And the Oscar Should Go To...

Blockbusters rich in special effects have a place in Hollywood, but how refreshing to find most of 2004's Oscar-nominated movies so human-scaled and the performances so commendably subtle. Which only makes choosing what and who deserves to win gold statues at the 77th Academy Awards (Feb. 27 on ABC, 8 p.m. ET) that much harder. But no one ever said being a movie critic was easy, so here are my picks.

Best Picture

FINDING NEVERLAND
MILLION DOLLAR BABY [STAR]
RAY
SIDEWAYS

Watching Million Dollar Baby, you know it's special. The next day, the full weight of the movie's meaning and complexity hit you like a Mack truck. A powerful meditation on the meaning of faith, love and charity, the drama tells the story of the growing friendship between a veteran boxing coach (Clint Eastwood) and a would-be pugilist (Hilary Swank). To call it a boxing film is to label a Rolls-Royce merely a car.

The other nominees each have their merits: The Aviator is lushly entertaining. Finding Neverland movingly reveals the roots of artistic inspiration. Ray gets your toes tapping and your tear ducts working. And Sideways, my runner-up choice, is warm and winning. Not one, though, stays with you the way Baby does. Like all great art, it lingers in your thoughts—and your heart.

Best Actor

Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda

Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator

Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby

Jamie Foxx, Ray

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Foxx sure didn't hide behind Ray Charles's trademark shades. In a searing performance as the legendary music man, he went far beyond simply zeroing in on Charles's distinctive voice and physical mannerisms. Foxx dug into the man's pain and flaws, showing how each contributed to the triumph of his music. Runner-up: Cheadle could have showboated while saving lives in Rwanda but instead gave a carefully calibrated turn as a man of conscience doing what he must.

Best Actress

Annette Bening, Being Julia

Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace

Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake

Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

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Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Give Swank the right role and she packs a wallop. Mirroring her breakout part as a yearning outsider in 1999's Boys Don't Cry, Swank was radiant in Baby as a dirt-poor waitress determined to girl-fight her way to self-respect. With acting as sinewy as her physique, Swank didn't waste a line or a look, making her performance all the more striking for its lack of vanity or excess. Runner-up: Staunton, who brought a touchingly tragic dimension to a housecleaner's downfall.

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Alda, The Aviator

Thomas Haden Church, Sideways

Jamie Foxx, Colleteral

Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby

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Clive Owen, Closer

Supporting nods often go to the very young or the elderly. At 67, Freeman qualifies as a veteran if not a codger and respect is due. He has already gone home Oscar-less three times (with nominations for Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawshank Redemption) and it would be a crying shame if he didn't win this year for his spare, pitch-perfect performance as a retired boxer in Baby. Runner-up: Church, for nailing both the comedy and pathos in his role as a once-golden boy growing old.

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett, The Aviator

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Laura Linney, Kinsey

Virginia Madsen, Sideways

Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda

Natalie Portman, Closer

Every time Blanchett, leading with her jaw, briskly strode onto the screen as Katharine Hepburn in Aviator, she lifted the movie. Sure, she had Hepburn's starchy New England accent and angularity down pat, but her performance was more than an impression: It was a considered, witty interpretation of the fabled star. Runner-up: Madsen, who, with little more than a warm, knowing smile, turned her Sideways character into a woman obviously wise in experience.

FINDING NEVERLAND
MILLION DOLLAR BABY [star]
RAY
SIDEWAYS

Watching Million Dollar Baby, you know it's special. The next day, the full weight of the movie's meaning and complexity hit you like a Mack truck. A powerful meditation on the meaning of faith, love and charity, the drama tells the story of the growing friendship between a veteran boxing coach (Clint Eastwood) and a would-be pugilist (Hilary Swank). To call it a boxing film is to label a Rolls-Royce merely a car.

The other nominees each have their merits: The Aviator is lushly entertaining. Finding Neverland movingly reveals the roots of artistic inspiration. Ray gets your toes tapping and your tear ducts working. And Sideways, my runner-up choice, is warm and winning. Not one, though, stays with you the way Baby does. Like all great art, it lingers in your thoughts—and your heart.

Best Actor

Hotel Rwanda

Finding Neverland

The Aviator

Million Dollar Baby

Ray [star]

Foxx sure didn't hide behind Ray Charles's trademark shades. In a searing performance as the legendary music man, he went far beyond simply zeroing in on Charles's distinctive voice and physical mannerisms. Foxx dug into the man's pain and flaws, showing how each contributed to the triumph of his music. Runner-up: Cheadle could have showboated while saving lives in Rwanda but instead gave a carefully calibrated turn as a man of conscience doing what he must.

Best Actress

Being Julia

Maria Full of Grace

Vera Drake

Million Dollar Baby

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Give Swank the right role and she packs a wallop. Mirroring her breakout part as a yearning outsider in 1999's Boys Don't Cry, Swank was radiant in Baby as a dirt-poor waitress determined to girl-fight her way to self-respect. With acting as sinewy as her physique, Swank didn't waste a line or a look, making her performance all the more striking for its lack of vanity or excess. Runner-up: Staunton, who brought a touchingly tragic dimension to a housecleaner's downfall.

Best Supporting Actor

The Aviator

Sideways

Collateral

Million Dollar Baby

Closer

Supporting nods often go to the very young or the elderly. At 67, Freeman qualifies as a veteran if not a codger and respect is due. He has already gone home Oscar-less three times (with nominations for Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawshank Redemption) and it would be a crying shame if he didn't win this year for his spare, pitch-perfect performance as a retired boxer in Baby. Runner-up: Church, for nailing both the comedy and pathos in his role as a once-golden boy growing old.

Best Supporting Actress

The Aviator

Kinsey

Sideways

Hotel Rwanda

Closer

Every time Blanchett, leading with her jaw, briskly strode onto the screen as Katharine Hepburn in Aviator, she lifted the movie. Sure, she had Hepburn's starchy New England accent and angularity down pat, but her performance was more than an impression: It was a considered, witty interpretation of the fabled star. Runner-up: Madsen, who, with little more than a warm, knowing smile, turned her Sideways character into a woman obviously wise in experience.

SUPERNATURAL

Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz
SUPERNATURAL

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As he prepares to perform a grueling exorcism on a girl who has a demon inside her, John Constantine instructs her, "Close your eyes and, whatever happens, don't look." Viewers, however, should keep their peepers wide open while watching this muddled thriller. The highly stylized visuals are cool as they come, full of eye-bending visions of hell, glistening gallons of green water and angels with giant feathery wings. It's the dialogue, plot and some of the acting that are problematic.

Based on the Hellblazer series of graphic novels, Constantine is a cross between hard-boiled detective story and supernatural hooey. Constantine (Reeves, as spectacularly cardboard as ever) is a contemporary, chain-smoking Philip Marlowe, except instead of tracking cheating spouses and murderers he hunts down demons passing for regular folk. When a police detective (Weisz, better than the film deserves) solicits his help in uncovering the truth behind her twin sister's suicide, Constantine finds himself up to his wheezing lungs in Satan's helpers.

Little of this proves engrossing but, as directed by music video whiz Francis Lawrence (Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River"), it sure looks fabulous. A major bright spot: Peter Stormare shows up late in the movie as Satan, resplendent in a white suit, and proceeds to chew scenery with devilish relish. (R)

Jeff Daniels, AnnaSophia Robb
FAMILY
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Most kids gulp down a piece of candy and simply demand more. Not Opal (Robb), the spunky, insightful 10-year-old heroine of this sincere, unpretentious movie. After sucking on a lozenge, she observes that the candy tastes "sweet and sad at the same time." Which serves as an accurate assessment of Because of Winn-Dixie, a laudable film based on a Newbery Honor-recognized novel by Kate DiCamillo and sensitively (if occasionally lurchingly) directed by Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan).

Opal and her preacher dad (Daniels) move to a tiny town where she adopts a dog and slowly makes new friends. The sad part? Opal's mom split years ago and the dog, briefly, runs away. For youngsters and parents needing a break from films featuring smart-talking cartoons, this heartwarming tale will prove a boon. The only misstep comes when Opal throws a garden party and the rococo decorations make one briefly suspect that she's a junior Martha Stewart in the making. (PG)

Best Animated Feature Film: If The Incredibles doesn't score, it's an incredible shame.

Best Director: Clint Eastwood (Baby) deserves a trophy, but fine by me if winless Martin Scorsese (Aviator) finally lands one.

Best Original Screenplay: I'm picking the wildly original, unforgettable Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Here's lifting a glass to a hoped-for Sideways win.

Hitch

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An uneven romantic comedy that's no match for its talented cast. Will Smith, Eva Mendes and Kevin James star. (PG-13)

Pooh's Heffalump Movie

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A heaping helping of Roo and his Hundred Acre Wood buddies in a tame tale perfect for tykes. (G)

Imaginary Heroes

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Sigourney Weaver's glorious turn as an unhappy but groovy mom is almost reason enough to see this bloated coming-of-age story. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • LEAH ROZEN.