Joshua Rich
November 10, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

This could be the trickiest weekend of 2006 to call, with four new movies competing with two expanding releases, and at least two of these could finish first.

But rather than build the suspense for a few paragraphs, lemme just come right out and say that Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan will repeat as champ. (Wa wa wee wa!) I misunderestimated this movie already, and I refuse to fall into the same trap again. I refuse. Sacha Baron Cohen’s ambush comedy dropped jaws with its record-breaking $26.5 million bow last weekend — something that everybody should have seen coming, because the movie is smart and different and buzzy — and it has been playing quite strongly through the week, earning around $3 mil per day in fewer than 1,000 locations. There’s some question about whether the film will still work with a much wider audience, as Fox increases its theater count to more than 2,500, but I think it’s clear that that’s a bunch of hooey. This movie is the thing to see this weekend, and all the people who were turned away at sold-out screenings will be first in line this time around, helping it gross $25 mil more.

Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s gonna be close. After all, we’re still talking about a racy R-rated mockumentary that’s already been playing for a week. Borat’s not the swiftest fella, but he knows better than to start trash-talking the competition. (Unlike, say, this Ohio State fan who works just down the hall from me and can’t keep her trap shut even though the big game against my Wolverines is still many days away and the Buckeyes, who wouldn’t know a strong opponent if it scored five touchdowns on them, have a tough road test in Evanston this weekend. Molly will learn — oh, she’ll learn.)

Tops among the other movies vying for a No. 1 ranking is Sony’s Stranger Than Fiction, a ”meta” romantic comedy starring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Emma Thompson. I happened to catch an early screening of this flick a few weeks back and I loved it. Just the right mix of smart and sweet. But watching it made me wonder: Will word of mouth suffer when audiences realize that this isn’t the raucous Will Ferrell comedy its ads seem to promise? I mean, Ferrell’s great, but he’s definitely doing a Jim-Carrey-in-The Truman Show thing here, not Jim-Carrey-in-Liar Liar. Opening in more than 2,200 venues, STF will earn $20 mil.

That’ll put it well ahead of Rogue’s The Return (a.k.a. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s second horror movie in as many months), which will make $11 mil in around 2,000 places. Never misunderestimate the drawing power of PG-13 horror flicks, even when they’re released after Halloween and everyone’s tired of being spooked. Against such tough competition, Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, also in around 2,000 theaters, will fall way back with $8 mil. I’ll certainly be sad when that happens, because I saw this South of France-set romantic comedy starring Russell Crowe many months ago, and I really adored it, too. It was like Under the Tuscan Sun for guys. (I know: I’m such a sucker.) But it seems I’m the only one: Fox appears to be dumping AGY with little press (save that weird 60 Minutes profile of old Russ last Sunday) and a moderate screen count (think Fox convinced some of the theaters that had booked AGY to play B:CLOAFMBGNOK instead? I wonderâ?¦).

Still, that’s not all! MGM is distributing the independently produced crime drama Harsh Times, starring the ubiquitous Christian Bale and Eva Longoria, in nearly 1,000 venues. This movie is the directorial debut of David Ayer, who has penned several of the decade’s most kickass screenplays, including U-571 (without a doubt, the most underrated great movie of the Aughts), Training Day, and Dark Blue (another overlooked gem). I’m psyched to see this flick, because I’m a fan of Ayer and because I happened to catch a spot for his movie on TV last night. Otherwise, I haven’t seen many ads for it, and that always portends a weak premiere, around, oh, $4 mil. Finally (phew!), Paramount Vantage boosts Babel to more than 1,200 places. The Brad Pitt prestige pic has had a good-but-not-great run in limited release so far, bringing in $1.6 mil in just 35 locations; playing wider, it’ll add $9 mil.

OK, so while I watch Ohio State struggle against my man Dan’s Northwestern Wildcats, you’ve got a lot of movies to choose from this weekend — please enjoy yourself. I know I will.

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