Suicidal depression and conflict between good and evil may be the dominant themes in most of this year's Oscar best-picture nominees. But the smart money is riding on the contender that just wants to have fun.
That's according to David Germain and Christy Lemire, Associated Press movie reviewers, who both expect the cheerfully cynical ''Chicago'' to become the first musical since 1968's ''Oliver!'' to win best picture.
Their predictions on top Oscar categories:
Nominees: ''Chicago,'' ''Gangs of New York,'' ''The Hours,'' ''The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,'' ''The Pianist''
LEMIRE: Oscar's kind of film, ''Chicago'' is. The year's real best picture, ''Far From Heaven,'' wasn't nominated. So I'll go with my favorite of the five nominees, and the only one I'd want to watch over and over. ''Chicago'' was the most entertaining movie of the five, and it has unstoppable momentum after a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild awards, and wildfire word-of-mouth.
GERMAIN: Christy's far from reality on ''Far From Heaven,'' but we do agree that ''Chicago'' will prance off with the big Oscar prize. When I first saw it, I found ''Chicago'' fun and diverting but too lightweight for the best-picture race. But big box office, dominance at other awards ceremonies and a drab field have positioned it to win. Though I still cross my fingers that ''Gangs of New York,'' flawed as it is, could pull off an upset.
Nominees: Rob Marshall, ''Chicago''; Martin Scorsese, ''Gangs of New York''; Stephen Daldry, ''The Hours''; Roman Polanski, ''The Pianist''; Pedro Almodovar, ''Talk to Her''
GERMAIN: Marshall won the prize from the Directors Guild of America, and that almost always means an Academy Award too. Not this time. You'd think a guild of filmmakers might have enough sentiment for a master such as Scorsese to hand him his first DGA trophy. The full Oscar academy -- directors, actors, cinematographers and so on -- will give him his first Oscar. ''Gangs of New York'' is nowhere near his best, but enough academy members will be in lifetime-achievement mode to vote him over the top.
LEMIRE: A month ago I would have said Scorsese, for the same reason Dave's given. But I used that logic last year to predict a win for Robert Altman and ''Gosford Park,'' and was wrong. Dave called that one right, and Ron Howard won for ''A Beautiful Mind.'' The best-director Oscar will go to the best-picture winner, and that's Marshall for ''Chicago.''
Nominees: Adrien Brody, ''The Pianist''; Nicolas Cage, ''Adap-tation''; Michael Caine, ''The Quiet American''; Daniel Day-Lewis, ''Gangs of New York''; Jack Nicholson, ''About Schmidt''
LEMIRE: Yeah, yeah. Nich-olson already has three Oscars, but the academy loves him. And this is his least Jack-like performance, showing more versatility than anyone thought he had. Cage did his best work in nearly a decade in ''Adaptation,'' but the movie left some viewers cold. Day-Lewis is essentially doing an extended Robert De Niro impression. And Brody is a strong contender but may not be ready for Oscar just yet.
GERMAIN: Robert De Niro wishes he could still impersonate himself as well as Day-Lewis did in ''Gangs,'' Christy. You may be right about Nicholson, but I think you've been suckered into this ''let's-give-Jack-an-Oscar-for-not-acting-like-Jack'' bandwagon. Audiences didn't always like ''Gangs of New York,'' but most everyone agreed that Day-Lewis' performance was remarkable. And his Screen Actors Guild win should bring in a last-minute rush of academy votes. He'll be one of those rare villains who proves that crime does pay when it comes to Oscar night.
Nominees: Salma Hayek, ''Frida''; Nicole Kidman, ''The Hours''; Diane Lane, ''Unfaith-ful''; Julianne Moore, ''Far From Heaven''; Renee Zellweger, ''Chicago''
GERMAIN: Renee Zellweger gets a boost from her Screen Actors Guild win, but not enough to undo Hollywood's determination to hand Kidman an Oscar. Kidman's is too good a story not to top off with a statue: all that stiff-upper-lipping through her divorce from Tom Cruise, her emergence from his shadow with ''Moulin Rouge'' and ''The Others,'' her eagerness to bury the star persona under that fake nose and brooding demeanor to portray Virginia Woolf. And the kicker: It was an awfully good performance in the sort of heavyweight drama Oscar voters love.
LEMIRE: I hate to agree with you, but the nose knows: Kidman has it coming. I would love to see Moore win it -- she's perfect, and did I mention that she stars in the best movie of the year? But Kidman was so good she was unrecognizable. And ''The Hours'' is big-time Oscar bait.
Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Chris Cooper, ''Adaptation''; Ed Harris, ''The Hours''; Paul Newman, ''Road to Perdition''; John C. Reilly, ''Chicago''; Christopher Walken, ''Catch Me If You Can''
LEMIRE: Cooper should win because he creates a believable eccentric -- something hard to do without going too gimmicky or over-the-top. But I think Reilly will take it. I can see him getting it as a sort of collective Oscar, for a year (and career) of memorable supporting work, between ''Chicago,'' ''The Hours'' and ''Gangs of New York.''
GERMAIN: Reilly had a great year, but Cooper's the man here, for all the reasons Christy mentions and for helping to anchor a story so bizarre it could easily have spun off track into absurdist self-indulgence. After two hours with Cooper's orchid thief, you feel you've actually met the guy. When in doubt, always go with the toothless guerrilla horticulturist.
Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Kathy Bates, ''About Schmidt''; Julianne Moore, ''The Hours''; Queen Latifah, ''Chicago''; Meryl Streep, ''Adaptation''; Catherine Zeta-Jones, ''Chicago''
GERMAIN: Streep, Moore and Bates have been on everyone's lips for months, but Zeta-Jones has quietly picked up steam, including a Screen Actors Guild win, which will help lift her to Oscar triumph. She has proved she's more than just a gorgeous face and body, though it didn't hurt that she got to show off both in some slinky song-and-dance numbers. And when she wasn't belting out show tunes, Zeta-Jones demonstrated tremendous acting range in ''Chicago,'' from humor and coquetry to bitterness and resentment to delicious scheming and conniving.
LEMIRE: Agreeing is so boring, but everyone loves ''Chicago,'' and everyone loves Zeta-Jones in ''Chicago.'' There's the whole who-knew-she-could-do-that? factor, and truly, she is magnetic in the film. Bates' naked hot tub scene was a bold move, but she already has an Oscar. It would be great to see Moore win something on Oscar night, but I'm afraid she'll go 0-for-2.
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