I predict a win for “Little Miss Sunshine”!

Best-picture Oscar is anyone’s guess
LOS ANGELES – The Academy Awards usually are like one of those high school popularity contests where all the other contenders show up, but there’s that one girl everybody just knows is going to be crowned prom queen.
Not this time.
For the first year in longer than anyone in Hollywood can remember, the best-picture category is so wide open that any of the five films could come away with the big prize.
The typical Oscar ceremony has a clear front-runner or two, with the other best-picture nominees lumped into the thanks-for-showing-up crowd.
The main trophy for the 79th annual Oscars this Sunday is up for grabs among the far-flung ensemble drama “Babel,” the crime epic “The Departed,” the war story “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the road comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” and the British-royalty tale “The Queen.”
A final look at the five nominees going into the homestretch:
“BABEL” ó A shot fired in the African desert is heard ’round the world as the wounding of an American tourist holds stinging repercussions for families in North America and Japan.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s tale had the grandest of coming-out parties, premiering at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival, the filmmaker winning the best-director prize there the same weekend as the publicity frenzy over the birth of a daughter to Angelina Jolie and “Babel” star Brad Pitt.
Though not a universally beloved film, “Babel” has ridden a wave of admiration over its intricate structure, which weaves passionate stories in multiple languages, the action flitting back and forth among characters on three continents.
“Always through the whole process, I was very conscious of how I was going to put in four stories, three continents, five languages, and translate that into a visual grammar, a visual language in one single film that makes sense,” Inarritu said.
Anchored by great performances from Pitt, Cate Blanchett and supporting-actress nominees Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi, “Babel” leads the best-picture field with seven nominations. It’s the sort of heavy, ambitious drama academy members historically have anointed as best picture.
Yet despite its Golden Globe win for best drama, “Babel” is a film that may resonate more in the head than the heart. In keeping with the global expanses that separate the film’s characters, some Oscar voters may appreciate it more from a distance, rather than holding it close to their breasts.
“THE DEPARTED” ó If you haven’t heard someone say that Martin Scorsese has never won an Oscar, you haven’t been paying attention to awards season this year ó or two years ago, when his “The Aviator” was in the running, or four years ago, when his “Gangs of New York” was nominated.
Revered as he is, Scorsese has been a perpetual bridesmaid, somehow trekking through one of the most eclectic, ambitious careers of any American filmmaker without winning a thing on Hollywood’s big night.
After going oh-for-five on past nominations, Scorsese looks like a lock to finally win best director. With its ferocious action, macabre humor and snappy wiseguy patter, “The Departed” also could bring home the best-picture trophy, a prize his films have never won.
“To be in a movie when he finally gets his due would be awesome,” said “The Departed” co-star Mark Wahlberg, a supporting-actor nominee for playing a distrustful, foul-mouthed cop. “I would just kind of look around at the surroundings, being on the set with all those talented people and Marty, and I really felt like wow, I arrived. It was the best experience of my career.”
Many Scorsese fans think “The Departed” was not the best of Scorsese’s career, though it’s his biggest box-office hit. Critics welcomed the film as a return to the blood-soaked crime epic he has done so masterfully in the past, yet the sense among awards watchers is that “The Departed” falls a few notches below such Scorsese films as “Raging Bull” or “Goodfellas.”
“LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA” ó The results of his half-century-and-counting career are in: Clint Eastwood can do anything.
His far-flung World War II saga “Flags of Our Father” came out in October, greeted with solid critical acclaim but relative indifference from audiences, who were not all that interested in the ambitious account of the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima.
As “Flags” faltered, Eastwood’s companion film “Letters From Iwo Jima,” chronicling the lives of the Pacific island’s doomed Japanese defenders, was moved from its 2007 debut date to a December release to qualify for the Oscars.
And Eastwood, a two-time best-picture and directing winner, scored his fourth nominations in both categories for the film that even he had viewed as the “smaller brother” to the more expansive “Flags.”
“The whole thing was just to tell a story of what it must have been like to be defending this little island that had no significance when you look back at it now, but it did back then,” Eastwood said. “The irony is I talked to many Iwo veterans who were very supportive of the idea of making `Flags.’ They couldn’t wait to see `Letters From Iwo Jima.’ They were all still curious about what it was like for the other side.”
The Japanese-language “Letters” was a surprise best-picture nominee, and a win would be even more unexpected, especially considering academy voters may figure they’ve already given Eastwood his due for past Oscar champs “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
Then again, this is Eastwood, so anything’s possible.
“LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE” ó The little film that could holds many parallels to “Crash,” the surprise best-picture winner a year ago.
Both were low-budget independent films shot outside the Hollywood studio system, “Crash” costing $6.5 million to make, “Little Miss Sunshine” $7.5 million. Both were film-festival acquisitions, Lionsgate buying “Crash” at the Toronto fest, Fox Searchlight snapping up “Sunshine” at Sundance.
Both are ensemble flicks, “Crash” following a broad range of intersecting characters over a tumultuous day in Los Angeles, “Sunshine” focusing on a feuding family on the road trip from hell, including supporting-acting nominees Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin. Both went into Oscar night fresh off a win from the Screen Actors Guild for best performance by an ensemble cast.
And both came out fairly early in the year, well before the fall onslaught of awards contenders, becoming critical darlings and big indie successes, each finishing with $55 million to $60 million at the box office.
“There’s something about our film that truly connected with audiences in a very real way. A little bit of magic happened,” said “Little Miss Sunshine” producer David Friendly. “Everybody can relate to the dysfunctional family. What’s actually unrelatable is the functional family, which I don’t know if it exists.”
Directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the film is all about learning to make peace with your lot in life and gracefully accept the notion that you may be a loser. Come Oscar night, “Little Miss Sunshine” could be a winner.
“THE QUEEN” ó For the second straight year, director Stephen Frears delivers a movie centered on a British dame of a certain age.
In 2005, it was Judi Dench as an upper-crust socialite in “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” This time, it’s Helen Mirren as the uppermost of the upper crust in “The Queen,” a fiercely intelligent, surprisingly saucy drama about Elizabeth II’s worst week on the job, the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death and the public’s criticism that the royal family bungled the period of national mourning.
Still alluring in her 60s, Mirren gleefully cloaks her sexiness beneath Elizabeth’s frumpy, shapeless wardrobe and presents a truly profound glimpse into the psyche of a leader who has been uncompromising in her propriety and respect for tradition.
“I love the fact that she has never changed, and there’s a consistency there that’s admirable and so extraordinary. If her hairstyle one minute was a beehive in the ’60s and then it was a shag cut or mullet in the ’70s,” Mirren joked. But “it’s always been the same, and as one gets older in life, you realize the power of that consistency. … You realize that consistency now has been there for 40, 50 years.”
As good as the film is, Oscar voters may feel they’ve done loyal service to “The Queen” by giving Mirren the best-actress prize, leaving best picture to another contender.