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And the Oscar goes to ...

Our fearless movie critic makes his predictions

By Paul Clinton

"The Aviator"
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What's your early pick for best picture Oscar?
"The Aviator"
"Finding Neverland"
"Million Dollar Baby"
Academy Awards
Martin Scorsese
Hilary Swank
Jamie Foxx

(CNN) -- Movie screens across the country lit up in 2004 with some exceptional films and dozens of outstanding performances, some of which are now up for Academy Awards.

But oddly enough, few of these Oscar-nominated works have actually been seen by large audiences. The classic box office standard for a blockbuster in Hollywood is the $100 million mark; none of the best picture nominees has hit that level.

"The Aviator" (11 nominations), with a little less than $90 million in ticket sales, is the closest to crossing over into the $100 million club. But "Million Dollar Baby" (seven nominations), one of the best-reviewed and most-revered films of 2004, has made just a bit more than $50 million.

Since the audiences have been so small for these award-worthy films, there would appear to be little emotional investment in the films dominating this year's Oscar race. Add the fact that ratings for awards shows have been slipping in recent years, and it will be interesting to see just how many people will care about the Academy Award winners when they're announced Sunday.

Nevertheless -- whether you care or not -- here are my predictions for the winners of the top six categories in the race for Oscar gold.

Best supporting actress

With her appearances in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and her quirky turn in "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," Cate Blanchett has been on a creative roll recently. But her performance as Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" is the standout of the bunch. From the moment she appears on the screen as Hepburn, it's impossible to take your eyes off her. Playing an icon like Hepburn -- and actually making the audience forget it's an actress acting -- is quite a trick, and Blanchett carries it off with aplomb.

I can't imagine anyone else in this category taking home the Golden Boy, but if anyone even comes close it would be Virginia Madsen with her translucent performance in "Sideways."

Should win: Cate Blanchett, "The Aviator"

Will win: Cate Blanchett, "The Aviator"

Best supporting actor

This is Morgan Freeman's fourth Oscar nomination, and despite being one of the industry's most respected actors, he has never taken home the gold. Add the fact that his role as Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris plays a key role in the emotional impact of this extremely moving film, and it seems to add up to being Freeman's year.

Thomas Haden Church, with his role in "Sideways," is the most likely to knock Freeman off his perch, but that would be a long shot.

Should win: Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"

Will win: Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"

Best actress

Poor Annette Bening, she's going to get Swanked again. The last time Bening was nominated for best actress it was for her complex and wonderful turn as the wife and mother in the 1999 film "American Beauty." Bening lost to Hilary Swank, who gave a breathtaking performance in "Boys Don't Cry."

It looks as if the same scenario is likely to happen again, with this year's race coming down to these two performers. But despite Bening's exceptional performance in the wonderful period piece "Being Julia," Swank's brilliant acting in "Million Dollar Baby" seems impossible to top.

Should win: Hilary Swank, "Million Dollar Baby"

Will win: Hilary Swank, "Million Dollar Baby"

Best actor

Conventional wisdom already has the best actor trophy going to Jamie Foxx for his stunning performance as Ray Charles in the excellent biopic "Ray." But it was a performance in another true-life story that stole my heart this year: Don Cheadle's amazing turn in "Hotel Rwanda."

In the best performance of his career, Cheadle displays a deeply layered and exceptionally moving humanity in portraying hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina. Rusesabagina saved more than 1,000 Tutsi refugees in Rwanda during a struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda in 1994. A million people were slaughtered in fewer than three months.

Both Sophie Okonedo and Don Cheadle are up for "Hotel Rwanda."

Should win: Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda"

Will win: Jamie Foxx, "Ray"

Best director

The race for best director is generating the most heat not only in the industry, but also among the general public. In one corner we have 74-year-old icon Clint Eastwood with his gutsy drama "Million Dollar Baby." In the other corner we have 62-year-old Martin Scorsese, long considered one of the industry's finest craftsmen, with his Hollywood epic "The Aviator." With four nominations, and no wins, Scorsese is -- for many -- the sentimental favorite. Also, Eastwood -- with two nominations -- has already won his Golden Boy in 1992 for "Unforgiven." Eastwood could also get a consolation prize by winning best actor for "Million Dollar Baby."

Both films are exceptional. For my money, "The Aviator" was a greater achievement in terms of the sheer scope of the material. However, something tells me this is Eastwood's year.

Should win: Martin Scorsese, "The Aviator"

Will win: Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"

Best picture

As with the best director race, the best picture category also looks like it boils down to the same two films, "The Aviator" or "Million Dollar Baby," with "Baby" probably leading the pack. However, the academy has been known to salute smaller films with best picture honors, such as with "Shakespeare In Love," "Chariots of Fire" or even "Rocky." With that in mind, "Sideways" or even "Finding Neverland" could find themselves taking the gold if a split decision knocks out the favorites.

Should win: "The Aviator"

Will win: "Million Dollar Baby"

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