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Will the Coens' gem prove too daring for the Oscars?

Reflections on fate and chance pepper the landscape of No Country for Old Men, and a similar thread might be found in CL's annual Oscar predictions column. In tackling the top contenders for the 80th Annual Academy Awards (airing at 8 p.m. this Sunday, February 24, on ABC), am I destined to pick as well as I have in recent years (6-for-8 last year, 7-for-8 the year before), or will my selections ultimately seem as arbitrary as those coin tosses instigated by No Country's philosophical killer Anton Chigurh?

Either way, you can't stop what's coming (to quote another No Country character), meaning that despite the best efforts of prognosticators everywhere, the final fate of this year's crop of nominees won't be determined until the final envelope is ripped open. So without further ado, here are the contenders in the eight major categories.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Atonement, Christopher Hampton; Away From Her, Sarah Polley; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Ronald Harwood; No Country for Old Men, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson.

Prediction: No Country for Old Men. No Country's script has won a number of critics' prizes as well as honors from the Writer's Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the Golden Globe folks). And while fidelity to the source material isn't always required, the Coens have been praised for largely remaining true to Cormac McCarthy's novel. It's difficult to see anything else winning, unless voters decide to toss Anderson a consolation prize for not nabbing Best Director.

Preference: No Country for Old Men. Audacious, intelligent, unconventional, inventive, and capped by an uncompromising ending -- here's a brilliant script that's good to the last drop (of blood).

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Juno, Diablo Cody; Lars and the Real Girl, Nancy Oliver; Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy; Ratatouille, Brad Bird; The Savages, Tamara Jenkins.

Prediction: Juno. Like No Country, Juno has torn through the critical landscape, with a Writer's Guild prize to top it all off. Cody's back story -- stripper makes good! -- will help in some quarters, hurt in others, but the momentum is too great to ignore. The only possible spoiler is Gilroy, who (a la Paul Thomas Anderson; see above) might be honored here since he ain't winning anywhere else.

Preference: Juno. It's tempting to go with Ratatouille -- the writing in animated features is often underrated -- but Juno's script is such a delight, not even so much for its choice slang but for its raft of vibrant characters and its unexpected ability to go further beneath the surface than initially expected.

BEST DIRECTOR

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood; Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men; Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton; Jason Reitman, Juno; Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Prediction: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men. The Coens won the Director's Guild award, a remarkably accurate barometer. Schnabel snagged some hefty recognition for his startling achievement (including the Golden Globe and the Cannes prize), but his film's lack of a Best Picture nomination cripples his chances. Anderson has a slim shot, but his movie continues to lurk in the shadow of the Coens' equally daring project.

Preference: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men. Only once in the Academy's history has a directing team won in this category (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for West Side Story). Clearly, bros Joel and Ethan deserve to be the second tag team so honored -- there are scenes in this picture so riveting that they continue to haunt me months after my initial viewing.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There; Ruby Dee, American Gangster; Saoirse Ronan, Atonement; Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone; Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton.

Prediction: Ruby Dee, American Gangster. This is the hardest of the major categories to call. Ryan won a whopping 12 critics' awards before Blanchett scored a couple of significant coups, including the Golden Globe. Then along came Dee to snag the Screen Actors Guild trophy. And if that didn't gum up the works enough, perpetual bridesmaid Swinton scored a surprising victory with BAFTA (aka the British Oscars). In other words, only the kid (Ronan) can be ruled out. If Blanchett hadn't just recently won for The Aviator, she'd be my pick; as it stands, it's hard to ignore Dee. True, her part in American Gangster is tiny, but the Academy loves to honor veterans, and Dee's standing as a tireless activist for civil rights also doesn't hurt.

Preference: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone. A phenomenal performance in a great movie that should have earned additional nominations in other categories.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford; Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War; Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild; Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton.

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