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Oscar plays it safe

And so does our movie critic as he makes his predictions

This could be the year that the Academy Awards finally get interesting . . . or it could be just another year.

Not only do the ceremonies have a new host — witty funnyman Steve Martin — but there are some very interesting, edgy choices sandwiched between the safer ones among this year's nominees. Consequently, you've got nominated films and performances that were seen by less than 10 percent of the moviegoing public, as well as some that were seen by at least half of it.

But keep in mind that Oscar also went a bit edgy last year (by rewarding the dark, comic "American Beauty" five times), and odds are that voters will be more likely to play it safe this year.

Speaking of playing it safe, I used that strategy last year in correctly guessing eight out of the 10 winners in selected categories, which is pretty good. Since that paid off, I'm doing the same this year — though I've also thrown in a couple more predictions to make things just a little more interesting.

You can compare on Sunday at 7 p.m., when the Academy Award winners are announced amid the pomp and pageantry that airs on KTVX, Ch. 4.

BEST ACTOR

Who's nominated: Javier Bardem, "Before Night Falls"; Russell Crowe, "Gladiator"; Tom Hanks, "Cast Away"; Ed Harris, "Pollock"; Geoffrey Rush, "Quills."

Who will win: Crowe was denied last year when Kevin Spacey won, but even the perpetually nominated Hanks won't hold him back this year.

Who should win: Harris, probably the most underappreciated character actor working today, for his riveting work as tortured artist Jackson Pollock.

Who wasn't nominated but should have been: George Clooney, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; Billy Crudup, "Almost Famous"; Mark Ruffalo, "You Can Count on Me."

BEST ACTRESS

Who's nominated: Joan Allen, "The Contender"; Juliette Binoche, "Chocolat"; Ellen Burstyn, "Requiem for a Dream"; Laura Linney, "You Can Count on Me"; Julia Roberts, "Erin Brockovich."

Who will win: Like Crowe, Roberts is probably overdue, and it is generally acknowledged that her performance as real-life crusader Brockovich may be her best work to date.

Who should win: Burstyn, so heartbreaking as a diet-drug addict in the harrowing "Requiem for a Dream."

Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Gillian Anderson, "The House of Mirth"; Angela Bassett, "Boesman & Lena"; Michelle Yeoh, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Who's nominated: Jeff Bridges, "The Contender"; Willem Dafoe, "Shadow of the Vampire"; Benicio Del Toro, "Traffic"; Albert Finney, "Erin Brockovich"; Joaquin Phoenix, "Gladiator."

Who will win: Del Toro seems to be the front-runner here, but if the often-overlooked Finney wins, it won't be too big an upset.

Who should win: Dafoe, who made the style-over-substance "Shadow of the Vampire" much better than it should have been.

Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Bruce Greenwood, "Thirteen Days"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Almost Famous."

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Who's nominated: Judi Dench, "Chocolat"; Marcia Gay Harden, "Pollock"; Kate Hudson, "Almost Famous"; Frances McDormand, "Almost Famous"; Julie Walters, "Billy Elliot."

Who will win: The Academy loves a good Oscar story, and this one's a doozy — Goldie Hawn won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the age of 21, for 1968's "Cactus Flower," and guess what age her daughter Kate Hudson is right now?

Who should win: Harden, whose part as Lee Krasner in "Pollock" was large enough to merit a Best Actress nod.

Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Jennifer Connelly, "Requiem for a Dream"; Zhang Ziyi, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

BEST PICTURE

What's nominated: "Chocolat"; "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; "Erin Brockovich"; "Gladiator"; "Traffic."

What will win: "Gladiator." It's an epic, and Oscar loves epics.

What should win: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," for reviving a rather cliched genre, the martial-arts adventure, and adding real depth to it.

What wasn't nominated but should have been: "Almost Famous," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; "Requiem for a Dream."

BEST DIRECTOR

Who's nominated: Stephen Daldry, "Billy Elliot"; Ang Lee, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; Steven Soderbergh, "Erin Brockovich"; Ridley Scott, "Gladiator"; Steven Soderbergh, "Traffic."

Who will win: Conventional wisdom has it that the Best Picture and Best Director awards go hand in hand, but there's solid momentum behind Lee, who never makes the same movie twice.

Who should win: Lee, the most versatile filmmaker working today, who could probably make a teen sex comedy worth watching.

Who wasn't nominated but should have been: Ethan Coen, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"; Cameron Crowe, "Almost Famous."

OTHER NEARLY SURE BETS TO WIN:

— "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography

— "You Can Count on Me," Kenneth Lonergan for Best Original Screenplay

— "Traffic," Stephen Gaghan for Best Adapted Screenplay

— "My Funny Friend and Me," composed by Sting and David Hartley for "The Emperor's New Groove," as Best Song

— "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," Best Documentary Feature.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com