It's far too early to predict the Oscar nominees, much less the eventual winners - especially considering that some of the biggest December guns (including Steven Spielberg's "Munich" and Terrence Malick's "The New World") have yet to be seen by most critics. But here's a glance at the five major races and how things look to be shaping up.
It sounds like the opening line to a really bad joke: Israeli vigilantes, a big ape and two gay cowboys walk into the Kodak Theater in Hollywood ...
But because so many of the fall's would-be Oscar contenders - among them "Elizabethtown," "Jarhead," "In Her Shoes" and "North Country" - failed to deliver, all eyes have now turned to the still-as-yet unknown quantities. Chief among them is Spielberg's "Munich," written by "Angels in America" playwright Tony Kushner, about the aftermath of the terrorist killings at the 1972 Munich Olympics. With so much A-list talent attached (the cast includes Geoffrey Rush and Eric Bana), can it possibly fail? (Then again, people said the same thing about Spielberg's "Amistad.")
As for that 800-pound gorilla in the room, early word on Jackson's "King Kong" is that it is merely high-end popcorn fare. But can we possibly discount the director who, just two years ago, completed arguably the most successful trilogy in movie history?
All that said, watch out for Ang Lee's haunting and heart-wrenching "Brokeback Mountain" - about the forbidden love between two closeted ranch hands (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) - to be a potential spoiler. Conventional wisdom has it that the subject matter will prove too far outside the Oscar mainstream. But there are frequent reports of weeping at advance screenings - and Lee, previously nominated for "Sense and Sensibility" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is considered overdue for the Best Director prize.
Also in the running: "Capote," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "The New World," "Walk the Line" and the George Clooney double-feature, "Syriana" and "Good Night, and Good Luck."
Should be in the running (but probably won't be): the box-office underachiever "Cinderella Man," and "Pride & Prejudice," which is getting an unfair rap as just another Jane Austen adaptation.
Philip Seymour Hoffman's pitch-perfect take on the late author Truman Capote in "Capote" is the showier effort, but it's Ledger's taciturn performance as tortured cowboy Ennis Del Mar that leaves the crowds bawling after "Brokeback Mountain." Both are guaranteed nods, but come Oscar night they might go home empty-handed: Hoffman is probably regarded as too much the character actor to win the lead actor prize (the academy prefers to reward the roly-poly, pasty types in the supporting category), and Ledger is still considered a pretty boy who hasn't paid his dues.
In which case, the academy could go for Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" (though the fact that this performance comes on the heels of Jamie Foxx's win last year for "Ray" hurts him) or Cannes Film Festival Best Actor Tommy Lee Jones in his self-directed "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (it's one of those labor-of-love projects that the academy usually can't resist embracing).
Also in the running: Jeff Daniels ("The Squid and the Whale"), David Strathairn ("Good Night, and Good Luck"), Nathan Lane ("The Producers") and Terrence Howard ("Hustle and Flow").
Should be in the running (but probably won't be): "Breakfast at Pluto's" Cillian Murphy and "Cinderella Man's" Russell Crowe (that'll teach him to throw phones in hotel lobbies!).
There barely seem to be five actresses to nominate here. Indeed, you know it's been a dry year when the academy is forced to seriously consider Claire Danes in "Shopgirl." You can probably count on nominations for Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line" and Keira Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice," provided that both movies continue to perform at the box office.
But the unbeatable behemoth seems to be Judi Dench, everyone's favorite grand old Dame, for her affecting turn as a widow who opens a burlesque house in wartime London, in Stephen Frears' "Mrs. Henderson Presents." Dench won the supporting prize in 1999 for "Shakespeare in Love," but the academy probably thinks it's high time to make her a two-time victor. It certainly doesn't hurt that this is the best chance for the newly formed Weinstein Co. (that's Weinstein, as in Harvey and Bob, erstwhile of Miramax) to make its Oscar mark.
Translation: Expect relentless campaigning that should also benefit Dench's co-star Bob Hoskins in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Also in the running: Ziyi Zhang ("Memoirs of a Geisha"), Joan Allen ("The Upside of Anger") and Felicity Huffman ("Transamerica").
Should be in the running (but probably won't be): "Cinderella Man's" Renee Zellweger (that'll teach her to co-star in a movie with a phone-thrower!).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
In a just world, the perennially underappreciated Matt Dillon - who deserved the Oscar 16 years ago for "Drugstore Cowboy" - will finally get recognized for the best work of his career, as the racist cop in "Crash." Alas, he may get eclipsed by his co-star Don Cheadle, not to mention Geoffrey Rush ("Munich"), one of those actors who has been known to secure an Oscar nomination merely for showing up on set and having a pulse.
Also in the running: Bob Hoskins ("Mrs. Henderson Presents"), Matthew Broderick ("The Producers"), William Hurt ("A History of Violence") and Paul Giamatti ("Cinderella Man").
Should be in the running (but probably won't be): Kevin Costner ("The Upside of Anger"), Barry Pepper ("The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") and Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg (both "The Squid and the Whale").
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Oscar prognosticators haven't been mentioning Catherine Keener, so quietly powerful as Harper Lee in "Capote" - perhaps because Hoffman overshadows everyone else in the movie. But here's hoping the academy has the good sense to give her a much-deserved nomination; I think it's the best supporting performance I've seen this year.
The more likely nominees will be Michelle Williams, as Heath Ledger's suffering wife in "Brokeback Mountain"; Scarlett Johansson for Woody Allen's "Match Point" (yes, Allen has made a decent movie - his first in a decade), and Uma Thurman as the Swedish sexpot Ulla in "The Producers." If Thurman proves she's got the pipes, the academy might decide she's finally due for the prize. Otherwise watch out for that munchkin Method actress Dakota Fanning, who scared the wits out of everyone in "War of the Worlds."
Also in the running: Rachel Weisz ("The Constant Gardener"), Maria Bello ("A History of Violence") and Shirley MacLaine ("In Her Shoes").
Should be in the running (but probably won't be): Amy Adams ("Junebug") and Melissa Leo ("The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada").