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The Oscar race for best picture of 2008 comes down to a slum dog and a sleek, big-budget purebred.


“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (purebred) was the most-nominated film of the crop announced Thursday, nabbing 13. But I think we can safely remove the “dark horse” designation from “Slumdog Millionaire” now. This is no dark horse. From where I sit in the stands, in fact, it looks like a pretty tight race with the mutt in the lead.


Oscar picks: Who will win, who should win

The Mumbai-set fairy tale is a well-liked escapist fantasy, complete with Bollywood-style dance finale. Director Danny Boyle’s relentless, shamelessly manipulative adventure puts you through the wringer for two hours and then delivers the happiest happy ending this side of “Oliver Twist.” Will Oscar voters favor the cooler visual satisfactions of “Benjamin Button” over the riot of color and movement that is “Slumdog”? We’ll find out Feb. 22.


Best picture


Nominees: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; “Frost/Nixon”; “Milk”; “The Reader”; “Slumdog Millionaire.”


The dope: It’s possible that “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk” and “The Reader” have a shot at winning, though it’s about as likely as the ghost of Heath Ledger picking up his richly deserved Oscar for “The Dark Knight.” This race comes down to “Slumdog” and “Benjamin Button,” and while both pictures are just off-formula enough to be interesting, and their filmmaking craft is undeniable, “Slumdog” seems to capture the mood of the moment. It’s full of grinding poverty and impossible wealth, hints of the real world but a hearty embrace of fairy-tale, pie-in-the-sky escapism.


Will win: “Slumdog Millionaire”


Should win: Of these five? “Milk.” Though “WALL-E” was my favorite film of 2008.


Best director


Nominees: David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon”; Gus Van Sant, “Milk”; Stephen Daldry, “The Reader”; Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire.”


The dope: Gratifying to see Van Sant recognized for “Milk”; no surprise seeing Fincher, Howard and Boyle in the list; disappointing to see Daldry nominated for “The Reader,” given the stiff-jointed, cautiously mediocre treatment of dubious material.


Will win: Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”


Should win: David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”


Best actor


Nominees: Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”; Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”; Sean Penn, “Milk”; Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler.”


The dope: With “Gran Torino” doing very well at the box office, and Clint Eastwood sentiment running higher than a kite, I’m surprised the Academy didn’t sneak in a nomination for Eastwood (who’s never won an acting Oscar). Brad Pitt for “Benjamin Button”? Eh, not quite Oscar-worthy. But you’ll get no argument from me regarding the others in this list.


Will win: Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”


Should win: Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”


Best actress


Nominees: Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”; Angelina Jolie, “Changeling”; Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”; Meryl Streep, “Doubt”; Kate Winslet, “The Reader.”


The dope: What happened to Sally Hawkins? Her turn in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” was ignored by the Academy. On the other hand, it’s terrific to see Melissa Leo’s name in this list for her sharp, flinty portrayal of a woman caught up in a smuggling ring on the U.S./Canadian border in “Frozen River.”


Will win: Kate Winslet, “The Reader”


Should win: Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”


Best supporting actor


Nominees: Josh Brolin, “Milk”; Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”; Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”; Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”; Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”


The dope: Eddie Marsan’s nerve-racking turn as the driving instructor in “Happy-Go-Lucky” was unfairly ignored. But this is a solid wall of quality. I wish there were more suspense involved, because it’s going to be ...


Will win: Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”


Should win: Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”


Best supporting actress


Nominees: Amy Adams, “Doubt”; Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”; Viola Davis, “Doubt”; Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler.”


The dope: Big doings for “Doubt,” with both Viola Davis (expected) and Amy Adams (less so) recognized for their efforts. Henson’s nod for “Benjamin Button” was a nice surprise. This is a very tough category to call: Cruz has been awarded plenty for her showy turn in the Woody Allen film, so she’s the de facto front-runner. And yet no supporting actress’ chances at the gold were ever hurt by nudity, so Tomei has a real chance.


Will win: Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”


Should win: Viola Davis, “Doubt”


Best original screenplay


Nominees: Courtney Hunt, “Frozen River”; Mike Leigh, “Happy-Go-Lucky”; Martin McDonagh, “In Bruges”; Dustin Lance Black, “Milk”; Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter, “WALLE.”


The dope: A fine list. The writing you notice? McDonagh’s elaborate, often viciously comic verbal embroidery in “In Bruges.” I suspect this one, though, comes down to Mike Leigh (whose “Happy-Go-Lucky” was underappreciated by the Academy) and the “WALLE” team.


Will win: Mike Leigh, “Happy-Go-Lucky”


Should win: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter, “WALLE.”


Best adapted screenplay


Nominees: Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; John Patrick Shanley, “Doubt”; Peter Morgan, “Frost/Nixon”; David Hare, “The Reader”; Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire.”


The dope: We have here widely varying degrees of adaptation. Shanley and Morgan adjusted their respective stage successes astutely if minimally; Roth and Swicord took a wee F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and invented, out of whole cloth, something new. Beaufoy, similarly, freely adapted the novel “Q&A” and came up with the title of destiny, “Slumdog Millionaire.”


Will win: Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire”


Should win: Simon Beaufoy, “Slumdog Millionaire”


 


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