Again, the asterisk indicates that I have not seen the film.
Penélope Cruz, Volver*
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal*
Helen Mirren, The Queen*
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children*
Will win: Helen Mirren. Is it her time? All signs point to yes. The only thing I thought could hold her back was a poor showing by her film, but it got 6 nominations. Full speed ahead.
Should win: Hard to say. I only saw Streep, who excelled in a popcorn role like Johnny Depp in the first Pirates. It's a nice creation, but not winning material.
Most badass: As I understand it, there's some villainy involved with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet. But I'll credit Streep for resisting the urge to be campy or overtly devious; the film made sense from her standpoint, not Anne Hathaway's.
Cutest: Normally I worship the ground on which Winslet walks, but she's playing some sort of adulteress. Penélope Cruz isn't my favorite actress in the world, but it's nice to see her try something different, so I'll go with her.
Missing in action: I really liked Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee, Gretchen Mol in The Notorious Bettie Page, and Sanaa Lathan in Something New. But I'm not really crying foul on behalf of any.
Comments: Yawn. Cruz can provide us with only so much new blood. These five were firmly ahead of everyone else, and amongst them, Mirren is firmly ahead of the other four.
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson*
Peter O'Toole, Venus*
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland*
Will win: Peter O'Toole. I know it runs counter to every precursor out there, but unlike those precursors, Oscar owes him. This is his eighth nomination in this category, and he didn't win the first 7 times. While it would be historic to see African-Americans win three of four acting Oscars, lifetime achievement comes into play.
Should win: I don't feel qualified to answer, having only seen Will Smith. I do believe that the Academy has recently overawarded actors who portray real people. So I feel an affinity for those who have to work only within the four corners of the script page.
Most badass: Leonardo DiCaprio is a mercenary. Ryan Gosling is an addict. But Forest Whitaker is Idi Amin.
Cutest: Well, it's not Whitaker. I'll say Smith, who plays the most likable character here.
Missing in action: Where to begin? Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine. Ken Watanabe in Letters from Iwo Jima. Hugh Jackman in The Fountain. Laurence Fishburne in Akeelah and the Bee. Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking.
Comments: An overwhelming majority who saw The Departed and Blood Diamond agree that Leo was nominated for the wrong performance. I will say this: his ridiculous attempt at a South African accent was the main reason I didn't want to see that movie.
Babel (Paramount Vantage)
The Departed (Warner Bros.)*
Letters from Iwo Jima (Paramount/DreamWorks)
Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight)
The Queen (Miramax)*
Will win: Everyone says it's wide open. Babel won a Golden Globe, Little Miss Sunshine won the Producers Guild. The critics went for Letters from Iwo Jima and The Departed. In a close race, it comes down to the Academy's huge actors branch, who could fall for the self-importance of Babel but would be better off recognizing a genre remake in The Departed.
Should win: Uh, that would be Dreamgirls. Easily the most complete and polished film of the year, a popular and respectable choice. So where is it?
Most badass: Hard to bet against Clint Eastwood, but his war movie has a lot of introspection and despair. Then there's the turf war of The Departed. But I'll go into battle with the bright yellow tank in Little Miss Sunshine.
Cutest: It's a bright yellow tank! With cute people inside!
Missing in action: In dueling magician films, I preferred The Illusionist to The Prestige, but seeing either here (or at least in more technical categories) would be welcome. Also, of course, the criminally ignored Akeelah and the Bee, the most unabashedly joyous film of the year.
Comments: Letters from Iwo Jima is a Japanese language film. Even with Eastwood behind it, I don't see it taking Best Picture. Surely they don't drink that much Kool-Aid. Do they?