Picture the possibilities

Although three films are near locks for picture nominations, this year's race remains somewhat mysterious.

Pinpointing the five best picture nominees has become as much a sport for the industry as predicting weekend boxoffice grosses, but that doesn't mean that entertainment's well-heeled populace doesn't enjoy a good mystery now and then.

Take this year, for example. While Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," Miramax's "The Queen" and Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" are almost certain announcements on Jan. 23, the other two nomination slots have insiders buzzing about the possibilities.

"Usually, at this stage, I'm sure of at least two or three, and then I'll have seven or eight others as contenders," says producer Mark Gill, former president of Warner Independent Pictures. "But this year, I'm not even sure of that many, and there are 14 or 15 real contenders."

Among the films competing for a spot are not one but two Clint Eastwood pictures: Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers" and Warners' "Letters From Iwo Jima," which the studio sneaked into the 2006 release schedule just in time for Oscar consideration, adding to the intrigue as prognosticators ponder if Eastwood could see two of his movies get nominated for best picture in the same year.

But while many awards trackers look to the mid-December Golden Globe nominations for a hint at what's in store for the Academy Awards, this year's announcement did little to shed light on the race. Neither of Eastwood's films earned best drama noms, though Eastwood earned two best director noms. "Flags" was overlooked entirely in the drama category; "Letters" was ineligible because it was deemed a foreign-language film -- but it did get nominated for best foreign film.

Until the Globes gave Eastwood those two directing nominations, nobody had seriously thought both films could get best picture nominations. By press time, insiders still felt it was improbable and that "Letters" stood the better chance -- that's if its votes aren't siphoned off by "Flags."

"It will be 'Iwo Jima,'" manager J.C. Spink of Benderspink says. "You can feel the response is stronger. It's even starting to feel like that could win best picture. I liked 'Flags of Our Fathers,' but I don't think enough people felt the way I did. But I do think the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) loves Eastwood and wants to honor him in some way."

If "Letters" does earn a nomination and "Dreamgirls," "Departed" and "Queen" fill up the other three best picture slots, the remaining part of the quintet stands to be the subject of much debate until the end of January. Following is a look at the films that have the greatest potential to occupy the fifth nomination slot.

Apocalypto (Buena Vista)
In typical campaigning fashion, the final month of the year has seen a few last-minute releases shake things up, including Mel Gibson's Golden Globe-nominated Mayan-language epic, which screened for the first time in late November and became a lighting rod for those who saw it. Fans of the film have raved about it to a degree almost unprecedented among the year's releases, but there has been an equally vociferous chorus of naysayers, some repelled by the movie's violence, others by Gibson himself. Given its original subject matter, lush visuals and strong narrative drive, the film is causing debate among insiders about its ability to sway enough of the Academy's 6,000 voting members to win one of the five nominations.

Babel (Paramount Vantage)
Having earned more Golden Globe nominations than any other film this year, "Babel" went from being a picture that was off most pundits' radars to one that has a front-and-center seat for awards season. But, as previous Oscar ceremonies have proven, the Globes' ability to predict Oscar noms isn't always solid, and "Babel's" unconventional triptych of story lines has earned mixed reviews from critics.

Bobby (MGM/The Weinstein Co.)
"Bobby," which follows the goings-on at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel on the day presidential hopeful Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot in its kitchen, was a surprise best drama nominee at the Globes -- so surprising, in fact, that its director, Emilio Estevez, didn't even get out of bed to check the results the day the Globe nominations were announced. While Academy members could gravitate toward its all-star ensemble cast and universal themes, the film's lack of a breakout performance will probably hurt its chances in January.

As seemingly remote as its chances might be, Fox's pseudoforeign documentary "Borat" has found a spot in audiences' hearts and could resonate with Academy voters. The Academy has always held an innate prejudice against comedies, let alone ones as anarchic as "Borat," but insiders at Fox are quietly crossing their fingers and praying that "Borat" might sneak through. "I can't imagine it stands a chance," says producer Michael London (2004's "Sideways"), "but it is great for the movie business that a subversive comedy is turning the industry on its head."

The Good Shepherd (Universal)
With Robert De Niro directing an A-list cast that includes Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon, this drama about the formation of the CIA is, at the very least, sure to get Academy members out to a screening. There is, however, a handful of other, more solid potentials in line ahead of it, and critics have not been kind to this years-in-the-making picture, which could make earning an Oscar nomination difficult.

Little Children (New Line)
Director Todd Field's "Little Children" features strong performances from Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly, both of whom are Academy favorites and likely to earn acting noms. Although it has an unsavory subplot about a pedophile who's recently been released from prison, the film's subtle suburban satire has found favor among critics and could earn Field, who produced and directed 2001's "In the Bedroom," his second best picture nomination.

Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight)
In addition to being a huge hit for Fox Searchlight, "Little Miss Sunshine" has been playing well all year to older Academy voters and members of the acting branch, both of whom have responded strongly to its ensemble cast. Although this feel-good road-trip movie is a somewhat nontraditional best picture contender, its chances for an Oscar blessing continue to look up.

Notes on a Scandal (Fox Searchlight)
Based on a novel by Zoe Heller, this dark film paints such an unkind picture in Judi Dench's character -- the ironically named teacher Barbara Covett -- that many are finding the film unsavory. Yet, the interplay between Cate Blanchett's adulterous Sheba Hart and Dench's miserable, jealous character is somehow irresistible, demonstrating how formidable both actors are. There's no doubt that its chances for picture recognition are remote, but both actresses will most likely receive Oscar nominations.

Pan's Labyrinth (Picturehouse)
Unlike the Golden Globes, where foreign-language movies are ineligible for the best picture prize, the Academy's top Oscar is open to any foreign-language film that has been released in North America during the preceding year. And though Guillermo del Toro's imaginative fantasy is far darker than traditional awards-season fare, its solid reception at May's Festival de Cannes and its subsequent critical acclaim could convince voters to see it.

The Pursuit of Happyness (Sony)
Based on a true American-dream story, "Pursuit" features Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden playing a father and son struggling for a better life. Although the reviews have been mixed, Will Smith's restrained performance has been drawing praise and could result in an acting nomination. In a less crowded year, the picture's chances for a nom would probably be better.

United 93 (Universal)
Although Universal has acknowledged problems in persuading voters to see this film about the final hours of the doomed flight that crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001, "United 93" has gathered support among those who have made it to a screening. "It was one of the most powerful pieces of fresh filmmaking," says producer Adam Fields (2001's "Donnie Darko"). "It completely transcended that sense you usually have of being in a movie. And I think (members) will respond to that."

Volver (Sony Pictures Classics)
Director Pedro Almodovar proved his ability to cross over into the major categories when he won an original screenplay Oscar for 2002's "Talk to Her." And while "Volver" has yet to reach the heights of that film, it is striking a chord with voters. "'Volver' is terrific and is exactly what people come to an Almodovar movie looking to see," says writer John August (2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"). "Whether it can cross over is dependent on the other contenders. But I think it could do as well as 'Talk to Her.'"