It’s on, people. When actor Adrien Brody and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Frank Pierson appeared before international media Tuesday morning to announce the nominees for the 77th Academy Awards, the most exclusive competitive field in entertainment was officially set. Sorry, no tournament brackets, no “at large” bids.

Among the invitees, who was deserving? Who limped in? And, more importantly, who will waltz away with a statuette at Oscar’s big dance? For one critic’s humble opinion, read on.

BEST PICTURE

With a field-leading 11 nominations, Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” immediately becomes the odds-on favorite to claim Hollywood’s most coveted prize Feb. 27. Overrated? Not by a sight. Starring Best Actor-nominee Leonardo DiCaprio as aviation mogul Howard Hughes, Scorsese’s film has all the tangibles. It has Oscar scope. It has Oscar performances. And, most tellingly, it has an Oscar-style fixation on mental illness (some have compared the movie to Ron Howard’s much-honored “A Beautiful Mind”) to bolster its case – an open-and-shut case, if history holds (the nominations leader virtually always wins Best Picture).

If you want to talk overrated, how about Marc Forster’s pleasant if Pollyanna “Finding Neverland” (seven nominations)? Some of that Peter Pan pixie dust must have found its way into the Academy’s collective nasal cavity during the nomination process. Rounding out the category are a trio of deserving films – “Million Dollar Baby,” “Ray” and “Sideways” – leaving no room for the polarizing audience favorites “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Since both were entered as Best Picture candidates, neither was eligible in its “natural” category: Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary, respectively.

Losing out: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Sea Inside,” “Hotel Rwanda.”

BEST DIRECTOR

Forster suffered the most obvious slight, based on the fact that his movie was nominated, and he was not (Mike Leigh of “Vera Drake” snaked his spot). Scorsese has to be considered the early favorite here, but I personally would rejoice over a win by Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) or Taylor Hackford, who rescued himself from hackville (remember “Proof of Life”?) by imbuing “Ray” with rare elegance and scope. In the hands of another director, it could have been soooo movie-of-the-week.

Losing out: Forster, Michael Mann (“Collateral”), Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Mike Nichols (“Closer”), Bill Condon (“Kinsey”), Alejandro Amenabar (“The Sea Inside”).

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

What’s wrong with this picture? Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church both pick up nominations for supporting roles in “Sideways,” Payne scores directing and screenwriting nods, and what does Paul Giamatti get? (Freaking) Merlot! Esoteric wine jokes aside, Giamatti was the heart and soul of that movie. His was undoubtedly the most grievous snub of the day.

Blame Clint Eastwood. As a crumbling corner man in his self-directed “Million Dollar Baby,” the 74-year-old filmmaker was obviously too good not to nominate. Based on his Golden Globe win and impeccable caricature of Ray Charles, Jamie Foxx is the favorite in this category for “Ray,” but Eastwood is my sentimental pick. DiCaprio could also sneak away with the statuette, in which case expect host Chris Rock to make good on his promise to “steal” an Oscar for Foxx.

Losing out: Giamatti, Jim Carrey (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Javier Bardem (“The Sea Inside”), Liam Neeson (“Kinsey”), Christian Bale (“The Machinist”), Kevin Bacon (“The Woodsman”).

BEST ACTOR iN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Morgan Freeman is a pleasant surprise, considering he wasn’t even nominated for a Golden Globe, but his rueful, raspy narration in “Million Dollar Baby” apparently struck the right note with Oscar voters. Alan Alda (“The Aviator”) is also a fun pick, in a rare villainous turn. Make that a rare turn, period.

Golden Globe-winner Clive Owen is the cream of the crop. As a dastardly, blunt-mannered physician in “Closer,” he did what a good supporting actor is supposed to do: get noticed without getting in the way. I’m not even sure what Foxx (“Collateral”) is doing in this category; how could he possibly have logged less screen time than Tom Cruise? All in all, this was something of an anemic year for supporting actors. I wish Curtis Armstrong as Ray Charles’ Atlantic Records mentor had gotten more consideration for “Ray.”

Losing out: Cruise, Peter Sarsgaard (“Kinsey”), Eric Bana (“Troy”), Freddie Highmore (“Finding Neverland”).

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Call it Oscar Combat Part II. Hilary Swank and Annette Bening went head-to-head five years ago in this category and make for an intriguing rematch in 2005. This time, the roles are reversed: Swank is the favorite in the better-known film. “Million Dollar Baby,” while Bening is the upstart in the sporadically seen indie, “Being Julia.” Playing a legendary stage actress whose petal has fallen, Bening will most likely win a split decision.

Unheralded Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno scored the day’s out-of-nowhere nomination for her gritty, uncompromising turn as a teenage drug mule in “Maria Full of Grace,” and – like Swank five years ago – could pull an upset. Kate Winslet is a longshot in what, quite honestly, was only the second-best performance in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (the Academy upholding its long-standing boycott of Jim Carrey). Among the semideserving candidates getting no love from the Academy: Globe nominee Scarlett Johansson (“A Love Song for Bobby Long”) and Ashley Judd (“De-Lovely”).

Losing out: Johansson, Judd, Julie Delpy (“Before Sunset”), Ziyi Zhang (“House of the Flying Daggers”), Audrey Tautou (“A Very Long Engagement”).

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

The year’s deepest category. In fact, I could come up with a roster of actresses not nominated that could compete with the list of those who were. Maia Morgenstern was splendid as the Virgin Mary in “The Passion of the Christ” (a shame Mel Gibson didn’t stump for her). Sharon Warren, a newcomer, was painfully good as Ray Charles’ disadvantaged mother in “Ray.” Sandra Oh struck me as having a more challenging role in “Sideways” than Virginia Madsen, who was nominated.

Ultimately, I’d like to see the Oscar go to one of two actresses: Cate Blanchett, for her pitch-perfect Katherine Hepburn in “The Aviator,” or Sophie Okonedo, for her utterly convincing turn as a wife riding out a genocide in “Hotel Rwanda.” Coincidentally, Okonedo’s nomination is one of five awarded to black actors this year, a new standard.

Losing out: Oh, Warren, Morgenstern, Julia Roberts (“Closer”), Ziyi Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers”), Regina King (“Ray”), Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Machinist”).

Swank and Bening notwithstanding, the scrappiest fight of the night could be played out in the fledgling Best Animated Feature category, where “The Incredibles” and “Shrek 2” – both blockbusters, both adored by millions – will digitally duke it out. Movie fans have a month to choose corners.


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