet the filmmaker threatens to become the Susan Lucci of the Oscars: He's been nominated for Best Director four times previously, but has yet to win.
"Million Dollar Baby" has seven nominations - a number matched by "Finding Neverland," the story of "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie - but come Oscar night, "Million Dollar Baby" may find itself on a rocky road rather than the road to "Rocky"-style glory. Sylvester Stallone's boxing epic won Best Picture in 1976, but since then, films about the contact sport haven't done well financially or at the Oscars. Mr. Scorsese's "Raging Bull" was the last boxing movie to be nominated in the Best Picture category and it lost to "Ordinary People" in 1980.
Scorsese has his best shot yet with "The Aviator," a front-runner with a total of 11 nominations. The movie has all the elements Academy voters tend to gravitate towards: It's an epic with great sweep.
Also nominated for Best Picture was "Sideways," an acclaimed dark comedy about a midlife crisis that may be too intimate a picture to win the big awards - yet could prevail in smaller categories such as Best Adapted Screenplay. Finally, everybody loves "Ray," the fifth nominee for Best Picture, a biopic of the legendary Ray Charles.
Of the five men nominated for Best Actor this year, four may turn up at the Kodak Theater without so much as an acceptance speech in their pockets. Jamie Foxx, anointed as a sure thing to win this category for "Ray," probably won't have a speech tucked away in his tuxedo, either. At the recent Golden Globe Awards, the actor celebrated his win in the same category with an extemporaneous address delivered with the bravura and gusto of a Billy Graham revival.
"In a role that could have easily swayed into caricature, Jamie Foxx played Ray Charles to perfection," says Frank Patterson, dean of the Film School at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Having seen Ray Charles perform live three times and after following him as a musician, I forgot it was Jamie Foxx."
The four other actors in this category are Johnny Depp for "Finding Neverland," Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Aviator," Don Cheadle for "Hotel Rwanda," and Clint Eastwood for "Million Dollar Baby."
Much more competitive is the Best Actress race. The front-runner seems to be Hilary Swank, who took home this award in 2000 for "Boys Don't Cry." But then Swank went off to make "The Core," a movie in which she not only crash-landed a space shuttle in Los Angeles, but also piloted a submarine-like craft to the center of the earth. At the time it seemed an apt metaphor for her once-promising career. But with "Million Dollar Baby," Ms. Swank has more than atoned for "The Core" by playing a plucky pugilist who learns how to float like a butterfly and sting like Muhammad Ali.
But don't count out Annette Bening in the other corner. This race is a rematch of sorts: Swank and Ms. Bening squared off in 2000 when Bening was nominated for "American Beauty." Her role as a stage actress coming to terms with aging in "Being Julia" may resonate in a town that has a love-hate relationship with Botox, Pilates, and Jennifer Garner's abs.
If film critics could vote in this race, they might hand the Oscar to Imelda Staunton of "Vera Drake," who plays a genteel housewife who secretly performs abortions in 1950s England. She joins Catalina Sandino Moreno ("Maria Full of Grace,") and Kate Winslet ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") as the category's nominees.
Another tight race is that for Best Supporting actress. Most pundits expect a runoff between Cate Blanchett for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in "The Aviator," and Laura Linney for her part as the sex researcher's wife in "Kinsey."
The Best Supporting Actor could tilt to Morgan Freeman, a respected thespian who has never won an Oscar.
In "Million Dollar Baby," "he takes a somewhat ordinary part, or a part that could be done in an ordinary way, and he gives [it] great dignity," says Robert Osborne, author of "75 Years of the Oscar" and a host of Turner Classic Movies.
But, come the award ceremony on Feb. 27, all eyes will be on Scorsese and Eastwood. It's unlikely that either director will walk away empty-handed, especially since Academy voters are painfully aware that Scorsese - a director who even high-brow French intellectuals mention in the same breath as Godard and Kurosawa - has yet to win.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the Academy splits the two awards, giving, for instance, 'Million Dollar Baby' the best picture and Scorsese the best director," says Mr. Karger.
• Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.