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UPDATED 03/01/2004 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/01/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

And the Oscar Should Go To...

Most of us regular folk don't get to vote for the Oscars, but every year there we are, plopped in front of the TV whooping and wailing as Hollywood's elite hands out its coveted golden statues. Here are the names I'm betting—and hoping (the two are not always the same)—will win at the 76th annual Academy Awards on Sun., Feb. 29 (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

Best Picture

The Lord of the Rings:The Return of the King
LOST IN TRANSLATION
MASTER AND COMMANDER: The Far Side of the World
MYSTIC RIVER

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SEABISCUIT

The third time will prove the charm for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Look for this visually dazzling, sweeping epic, the final film chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy about Hobbits, knights and battles, to win. Call me ornery, but my wishful pick is Mystic River. Director Clint Eastwood's haunting drama is equally epic emotionally, a Greek tragedy set in the mean streets of a Boston neighborhood.

Best Actor

Johnny Depp
Pirates of the Caribbean:The Curse of the Black Pearl

Ben Kingsley
House of Sand and Fog

Jude Law
Cold Mountain

Bill Murray
Lost in Translation

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Sean Penn
Mystic River

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I'm pulling for a tie here. Wouldn't it be swell if both Penn and Murray could win? Both give exemplary performances in radically different styles, and each elevates the movie he's in to a higher realm. Penn is powered by internal combustion, his grief and rage throttled back until he can contain them no more in Mystic River. In Lost, Murray seems to float along on laughs and lack of sleep until you realize you're looking at melancholia in its most rarefied state. His is a clown's classic turn, the sadness all the more moving for the laughs that hide it.

BEST ACTRESS

Keisha Castle-Hughes
Whale Rider

Diane Keaton
Something's Gotta Give

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Samantha Morton
In America

Charlize Theron
Monster

Naomi Watts
21 Grams

Figure on Theron taking home an Oscar, thanks to her 30-lb. weight gain, prosthetic chompers and willingness to deglamorize herself to play snarling serial murderer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. She's impressive, but there's a look-at-me-I'm-acting quality to her performance that I find off-putting. I'd go with Keaton in Something's Gotta Give. Her delightful turn as a middle-aged woman who surprises herself by falling headlong in love transforms what could be a sitcom role into something exceptionally real. Playing a woman of a certain age, she gives an ageless performance.

Best Supporting Actor

Alec Baldwin
The Cooler

Benicio Del Toro
21 Grams

Djimon Hounsou
In America

Tim Robbins
Mystic River

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Ken Watanabe
The Last Samurai

Are all these guys great or what? But only one name will be called from this stellar crew, and it will be Robbins. Playing a man who never recovered from being kidnapped and abused as a boy, he was the hurting heart and soul of Mystic River. Robbins, through his slumping posture, hesitant voice and especially the deep emptiness in his eyes, embodied a man on whom the past had left a wound far too deep to ever heal.

Best Supporting Actress

Shohreh Aghdashloo
House of Sand and Fog

Patricia Clarkson
Pieces of April

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Marcia Gay Harden
Mystic River

Holly Hunter
Thirteen

Renée Zellweger
Cold Mountain

Zellweger will win, in recognition of the way she enlivened every scene she stomped through in Cold and because, in retrospect, she deserved an Oscar for Chicago last year. But if they're handing out prizes for both current and past performances, the redoubtable Clarkson (The Station Agent and Far from Heaven) should win. As a cancer patient with a dark sense of humor in April, she turned what easily could have been maudlin into pure comic gold.

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