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Time to Handicap the Academy Awards (Part 1 - Best Picture)...By Hartley Henderson

It's Oscar time. Well, not really. Actually the Academy Awards won't be handed out until February 27th and nominations won't be announced until January 15th, but some sportsbooks including World Sports Exchange ( and The Greek ( Sportsbook have odds out on the 3 main categories, which means it is time to look for some value plays. As well this Monday, December 11, the Golden Globes will announce their nominees which will affect the Oscars since Academy Award winners are usually at least recognized by the Golden Globes with a nomination, last year's Best Picture Oscar winner, "Crash", an exception. Betting prior to nominations can produce quite a windfall as "Chicago" was 5/1 when the first odds were released, "A Beautiful Mind" was double digits and last year's winner "Crash" was as high as 30/1 before the nominations came out. Even "Return of the King" opened at odds of 5/2 before it closed at about 1/20. With that in mind let's look at the contenders and dark horses.

First, we'll start with the area of best picture. The movie getting all the buzz this year is "Dreamgirls". Critics who saw previews of this movie absolutely raved about it and many are suggesting it is better than Oscar winner "Chicago". The movie adaptation of the Broadway play looks at the lives of 4 soul singers and their rise to the top of the pop charts in the 1960s. The movie has a star studded cast including Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover, but the performer getting all the rave reviews is Jennifer Hudson. The 2004 American Idol contestant apparently is so spectacular that Simon Cowell apologized to her on national TV for any rude comments he made to her on the show after seeing the preview himself. He also suggested that she is a shoe-in for the supporting actress nomination. The show apparently has the viewer tapping their toes and riding a wave of emotion from the opening credits until the closing credits. The movie will be put in limited release on December 15th and in wide release on Christmas Day which could be a slight knock against it. Generally speaking, movies that do win the Best Picture Oscar come out a bit earlier. "Catch Me if You Can" and "The Gangs of New York" both were in wide release on Christmas day and both ended up losing out. Still, if the movie is as good as everyone claims, it is strictly the one to beat.

The second contender is "The Departed". The Martin Scorcese film opened to decent box office figures, but somewhat mixed reviews. The movie has grossed over $115 million and while a few critics called it one of the best films in quite some time and Scorcese's best film since "Raging Bull", a few other respected critics weren't so kind citing far too much unnecessary graphic violence and profanity. While those things aren't totally negative factors at the Academy Awards, there does seem to be a push towards morality in Oscar voting of late. Last year's surprise loss by "Brokeback Mountain" was widely thought to be as a result of many in the academy, like Charlton Heston, who greatly protested the plot of the movie (i.e. gay cowboys) and urged others to vote against it. And while "Kinsey" was seen as a masterpiece by many the year before, others in Hollywood found the content disturbing. More importantly many critics were turned off by Jack Nicholson in "The Departed". The multiple award winning actor was seen as a bit too evil, even for Jack, and consequently unrealistic. In fact some critics thought he detracted from an otherwise great film and it would have been better with someone else complementing Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Still, the gangster movie was loved by the public and Martin Scorcese has always done well garnering Oscar nominations with his gangster movies, including "Goodfellas", "Casino" and "The Gangs of New York". But one thing that can't be overlooked is that Scorcese has never won an Oscar for directing, and only "The Aviator" (a picture that doesn't resemble "The Departed" at all) won best picture for him. With that track record and the relatively low odds the film is currently listed at, there are likely better bet options out there.

The third film for consideration is "The Queen". It seems like this movie has been out forever, but it only generated a bit over $20 million in North American box office receipts. The movie, which examined the monarchy and particularly Queen Elizabeth II in the weeks following Diana's death, was well done - but is it Oscar material? The movie is very slow at times, and not to be unkind, but is a bit too British. The language and cinematography clearly lets the viewer know you are in Britain, that can be a bit odd for North American moviegoers. As well, constant real footage of people crying and placing flowers in front of Buckingham Palace, plus headlines from papers like the "Daily Mirror", is quite foreign to North American viewers. The movie is quite slow at times, and more importantly the plot of the movie is a bit passé. People have moved on from the death of Diana and the film may have had more relevance a few years ago. Helen Mirren was spectacular in her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, and Michael Sheen's portrayal of Tony Blair was great, but the other actors left a bit to be desired. The best of the other actors was likely Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, but he resembled Charles about as much as Britney Spears resembles Rosie O'Donnell. The movie will get an Oscar nomination, but it is highly unlikely to win.

The fourth film being talked about is "Babel". The story, which looks at the interconnected lives of 6 couples after a tourist is shot on a bus by the sons of a goat herder in the desert of Morocco, is very complex. It was reminiscent of "Syriana" - which of course was passed over for a nomination due to its complexity - and "Syriana" was apparently a much better film. "Babel" can be quite hard to follow, and as a result many moviegoers tuned right out. Consequently it ended in a love/hate relationship with critics. The movie also seemed to be ignored by the public since it has only garnered $16 million in box office receipts in over 9 weeks in the theatre. Clearly box office isn't the main determinant of how a movie will fair at the Awards, but the winners usually have some success and for the most part this movie was a box office bust. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were said to be excellent in their roles, but the movie is probably too complex to be taken seriously as an Oscar contender.

The dark horses are "Little Miss Sunshine", "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima". The latter actually won the title of best picture at the National Board of Review, although that body is known for choosing political dramas which the public and Hollywood generally aren't that interested in. "Letters from Iwo Jima" is scheduled to be released in early Feburary of 2007, but is eligible for the 2006 awards. The Clint Eastwood film looks at the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II from a Japanese perspective. The main acting roles are all played by Japanese actors and the movie will be in Japanese with English subtitles. Consequently it is more likely to win foreign film awards than it is best picture, if it is nominated at all. Still, you can never rule out a Clint Eastwood film. The companion film released by Clint Eastwood earlier in the year from an American perspective was "Flags of Our Fathers". That movie opened to mediocre box office numbers and really never picked up. The film was supposed to rival "Saving Private Ryan", but it had little character development and was far too long at almost 2 1/2 hours. The mediocre cast showed its limitations, and as several critics pointed out, the battlefield scenes weren't that exciting and, in the end, the whole movie was unmemorable. If either film is going to give Eastwood an Oscar it will probably be the Japanese version.

"Little Miss Sunshine" is the true dark horse in this year's crop of films. Released in July of this year, the movie about a couple trying to get their daughter to the finals of a beauty pageant has gotten rave reviews by critics and also did quite well at the box office. Abigail Breslin has been touted as the next star and "Crash" did win best picture last year being released around the same time of the year. The main knock against the movie by some critics is that it was a bit too predictable. and also was in somewhat bad taste given the timing of it (it was released not long after the false confession of the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey). Still, this is the type of film that will be remembered by many Academy members when they look back on the films this year.

Other movies with a slight shot include: "Little Children", "World Trade Center", "United 93", "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Volver", although the latter will probably be nominated and win for best foreign film.

So it appears that the Best Picture Oscar is "Dreamgirl's" to lose and the big longshot play may be "Little Miss Sunshine". So if it were up to me to pick this year's best picture, what would it be? "Borat", of course!

Hartley Henderson

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