Dan’s picks will appear Friday.

AP Oscar Predictions: Rings, Penn, Theron
You can never count out surprises at the Academy Awards, but this season is shaping up as fairly predictable. Associated Press movie reviewers David Germain and Christy Lemire, much to their chagrin, agree on many predictions for the top Oscar categories:
Nominees: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Lost in Translation,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “Mystic River,” “Seabiscuit.”
LEMIRE: The hobbits and elves will finally rule Oscar night. “Rings” is a sure thing ó not because it’s the best picture, which it’s not, but because of the vastness of the entire trilogy. Without “Rings,” the powerfully tragic “Mystic River” would win, though “Master and Commander” is the kind of classic epic that old-school Oscar voters love. “Seabiscuit” was inspiring and beautifully shot, but it’s almost too feel-good. “Lost in Translation” is a small wonder ó too small to take the night’s biggest prize.
GERMAIN: I could say “Ditto” and be done with it, but what’s the fun of coming to work if you can’t nag colleagues? “Return of the King” is a virtual lock, and if any other film wins, all of Hollywood will demand a re-count. Yet there’s the slimmest of chances a performance piece such as “Mystic River” could win over enough actors, who account for one-fourth of the 5,803 Oscar voters, to steal the precious trophy from J.R.R. Tolkien’s gang of hobbits.
Nominees: Fernando Meirelles, “City of God”; Peter Jackson, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”; Sofia Coppola, “Lost in Translation”; Peter Weir, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”; Clint Eastwood, “Mystic River.”
GERMAIN: Let’s see, a cast and crew of thousands, a trio of three-hour epics in a two-year span, nearly $3 billion in worldwide ticket sales. Peter Jackson has elevated the fantasy genre to mainstream high art, and the Oscar is bound to be his. Any other year, Weir would have a great shot for his ambitious high-seas adventure. Eastwood and Coppola deliver admirably, but their films’ true strength lies in the writing and acting. Meirelles’ “City of God” is raw and brilliant, but against Jackson, he hasn’t a prayer.
LEMIRE: The “Rings” trilogy is as impressive as it is because of Jackson’s sweeping scope. Any other year, Eastwood would have a great shot with his best film since his Oscar-winning “Unforgiven.” But I was also wowed by Weir’s ability to tell a huge story that’s also quiet and intimate. And I’m just glad to see Coppola and Meirelles ó two extremely observant directors whose films couldn’t be more different ó receive the recognition they deserve.
Nominees: 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”; Sean Penn, “Mystic River.”
LEMIRE: As a father grieving for his murdered daughter, Penn has the showiest role in a film full of showy roles. After three earlier nominations, he should finally get his Oscar. Though I’d like to see Murray win ó he brings such nuance to a complex part. Kingsley was startling, but he’s already won for “Gandhi.” Law wasn’t even the best thing in “Cold Mountain.” And Depp was a blast to watch, but he won’t walk away with the pirate’s booty this time.
GERMAIN: Another ditto on Depp, Kingsley and Law. Penn has softened his awards apathy, turning up at Hollywood events and promising to attend the Oscars after skipping the show for his previous three nominations. Good timing, since “Mystic River” should finally bring him his award. Penn’s other top-notch role in last fall’s “21 Grams” is fresh in people’s minds, giving him an extra boost. Murray, one of the finest modern comic actors, does have a shot for a performance brimming with world-weary charm.
Nominees: Keisha Castle-Hughes, “Whale Rider”; Diane Keaton, “Something’s Gotta Give”; Samantha Morton, “In America”; Charlize Theron, “Monster”; Naomi Watts, “21 Grams.”
GERMAIN: Naysayers whine that people are suckered in by physical transformations, but Theron’s sublime performance makes her the front-runner, not the pounds and makeup she put on to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron is frighteningly authentic, redefining herself as a daring actress. Keaton could be a sentimental spoiler for her comic comeback role, while Watts’ showy performance gives her an outside shot. Morton and 13-year-old Castle-Hughes are terrific but just along for the ride.
LEMIRE: Theron gives THE female performance of the year ó she’s an easy choice, even in a small, relentlessly bleak film. And you’re right, Dave ó it’s what’s going on inside that truly astounds, the who-knew-she-had-that-in-her? factor. Watts is such an intense, instinctive actress, she’ll get her Oscar one day. Keaton was lovely, but she’s already been to the Oscar podium.

Nominees: Alec Baldwin, “The Cooler”; Benicio Del Toro, “21 Grams”; Djimon Hounsou, “In America”; Tim Robbins, “Mystic River”; Ken Watanabe, “The Last Samurai.”
LEMIRE: This one’s hard. Baldwin was fabulously sleazy as a Vegas casino owner, and I’d love to see him win. Del Toro was heartbreaking in one of the year’s most emotional films. Hounsou and Watanabe each brought quiet strength ó and an intimidating presence ó to their roles. But Robbins is the heart of “Mystic River,” and like his co-star Penn, should finally win his much-deserved Oscar.
GERMAIN: Actually, this one’s not hard at all. Robbins has never been better, masterfully embodying an emotional wreck of a man with a few surprises left. Hollywood loves the guy and is just looking for a reason to give him the big prize. The other nominees are brilliant, but Del Toro already won for “Traffic,” Baldwin did the slimeball thing better in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and neither Hounsou’s nor Watanabe’s roles have quite the flash to lift comparative unknowns above an established player like Robbins.
Nominees: Shohreh Aghdashloo, “House of Sand and Fog”; Patricia Clarkson, “Pieces of April”; Marcia Gay Harden, “Mystic River”; Holly Hunter, “thirteen”; Renee Zellweger, “Cold Mountain.”
GERMAIN: Harden would get my vote if she had not won for “Pollock,” putting her in the “already-got-one” category. Hunter, an Oscar winner for “The Piano,” is a long shot for the same reason. With her third consecutive nomination, Zellweger should win for her role as a plucky Confederate survivor. Aghdashloo runs a close second, bringing tragic grace to her part as a motherly Iranian immigrant. And Clarkson cannot be counted out, a veteran finally getting her Oscar due with a caustically funny role as a breast-cancer victim.
LEMIRE: OK, here comes my maverick pick. The day Oscar nominations were announced, I said, “Renee, Renee, Renee.” She’s due, and who else could possibly win? But as time has passed, I’ve come to think Aghdashloo will take it. She gives such a subtle performance, it’s as if she isn’t even acting. (Plus, this is the category that often provides surprise winners ó just look at Harden.) Zellweger will get her Oscar in time, but not for “Cold Mountain,” in which her performance is a bit shticky, even though it provides much-needed comic relief.