EVEN THOUGH Oscar nominations won’t be announced until Feb. 13, and the trophies won’t be handed out until March 25, the race for Best Picture is already on, and so far, no front-runner has emerged to dominate the pack. With no movie laying claim to either the moral seriousness of 1993 winner Schindler’s List or the sweet sentimentality of last year’s victor, Forrest Gump, the field is wide open.

”When you’ve got a year with a Schindler’s List, it’s hard to get up in the morning,” confesses one veteran Oscar campaigner. ”You know nothing you do is going to make any difference. But I’m delighted this year is one of the weakest in years for possible Best Picture nominees. That means the campaigns could make a difference.”

There are a few almost sure things. Suffused with patriotic heroism and fine filmmaking, Apollo 13 has seemed a likely contender from the start. In fact, just a month ago, Academy insiders were predicting that the ‘96 race would boil down to a battle between Opie and Meathead – i.e., Apollo and its director, Ron Howard, versus Rob Reiner’s The American President. But when the latter film failed to romance the box office, the competition heated up.

President could still win votes, but it lacks the momentum of Hollywood’s two current critical favorites. Originally the downbeat, redemption-free Leaving Las Vegas seemed to have little chance. But with the New York and Los Angeles film critics crowning it the year’s best picture, Oscar voters may follow suit. And after Casino went bust (Hollywood’s judgment: GoodFellas did it better) and Sabrina fizzled (America’s judgment: Hepburn did it better), voters eagerly embraced the Merchant Ivoryesque costume comedy Sense and Sensibility. Its chances have been ratified by six Golden Globe nominations, the most for any film.

How to fill out the card? The historical drama Braveheart has loyal partisans but was released way back in May. The Bridges of Madison County was better than the book, but Clint Eastwood has already received his Oscar payoff for 1992’s Unforgiven. The capital-punishment drama Dead Man Walking is winning raves but could be one downer too many this year. Nixon will have to surmount an ongoing debate over its factual authenticity, and Richard III may be punished for jettisoning too much Shakespeare. Get Shorty, Toy Story, and Babe will probably be deemed too frivolous. The Italian import Il Postino, which, under the Academy’s arcane regulations, is ineligible for Best Foreign Film, could ride an emotional wave among older voters to a Best Picture nod. And The Usual Suspects is very popular among younger actors. We’d bet on one – or even twoo – f these films overcoming all obstacles to make the final five.

– Gregg Kilday, with reporting by Anne Thompson