Unlike last year, when it was obvious that the hobbits and elves would rule Oscar night (and they did), this Academy Awards race looks tougher to call. Associated Press movie writers David Germain and Christy Lemire duke it out -- and disagree -- over several of the main categories:
Nominees: "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Million Dollar Baby," "Ray," "Sideways."
GERMAIN: After seesawing from "The Aviator" to "Million Dollar Baby," I'm back on board with Martin Scorsese's biopic of Howard Hughes. "The Aviator" may lack the emotional punch of "Million Dollar Baby," but it's an enormously admirable epic on a scale rarely seen today.
LEMIRE: "The Aviator" is gorgeous film -- a technical triumph on every level -- but it's ultimately hollow. You walk out afterward visually dazzled but no different than you were three hours earlier. "Million Dollar Baby" changes every molecule in your body, making you feel as if you've just gone 12 rounds, too.
Nominees: Martin Scorsese, "The Aviator"; Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"; Taylor Hackford, "Ray"; Alexander Payne, "Sideways"; Mike Leigh, "Vera Drake."
LEMIRE: "Million Dollar Baby" wins and Eastwood wins. With his trademark spare style, he delivers a complete moviegoing experience. The scope of his film and his obsessive eye for detail are unmatched, but "The Aviator" is simply not Scorsese's best work. It's a travesty that he didn't win for "Taxi Driver" or "Raging Bull" or "GoodFellas."
GERMAIN: Christy, you may be right on "Million Dollar Baby," but let's assume you're wrong. "The Aviator" and "Million Dollar Baby" might end up splitting the picture and directing prizes, and if so, it's more likely Scorsese will win here while "Baby" takes best film. "The Aviator" has its flaws, but it's a masterfully orchestrated film, a blend of grand old Hollywood style and modern computer-generated trickery.
Nominees: Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda"; Johnny Depp, "Finding Neverland"; Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Aviator"; Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"; Jamie Foxx, "Ray."
GERMAIN: Not a weakling among this group (though Paul Giamatti of "Sideways" should have nosed out DiCaprio for a nomination). Cheadle's brought his game to a new level, Depp's a marvel of repressed emotion, DiCaprio's a dashing dynamo and Eastwood would be a lock to win if not for Jamie Foxx and his extraordinary emulation of Ray Charles. It's almost supernatural, how Foxx captured the cadences, body language and spirit of the man. Add in the fond sentiment for Charles, who died last year, and there's no way Foxx can lose.
LEMIRE: Yeah, you're right, this one's easy. With Foxx, you completely forget you're watching an actor and believe you're watching Ray Charles. He's that good. Cheadle makes a well-deserved name for himself, and Depp will get his due someday.
Nominees: Annette Bening, "Being Julia"; Catalina Sandino Moreno, "Maria Full of Grace"; Imelda Staunton, "Vera Drake"; Hilary Swank, "Million Dollar Baby"; Kate Winslet, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
LEMIRE: This one's easy, too. In the rematch between Swank and Bening, which Swank won five years ago with her startling performance in "Boys Don't Cry," Swank wins again. As a feisty female boxer, her character has higher highs and lower lows; it's a more complex role. Bening is glorious to watch as an aging London stage diva, and it's the kind of showy role Oscar voters love, but without her there's not much more to say about "Being Julia."
GERMAIN: You've been stealing my thoughts again. Swank clearly has the edge with a role far more supple even than that of "Boys Don't Cry." However, some academy voters may hesitate over handing a second Oscar to an actress who doesn't have much of a body of work beyond "Boys" and "Baby." I'll stick with Swank, but the aging-actress theme may resonate on Bening's behalf; who knows when and if her colleagues will have another chance to give her an Oscar?
Nominees: Alan Alda, "The Aviator"; Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways"; Jamie Foxx, "Collateral"; Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"; Clive Owen, "Closer."
GERMAIN: Morgan Freeman has managed to make bad movies watchable with his mix of quiet grace, world-weary wisdom and impish humor. He radiates all those ingredients and more in "Million Dollar Baby," deftly switching from sage-like sidekick to tragic figure to all-seeing narrator. His peers have been looking for a reason to hand him an Oscar; this is it. The nomination alone was a sweet late-career nod for Alda. Church and Owen were excellent but haven't a prayer against Freeman. And Foxx will get his for "Ray."
LEMIRE: I love it, we get to disagree again! I literally sat awake at 6 a.m. thinking about this category (how's THAT for dedication?) and I've come up with Clive Owen. Here's why: Freeman is lovely and graceful in a way we've come to rely on throughout his lengthy career. He is a rock in "Million Dollar Baby." And because of that, it might be easy for voters to take his performance for granted and overlook him. Owen, showing unexpected range, has the most complicated role in a complicated movie. He's the most innocent of the devious dating foursome, and yet he also causes some of the worst damage. It's a huge surprise, and an unforgettable one.
Nominees: Cate Blanchett, "The Aviator"; Laura Linney, "Kinsey"; Virginia Madsen, "Sideways"; Sophie Okonedo, "Hotel Rwanda"; Natalie Portman, "Closer."
LEMIRE: Madsen provides the earthy, quiet soul of "Sideways." I'd love to see her win it -- and considering that she's a former B-movie actress, this is the kind of comeback that Hollywood loves. But Blanchett completely embodies the big, showy, potentially daunting role of Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator." It's not a dead-on impression, and it shouldn't be, but it captures Hepburn's spirit and will appeal to the old-Hollywood ranks among the Oscar voters. Linney is versatile and makes everything look easy, but there's not much love out there for "Kinsey" (she's the film's sole nominee). Okonedo and Portman offer more than solid supporting work, but as they say, it's an honor just to be nominated.
GERMAIN: Since we wholeheartedly agree on Blanchett, I have room for a smug retort on supporting actor. Clive Owen over Morgan Freeman? To quote Frasier Crane from "Cheers," what color is the sky in your world? But you are sane enough to side with Blanchett, who has the difficult task of playing a woman whose idiosyncrasies practically made Hepburn a caricature of herself. Yet Blanchett manages to resurrect the soul of Hepburn without a trace of caricature. As for Madsen, in any other year, her wine-as-metaphor-for-life speech alone might have earned her the Oscar.