The winners of this weekend's top Academy Awards are unusually hard to predict this year. I know most of my own preferences, though, so I'll give them along with my prognostications - which are even more tentative than usual.
Picture: I most admire "Sideways" for Alexander Payne's subtly modulated filmmaking and for the (mostly) insightful screenplay he penned with Jim Taylor. I also have a soft spot for "Million Dollar Baby," where Clint Eastwood gives the performance of his career in one of his most beautifully directed films. Oscar predictors are leaning toward the latter, and that's fine with me. There's also momentum for "The Aviator," but as much as I admire Martin Scorsese, this movie doesn't rank with his greatest work. Likely winner: "Million Dollar Baby."
Director: Whoever wins for best picture could pick up this category, too. Yet voters might split their votes to honor Eastwood in one category, Scorsese in the other. Scorsese is crazily overdue for a directing Oscar, but Eastwood gets extra points for doing such vigorous work at such a late stage in his long career. Likely winner: Eastwood.
Actor: The moment "Ray" ended I knew Jamie Foxx had an Oscar in his pocket. And he definitely deserves it for his ingenious blend of impersonation - the iconic Ray Charles isn't easy to imitate - and smart interpretive acting. Even the admired Eastwood can't beat this performance. Likely winner: Foxx.
Actress: Although it seems wide open, this category comes down to Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby" and Annette Bening in "Being Julia," two of the year's most memorable portrayals. In the end, overall momentum for Eastwood's drama may propel Swank to a victory. Her biggest obstacle is some people's feeling that the only roles she handles well are those where she plays "one of the boys" (as she did in "Boys Don't Cry"). Likely winner: Swank.
Supporting actress: Almost all the contenders are fine, but Cate Blanchett in "The Aviator" is best of all. She'll win.
Supporting actor: I can't make up my own mind between Morgan Freeman in "Million Dollar Baby" and Thomas Haden Church in "Sideways," so how can I expect the voters to neatly make up theirs? Likely winner: One of those guys.