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).
The Lord of the Rings:The Return of the King
LOST IN TRANSLATION
MASTER AND COMMANDER: The Far Side of the World
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.
Pirates of the Caribbean:The Curse of the Black Pearl
House of Sand and Fog
Lost in Translation
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.
Something's Gotta Give
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
Benicio Del Toro
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
House of Sand and Fog
Pieces of April
Marcia Gay Harden
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.