• Winner: Brokeback Mountain
Lately, there's been talk that Crash will score a come-from- behind victory. The argument goes like this: front-runner Brokeback peaked too early. Voters are tired of the so-called "gay cowboy movie," which does have detractors who believe the movie has been overrated, perhaps out of some Hollywood impulse toward political correctness.
I'm not ready to jump off the Brokeback bandwagon. Here's why:
• Brokeback should build momentum, picking up awards in other important categories such as best adapted screenplay and best director, for example;
• Brokeback has generated more talk than any other nominated picture;
• Three of the other nominees (Munich, Good Night and Good Luck and Capote) aren't likely to siphon votes away from the front-runner.
Does Brokeback deserve to win? I'm a Capote fan, but I'd say Brokeback is very deserving. It's well-acted, beautifully shot and written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Osana with a keen appreciation for colorful details of life in the West. Crash boasts some amazing acting, but the movie is full of over-amped and exaggerated social observations about race, ethnic conflict and Los Angeles living. It rings loudly, but does it ring true?
• Winner: Ang Lee
Lee already has been named best director by the Director's Guild of America, not a sure sign of Oscar victory, but a good indicator. The other nominees - Paul Haggis (Crash), Steven Spielberg (Munich), George Clooney (Good Night and Good Luck) and Bennett Miller (Capote) - probably will go home cursing the fact that they were nominated in such a strong year.
If the award were given to the director who handled the most difficult material, it would go to Spielberg. Munich is far more complex than any of its competitors, and its globe-hopping story demanded a director who could handle action, emotional intimacy and political meaning.
• Winner: Philip Seymour Hoffman
This awesome category goes a long way toward reminding us that today's actors frequently are better than the movies in which they appear. Every nominee - Joaquin Phoenix, David Strathairn, Terrence Howard and Heath Ledger - did something special in 2005.
If anyone can upset Hoffman, it's Ledger. Ledger gave a truly impressive performance as Ennis Del Mar, an emotionally stifled gay ranch hand. It was the kind of muted, gut-wrenching performance that took a lot of folks by surprise.
Whatever the voters do, they can't go wrong. Howard was both commanding and vulnerable as a shabby Memphis pimp aspiring to be a rapper in Hustle & Flow. Phoenix managed to sing and act convincingly in the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, and Strathairn brought undeniable elegance and reserve to the role of Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck.
• Winner: Reese Witherspoon
Like Phoenix, Witherspoon sang and acted in Walk the Line. Her portrayal of June Carter captured the grit and drive of a tough- minded woman who understood how to hold an audience in her grasp.
If not Witherspoon, then Felicity Huffman. Huffman is popular in Hollywood and certainly had to stretch the most to play a man who wants to become a woman. But Transamerica didn't match Huffman's extraordinary performance.
Judi Dench, always marvelous, didn't disappoint in Mrs. Henderson Presents, but the picture hasn't generated enough excitement. Charlize Theron did her usual commendable job as a woman trying to break into the tough world of coal mining in North Country. Theron won the Oscar two years ago (Monster) and will have more chances. This isn't her year.
It's difficult to imagine that Keira Knightley will triumph, even though her energy and intelligence kept Pride & Prejudice on track.
Who should win? Witherspoon. She stole every scene she was in.
Best supporting actor
• Winner: George Clooney
Sporting a paunch and a world-weary attitude, Clooney did a fine job as a CIA agent in Syriana, and I'm betting that the Academy will see that he goes home with at least one award.
But here's another category that brims with talent. William Hurt was spectacularly funny and menacing in A History of Violence, but he's not a Hollywood guy and he was only onscreen for 10 minutes.
Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as a gay ranch hand in Brokeback kept pace with Ledger's, but Brokeback's coattails may not extend this far. Matt Dillon did some of the best acting of his career as a racist Los Angeles cop in Crash, but if anyone pushes Clooney aside, it will be Paul Giamatti.
Why? This could be make-up year for Giamatti, who last year was snubbed despite having given one of his best performances in Sideways.
Who would I vote for? Gyllenhaal. It took two to create the Brokeback tango.
Best supporting actress
• Winner: Rachel Weisz
I pick Weisz without much confidence, because someone usually pulls an upset in this category.
Amy Adams, who hails from the Denver area, just might do it. Adams gave the best performance in Junebug, playing a chatty, pregnant woman who tried to paper over conflicts within a troubled southern family. Did enough voters see the picture to put her over the top? We'll see.
Here's another category in which voters can't go wrong. Michele Williams brought heartbreak and hurt to the role of the wife of a repressed gay man in Brokeback, but the attention wasn't on the women in this picture. Catherine Keener as author Harper Lee added moral spine to Capote, and has a strong body of work. Frances McDormand gave her typically strong performance as coal miner and union representative in North Country, but she may not be able to break away from a strong field.
That leaves Weisz.
I'd write in Maria Bello, whose work in A History of Violence had shattering power. OK, Bello didn't receive a nomination. For me, that leaves Keener, whose level-headed austerity balanced Hoffman's flamboyant Capote.
Some other odds and ends:
• Best Original Screenplay: Crash
• Best adapted screenplay: Brokeback Mountain
• Best documentary: March of the Penguins
• Best foreign film: Tsotsi
OK, that's it from me. Tomorrow, we can sit back and watch presenters grapple with lame attempts at humor, revel in the self-congratulatory spirit of the occasion and look forward to Monday, when life at the movies returns to normal.
Robert Denerstein is the film critic. denersteinb@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-5424