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PICK YOUR PONY

Will there be blood? Most assuredly. But at least it will be inside Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre — and not outside on a Writers Guild picket line.

In other words, there will be Oscars.

And if there are Oscars, there must be predictions.

With the recent writers strike imperiling the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s annual pageant, it’s been a strange campaign season. (And I’m not just talking about the race for the White House.)

The endless parade of pre-Oscar awards — from the Golden Globes to the various guild celebrations — have continued, but like that proverbial tree in the forest, do awards create momentum if no one can watch them on TV?

Maybe, maybe not. Either way, it’s not stopping your humble prognosticator from consulting her trusty crystal ball and offering fearless predictions regarding who’ll make it into the winner’s circle (and who should) in the 80th annual running of the Oscar Derby.

Place your bets — it’s almost post time. And the winners are …

BEST PICTURE

Pick: “No Country for Old Men”

Prediction: “No Country for Old Men”

It’s a horse race, but not as much of one as it started out to be. Steadily, and not so slowly, “No Country for Old Men” has broken from the field and opened up a definite lead.

Not only has it collected almost every preseason prize, from end-of-the-year critics’ prizes to guild awards recognizing everything from its directors and screenplay (Ethan and Joel Coen need to build a bigger trophy case) to its cast (and remember, the actors’ branch is the Academy’s largest).

It’s also because “No Country” packs the biggest wallop among the nominees. This nervy, unnerving adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about the triumph of evil in the wild New West achieved instant-classic status right out of the gate.

Only two movies still have a shot to derail the Friendo Express. One of them is not “There Will Be Blood,” which seems too overlong and too over-the-top for it to drink “No Country’s” milkshake. “Atonement,” meanwhile, surprised many by making it into the final round; it’s not going any further.

Which leaves “Juno” and “Michael Clayton” as the dark horses. Of the two, “Michael Clayton” seems likelier — because it’s the sort of classy, thoughtful moral drama Hollywood types like to congratulate themselves for appreciating, even when they decline to make them. And “Juno’s” runt-of-the-litter, “lightweight” comedy status makes it an unlikely Oscar victor. Instead, “Michael Clayton” and “Juno” will duke it out for the consolation prize: best original screenplay.

BEST ACTOR

Pick: Johnny Depp, “Sweeney Todd”

Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood”

As usual, a strong category, with five worthy would-be winners. But Day-Lewis looks like such a lock as “There Will Be Blood’s” ferocious oil baron, a victory for anyone else would rank as a major upset. It seems bloody unlikely, given the broad support “There Will Be Blood” enjoys — and the fact that this may be its only major-category win.

George Clooney hits a career peak as “Michael Clayton’s” world-weary title character — and he’s the only other contender in a best picture nominee. But even if “Michael Clayton” manages a few other upsets along the way, don’t look for Clooney to join the two-Oscar club ahead of Day-Lewis.

Wonderful as those gents are, if I were voting (in my dreams), I’d opt for one of the remaining no-way nominees: Tommy Lee Jones’ almost wordless eloquence in “In the Valley of Elah,” Viggo Mortensen’s sly understatement as “Eastern Promises’ ” inscrutable Russian gangster, and especially “Sweeney Todd’s” Johnny Depp, who explores a remarkable range of emotions within the demented title character’s agonized soul.

Yet, unlike most Oscar races, this is one where whoever wins will deserve his statuette. So — milkshakes all around!

BEST ACTRESS

Pick: Julie Christie, “Away From Her”

Prediction: Julie Christie, “Away From Her”

If “Juno” becomes a juggernaut, Ellen Page — who plays the wisecracking title teen — could vault into the spotlight. After all, she’s the only one in a best picture nominee.

But I’m betting Oscar voters will opt instead for Christie’s haunting “Away From Her” portrayal of a beloved wife slipping into Alzheimer’s disease. At one point, Marion Cotillard’s tour-de-force “La Vie en Rose” portrayal of singer Edith Piaf seemed a lock, but Christie seems to have outpaced her. They remain the favorites.

Laura Linney is predictably wonderful as one of “The Savages,” and her performance as a frustrated underachiever struggling to deal with her aging father — and her equally underachieving brother — is eminently award-worthy, but neither she nor her movie seems to have any momentum whatsoever. Fortunately, she’ll be back.

So will Cate Blanchett, who scores one of two nominations this year for reprising the title role in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” Why, nobody seems to know — unless it’s payback for her losing 1998’s best actress race (to “Shakespeare in Love’s” Gwyneth Paltrow). She, too, will be back — perhaps as soon as the best supporting actress category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Pick: Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”

Prediction: Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”

The third time’s the charm. The marvelous Bardem has one previous nomination (for 2000’s “Before Night Falls” — he lost to “Gladiator’s” Russell Crowe) and deserved another for 2004’s ‘The Sea Inside.” But those were obscure indie releases.

Now he’s back in the best picture favorite — playing the creepiest, most hypnotic bad guy since Hannibal Lecter. (Which, as you might recall, won an Academy Award for Anthony Hopkins.) Bardem’s spellbindingly intense performance makes him about as sure a thing as you can get. (At least in this category, which is always the most competitive of the night.)

If Oscar voters are in a sentimental mood, Hal Holbrook could win for his moving “Into the Wild” portrait of a grizzled desert rat. A “Michael Clayton” sweep, meanwhile, could sweep Tom Wilkinson along as the movie’s mad-as-hell moral compass. They’re the only two nominees with a shot — long, but not impossible — to deny Bardem. But don’t count on it, friendo.

“Capote” Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman delivered not one, not two, but three killer performances this year — as a desperate, duplicitous schemer in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and as one of “The Savages.” He was equally terrific in his nominated performance as a sardonic CIA agent in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” but he’s already got one Oscar. Besides, he’ll be scoring nominations as long as he keeps stealing movies.

So, one hopes, will Casey Affleck, whose gloriously complex portrayal of a hero-worshipping, spotlight-craving killer gives “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” a timeless yet eerily contemporary spin.

Award-worthy all. Award-winning? Bet on Bardem.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Pick: Cate Blanchett, “I’m Not There”

Prediction: Amy Ryan, “Gone Baby Gone”

And now, at long last, here’s a true horse race — in the category where long shots often finish first. First, however, you have to figure out who they are.

Nominated for roles in best picture contenders: “Atonement’s” precocious Saoirse Ronan and “Michael Clayton’s” steely legal shark Tilda Swinton. Able (and pivotal) performances both, but not the sole standouts in their respective movies. If Swinton wins, it could signal a rising “Michael Clayton” floodtide — or the Academy’s desire to honor a movie unlikely to capture any other major category.

And then there were three.

Veteran Ruby Dee, as “American Gangster’s” matriarch, scored the movie’s only acting nomination, and while she’s got sentiment on her side, the brevity of her role and “Gangster’s” weak Oscar showing undercut her chances.

Amy Ryan also is a lone nominee, but her strong performance in “Gone Baby Gone” — in the Oscar-bait role of a duplicitous, drug-addled mother — has won multiple critics’ awards. Her victory wouldn’t be any kind of surprise.

Neither would Cate the Great’s. A nominee in both lead and supporting categories, Blanchett’s already got one Oscar for disappearing into the role of a legendary performer (“The Aviator’s” Katharine Hepburn) and disappears even more audaciously in “I’m Not There,” eerily embodying the enigmatic late ’60s Bob Dylan. It’s the kind of performance that shakes things up — and, once seen, wins Oscars.

Ah, but have enough Oscar voters seen it? We’ll know the answer to that one tonight.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0272.

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