Actors in the saddle for Oscar race

The Academy Awards are shaping up as a something of a horse race.

The Academy Awards are shaping up as a something of a horse race.

Sweeping spectacle and historical pageantry – featuring tons of horse flesh - could dominate the ceremony in Los Angeles on February 29.

Everyone from jockeys and Hobbits to samurai and Civil War combatants are saddled up for a run at Oscar gold.

Among the top contenders: the fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the Civil War saga Cold Mountain, the racehorse drama Seabiscuit and the 19th-century warrior tales The Last Samurai and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

More intimate contemporary dramas produced many of the year’s finest performances, including Mystic River, 21 Grams, In America, Lost in Translation and House of Sand and Fog.

Oscar nominations come out on January 27. The rundown of possible contenders in major categories:

Best Picture:

The top prize should come down to Frodo in Middle-earth vs. Odysseus in the Confederacy.

Peter Jackson has scored back-to-back best-picture nominations with his J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation, and Return of the King is certain to make it three straight. The final chapter follows Hobbit Frodo Baggins’ desperate attempt to destroy a ring of ultimate evil.

Traditional Oscar wisdom should make Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain the front runner, though.

Adapted from Charles Frazier’s Civil War best seller, Cold Mountain is a reimagining of Homer’s The Odyssey as a wounded Confederate deserter (Jude Law) wends his way home to his sweetheart (Nicole Kidman).

Cold Mountain has the weighty drama, tragic romance and historical sweep that often clicks with Oscar voters. And it has something to offer every branch of the academy: a tremendous ensemble cast, passionate dialogue, lovely music, artful editing and cinematography, sumptuous sets and costumes.

Two other epics could creep into the best-picture mix, Peter Weir’s Napoleonic-era naval tale Master and Commander and Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, an East-West culture clash set in 19th century Japan.

Among more contemporary films, the strongest contender looks to be Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, a sombre drama of murder, remorse and suspicion centreing on three reunited childhood friends. Mystic River is Eastwood’s finest work since Unforgiven earned him best-picture and director Oscars.

Best Director:

As with best picture, this looks to be a two-man race between Anthony Minghella for Cold Mountain and Peter Jackson for The Return of the King, although Jim Sheridan is also being tipped as a contender for In America..

Clint Eastwood can figure on a nomination for Mystic River.

Other possibilities: Peter Weir, Master and Commander; Alejandro Gonzalez, Inarritu, 21 Grams; Tim Burton, Big Fish; Gary Ross, Seabiscuit; and Edward Zwick, The Last Samurai.

Best Actor:

Sean Penn has two great performances in the running, a plus and minus for his prospects. Penn plays a reformed hoodlum out for revenge over his daughter’s death in Mystic River and a dying man who gets a second chance with a heart transplant in 21 Grams.

The two roles could split Penn’s support and leave him short of votes for a nomination on either film.

But if he manages a nomination for one or the other (Oscar rules allow actors to be nominated only once in the same category), Penn could become the front-runner to win on the strength of both performances.

Other possibilities: Jude Law, Cold Mountain; Bill Murray, Lost in Translation; Russell Crowe, Master and Commander; Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog; Jack Nicholson, Something’s Gotta Give; Tom Cruise, The Last Samurai; Tommy Lee Jones, The Missing; Michael Caine, The Statement; Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire, Seabiscuit; Ewan McGregor, Big Fish; Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; Colin Firth, Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Best Actress:

Grim, grimmer, grimmest sums things up for three potential nominees, Jennifer Connelly, Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron.

Connelly, a supporting-actress winner for A Beautiful Mind, delivers a fierce performance in the bleak House of Sand and Fog as a woman battling to regain a home lost in a tax foreclosure.

Watts is a bundle of fury and sorrow in 21 Grams, playing a woman who moves from grieving to vengeful over the deaths of her husband and children.

Theron is absolutely ferocious in Monster, playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a hitchhiking prostitute executed last year in Florida. For the unflinching role, Theron obliterated her cover-girl beauty, putting on 25 to 30 pounds and disguising herself behind dark contact lenses, fake teeth and a splotched complexion.

Watts’ pal Nicole Kidman, last year’s winner for The Hours, is a strong contender for her third-straight best-actress nomination with Cold Mountain, playing a china-doll Southern belle who learns self-reliance amid the Confederacy’s collapse.

Other possibilities: Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give; Cate Blanchett, The Missing or Veronica Guerin; Julia Roberts, Mona Lisa Smile; Samantha Morton, In America; Scarlett Johansson, Girl With a Pearl Earring; Helen Mirren, Calendar Girls; Meg Ryan, In the Cut, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Sylvia.

Supporting Actor:

Two lost souls might lead the way. Tim Robbins gives a career performance as a man emotionally shackled by childhood trauma in Mystic River.

Benicio Del Toro, a supporting-actor winner for Traffic, adds another tremendous role in 21 Grams, playing an ex-con whose stab at going straight collapses in tragedy.

Supporting Actress:

Like her co-star Kidman, Renee Zellweger of Cold Mountain stands to earn her third-straight Oscar nomination. This could be her year to win, playing a salt-of-the-earth handy-woman with great heart and humour.

Also in the running could be Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider and Sarah Bolger for In America.

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