The Oscars may be just a big ol' popularity contest, but the nominated movies and performances at this year's 75th Academy Awards (airing March 23 on ABC at 8:30 p.m. ET) make up one of the strongest fields in recent memory. While we admit to being conflicted in a few categories, here are the names we're hoping will be called when the envelopes are opened.

Best Picture

Chicago

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Gangs of New York
The Hours
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Pianist

No matter where you lived, Chicago was the place to be this year. This irresistible musical, despite its 1920s setting, was right in tune with the times as it told its brassy story of how crime, show business and publicity intersect. Director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon solved the key problem to doing musicals for today's audiences: how to keep the narrative moving propulsively even as the songs are being sung. One came out of Chicago wanting to button-hole perfect strangers and urge them to see it. How often does that happen?

As for the other nominees, Gangs of New York is all over the place, The Hours is easier to admire than to love, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is three boring hours of battles, and The Pianist is worthy but can't compete with Chicago's pizzazz.

Best Actress

Salma Hayek, Frida

Nicole Kidman, The Hours
Diane Lane, Unfaithful
Julianne Moore, Far from Heaven

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Renée Zellweger, Chicago

In a great year for women's roles, Moore rates highest. As a 1950s housewife slowly coming to understand that her picture-perfect life has been based on false assumptions, she gave a finely calibrated, fully felt performance in which every shift of emotion radiated like a depth charge.

Best Actor

Adrien Brody, The Pianist
Nicolas Cage, Adaptation
Michael Caine, The Quiet American
Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt

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We're not die-hard Nicholson fans who figure he should win every year, but his thoughtful, accomplished turn as a retired midwestern widower on a journey of self-discovery in the bittersweet About Schmidt moved us to both laughter and tears.

Best Supporting Actress

Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
Queen Latifah, Chicago
Julianne Moore, The Hours
Meryl Streep, Adaptation
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago

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The ferocious energy that Zeta-Jones poured into the role of nightclub chanteuse-turned-killer Velma Kelly, along with her sensational singing and dancing abilities (we Yanks had no idea), made for a sizzling performance. This first-time nominee is up against strong competition—all hail Streep's and Bates's ample comic gifts—but Zeta-Jones earns the golden statue.

Best Supporting Actor

Chris Cooper, Adaptation

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Ed Harris, The Hours
Paul Newman, Road to Perdition
John C. Reilly, Chicago
Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can

Sure, it would be heartwarming if a deserving Newman were called up to the stage for a late career salute or Walken were honored for a most un-Walken-like sympathetic turn. But Cooper's jittery, orchid-stealing, Florida swamp rat was simply too colorful a performance to ignore. In a movie notable for its weirdness, he reigned as the weirdest.

Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen

The chase is on in this action thriller, and it just goes on, never pausing for such things as character development, humor and sharp dialogue—all of which distinguished 1993's The Fugitive, a similar but far better film.

L.T. Bonham (Jones), an expert tracker, spends the film trailing Aaron Hallam (Del Toro), a knife-wielding murderer, through Oregon. The hackneyed plot twist that is supposed to make The Hunted matter is that years ago it was Bonham who taught Hallam how to kill when both worked for the U.S. military.

One couldn't care less, given that the film never fleshes out either man. Jones looks rightfully wary and weary (and rather like Richard Nixon with a beard), while Del Toro seems at a loss as to how to approach his role, settling for letting his big brown eyes stay perpetually moist. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Not worth pursuing

Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff

Cody Banks (Muniz), a seemingly normal 15-year-old, is really an undercover agent for the CIA. His first mission: to cozy up to Natalie (Duff, of TV's Lizzie McGuire), a perky blonde with an important scientist dad. When Cody's awkward early tries at charming Natalie fail, the head of the CIA fumes, "We spent $10 million training this kid and we didn't teach him how to talk to a girl?"

Agent is an amusing, semi-exciting, gadget-filled spy comedy aimed squarely at tweeners (those too old for Elmo but too young for 007). Just make sure your kids don't try to get behind the wheel of a sports car at home. (PG)

BOTTOM LINE: A likable spy kid

Best Director Yes, it stinks that Martin Scorsese has never won, but the half-baked Gangs of New York isn't the film for which he should win. Regardless of his questionable past, Roman Polanski deserves an Oscar for The Pianist, an evocative, haunting work.

Best Animated Film spirited Away, a trippy Japanese entry, is our pick in a quality-laden group.

Best Cinematography The late, great Conrad Hall ought to be recognized for the beauty he brought to Road to Perdition.