IF THE BOOKMAKERS are any guide, this year's Oscars race has been run and won for some time. In Britain, the bookies gave up their chase for punters' hard-earned, closing about five days before this morning's first envelope was even opened.
When they stopped taking bets, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had been backed down to an astonishing 1-12 favourite - from its opening quote on 1-2 - to start the shortest-priced favourite in the history of betting on the event. Return has 11 nominations, including Jackson's for best director. Its main (and rather surprising) rival for most awards is Peter Weir's seafaring epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which picked up 10.
So, will there be any surprises? Host Billy Crystal will no doubt do his best to stir up a bit of trouble, especially in light of the controversy in the US over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which opened there last week. However, after Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl telecast, this year's Oscars broadcast will feature a five-second delay. Just what body parts the Academy fears Crystal might be primping for display is anyone's guess. But it begs the question of whether the likes of Michael Moore, winner for best documentary last year, would get away with anti-Bush sentiments during his acceptance speech while some trigger-happy control booth operator has his finger poised above the delay button.
In Hong Kong, movie-goers have had a rare treat because all the films in the best picture category have been screened - unlike previous years, when we had to wait until seemingly the rest of the world had had its fill. So, making predictions in this category at least has been made easier. For others, however, we can only go by word of mouth. Or take a wild stab in the dark.
So, here goes.
The common thinking is that the best picture award was parcelled up long ago. But whether or not The Return of the King wins on its own merits, or in recognition of the filmmaker's achievement with the trilogy as a whole, the smart money seems to be on Jackson and his crew. Last week, the film's ticket sales passed US$1 billion (only the second film outside Titanic to do so), so there'll be some happy little hobbits around if it wins.
Lost in Translation has a few things going for it - director Sofia Coppola's film-rich heritage will win over a few of the ageing academy voters - but it's just a little too light. Mystic River is a stunning drama, but Clint Eastwood has won before. And they do like to share these things around. Should win: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Will win: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Stay in your seats: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Mystic River; Seabiscuit.
The most interesting award remains best actor, with the front-runners two guys who in past years could not have cared less about the awards. Bill Murray's nuanced performance in Lost in Translation won the Golden Globe, but Sean Penn's effort in Mystic River was terrifying. He's come close before, and showed up at the Oscars press lunch with his mum. Nice touch. Should win: Penn. Will win: Penn. Stay in your seats: 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).
It's seemingly another two-horse race in the best actress category, with the frightening effort of Charlize Theron (Monster) getting a few Oscars necessities right: she wears heavy makeup, makes herself look ugly, and speaks funny. Naomi Watts is a revelation in 21 Grams and could be the outsider. But the publicity surrounding Theron has been overwhelming. Should win: Theron. Will win: Theron. Stay in your seats: Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider); Diane Keaton (Something's Gotta Give); Samantha Morton (In America).
Best supporting actor is overloaded with talent. But Alec Baldwin? Who would have thought? Anyway, put Ken Watanabe down as this year's Mako (foreign guy making most in crappy film), and put it down to a race between Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams) and Tim Robbins (Mystic River). Should win: Del Toro. Will win: Robbins, on the rule that the most sympathetic character often seems to get the nod. Stay in your seats: Baldwin (The Cooler); Djimon Hounsou (In America); Watanabe (The Last Samurai).
Hongkongers will be clueless once it comes to best supporting actress. Three of the films haven't surfaced yet (although one, thirteen, is out on DVD). Full credit to Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain) for giving us that Forrest Gump-ish female farmhand voice. It took courage. Should win: Who knows? Will win: Let's go with Holly Hunter (thirteen), a critics' favourite. Stay in your seats: Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog); Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April); Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River); Zellweger (Cold Mountain).
Jackson seems to have a mortgage on the gong for best director, although Eastwood (Mystic River) has been making a point of reminding anyone within earshot that his film uses no special effects, or CGI. The academy might have listened, but let's hope common sense prevails. Should win: Jackson. Will win: Jackson. Stay in your seats: Fernando Meirelles (City of God); Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation); Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World); Eastwood (Mystic River).