Gold rush

It’s the most anticipated night in Hollywood, where the biggest stars in the world come to recognize the year’s best films. Best of all, it’s right around the corner.

The 79th Academy Awards, airing Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC, promises to be one of the most exciting awards shows in years as first-time host Ellen DeGeneres rings in the ultimate celebration of cinema.

To mark the occasion, staff writers Candace Kaw and Robert Yaniz Jr. have compiled their thoughts and predictions on what should (and could) win the biggest awards of the night:

Best Picture:

Should win: The DepartedLikely to win: Babel

After winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Drama), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel seems likely to take the top prize, especially since last year’s winner, Crash, indicates that multi-story films such as this are all the rage with Academy members. However, no film last year was as intense and involving as Scorsese’s The Departed. The film is the most gripping and darkly witty piece of cinema from 2006, and it should be recognized as such. – Robert Yaniz Jr.

Should win: Little Miss SunshineLikely to win: The Departed

Of the five nominated movies for best picture, The Departed has the highest box office gross – $131.5 million – and is a Martin Scorsese film. The film’s star-studded cast will also garner more votes with the Academy. However, the low-budget gem Little Miss Sunshine outshines the competition with its subtle humor and terrific ensemble. Unfortunately, comedies do not usually fare well in this category. The last comedy to win the award was 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, but it was also considered a romantic drama. One can hope the Academy will see past genre type and give the award to the movie that really deserves it. – Candace Kaw

Best Actor:

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood DiamondLikely to win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Although Whitaker seems to be the favorite for his intense embodiment of ruthless Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, he faces some stiff competition. DiCaprio, who was expected to receive a nomination for his performance in The Departed, does equally strong work in Blood Diamond, and after failing to earn Oscar gold for previous work in Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator, he should receive the prize this year. In the decade since Titanic, he has developed from a teen idol into a true thespian, and it’s time Oscar took notice. – R.Y.

Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood DiamondLikely to win: Peter O’Toole, Venus

Strangely, none of the nominees in this category are from a film that has been nominated for best picture. This year is likely to be the year the Academy makes up for past mistakes – like not giving the Oscar to 75-year-old O’Toole for his performance in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. While he received an honorary Oscar in 2003, he made it known that he wanted to win the real thing. Though Forest Whitaker did an amazing job in The Last King of Scotland, he has not paid his dues yet. DiCaprio deserves the award, not only for his work in Blood Diamond, but also for his astounding performance in The Departed. He probably would have a fighting chance if he had been nominated for the latter film. – C.K.

Best Actress:

Should win: Kate Winslet, Little ChildrenLikely to win: Helen Mirren, The Queen

If there is anything remotely close to a sure thing in this year’s show, it lies in this category. Largely expected to win, Helen Mirren’s subtle, nuanced portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II has been universally praised, winning nearly every major award prior to the Oscars. Mirren’s performance certainly carries The Queen, but Winslet has been passed over for the Oscar four times before, and it would truly be a treat to see her finally earn a gold statuette. -R.Y.

Should win: Kate Winslet, Little ChildrenLikely to win: Helen Mirren, The Queen

Helen Mirren has this award in the bag after winning best actress at the Golden Globes, the British Academy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and many award shows. Though Mirren did an amazing job portraying the Queen of England, she was merely doing an impression of a living person. Five-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet, on the other hand, brought to life the character Sarah Pierce, a married woman dissatisfied with her suburban existence. She won’t win for two reasons – the film only grossed $4.9 million domestically and she is up against The Queen. Sadly, Winslet might become another Peter O’Toole – always an Oscar nominee, never an Oscar award winner. – C.K.

Best Supporting Actor:

Should win: Djimon Hounsou, Blood DiamondLikely to win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

As aging soul star Jimmy “Thunder” Early, Murphy is widely considered the front-runner for what many consider to be the best performance of his career. On the other hand, Hounsou, who was nominated in this category in 2004 for In America, delivers an impassioned and heart-wrenching portrayal as Solomon Vandy, a man desperately searching for a way to reunite his family. Hopefully, the Academy will look past the hype and recognize that Hounsou’s performance easily trumps all others in this category. ­- R.Y.

Should win: Eddie Murphy, DreamgirlsLikely to win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

In Hollywood, everyone loves a comeback, and this year’s most successful and talked about actor is Eddie Murphy. He has already won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Best Supporting Actor. His performance was amazing enough to forgive him for The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Daddy Day Care – well, at least enough to let the healing begin. – C.K.

Best Supporting Actress:

Should win: Jennifer Hudson, DreamgirlsLikely to win: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

As a former American Idol contestant, Hudson’s dreams of stardom were seemingly dashed when she was dismissed from the competition. However, like her character in Dreamgirls, Hudson sought a second chance at fame, beating out 750 other actresses for the pivotal role of Effie White. Moving and charismatic, her debut performance proves that Hudson is a powerful screen presence, one that is almost certain to become an Oscar winner, even without Simon Cowell’s approval. – R.Y.

Should win: Abigail Breslin, Little Miss SunshineLikely to win: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

While Jennifer Hudson did a wonderful job in her first role and will win the Oscar, it is little Abigail Breslin that deserves the honor. The role of Olive Hoover, the wannabe Little Miss Sunshine, is one that could either make or break a film – in this case, Breslin made it. In the scene where she timidly asks her grandfather if she is beautiful, her skills as an actor are shown to be beyond that of any average child star. – C.K.

Best Director:

Should win: Martin Scorsese, The DepartedPredicts to win: Martin Scorsese, The Departed

After helming so many classic films in his illustrious career, Scorsese should have, by all rights, earned a directing Oscar long ago. Yet the Academy has failed to reward his contributions to American cinema thus far. After losing in recent years for Gangs of New York and The Aviator, all signs point to this finally being the legendary filmmaker’s turn at the podium ­- and he certainly deserves it. – R.Y.

Should win: Martin Scorsese, The DepartedLikely to win: Martin Scorsese, The Departed

This is the Scorsese’s sixth nomination in this category and he’s only gotten better through the years. Though only one member of his cast received a nomination for their work in the film, Scorsese got powerful performances out of all of them. Also, it’s a process of elimination when it comes to the other directors. This is the first nomination for Babel’s Alejandro González Iñárritu and the second for The Queen’s Stephen Frears. They each need a few more Oscar-nominated pictures to be considered, as Clint Eastwood, director of Letters From Iwo Jima, just won the award two years ago. And never in the history of the Academy has a director won without their movie being nominated in the Best Picture race, stacking the odds against Paul Greengrass, director of United 93. So it is hopeful that this year is Scorsese’s. – C.K.

Best Animated Feature:

There is a simple equation when it comes to this category: Pixar plus Disney equals Oscar (excluding 2001 when Monsters, Inc. lost to Shrek). At least that’s the way it has been since the category was created in 2001. No matter how cute the dancing and singing penguins are in Happy Feet, they can’t win the race against Cars. – C.K.