Dave Karger
February 16, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

A little over a year ago, right in the middle of last Oscar season, Entertainment Weekly’s editors decided it might be fun and illuminating to publish a short list of potential Academy Award contenders for the following year. Some writers launched an unsuccessful attempt to talk them out of it — this was last January, remember — but after scouring the schedule of upcoming releases, we gave it our best shot: The Good German, Stranger Than Fiction, The Good Shepherd, and The Departed.

Well, one out of four isn’t bad, right?

In retrospect, our 25 percent accuracy rate says a lot about this year’s Oscar race. You can usually spot the front-runners months away, but this time it was different. Most of the films that were touted as early contenders fell by the wayside, while a few bona fide surprises snuck into the final five. The result is a thrillingly wide-open contest for Best Picture. When the envelopes are opened on Feb. 25, the Academy Awards won’t be dominated by one film (like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) or amount to a two-horse race (like 2005’s Million Dollar Baby-versus-The Aviator battle). Instead, any of this year’s five nominees — Babel, The Departed, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, or The Queen — could conceivably win. To find another Oscar field that was this even, you have to go back to 1996, when Producers Guild Award winner Apollo 13 and Golden Globe honorees Sense and Sensibility and Babe all lost the big one to Braveheart.

So how did this happen? For starters, many of the most hyped films ended up disappointing critics and audiences: The Good German was deemed a noble failure; Stranger Than Fiction paled in comparison to 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; The Good Shepherd put viewers to sleep; and Dreamgirls, the front-runnerest of them all, fell victim to a fatal backlash. And we won’t even bother addressing the disaster that was All the King’s Men. In their places appeared a handful of movies that seem to have ended up in the Oscar race by accident. Initially, The Queen was only supposed to be a showcase for Helen Mirren. Babel seemed destined to be hurt by its smallish box office. And Letters From Iwo Jima was just a last-minute entry intended to prop up Flags of Our Fathers. As for Little Miss Sunshine? It’s a safe bet that when the cast of the $8 million comedy were crammed into that beat-up VW bus, they weren’t thinking about donning tuxedos and gowns more than 18 months later.

The folks behind The Departed actually wanted it to be an underdog. Not long after we included the film in our first Oscar-contender list, one of the consultants working on the film (as it happens, the same one who guided Crash to victory last year) called to insist that The Departed was ”not an Oscar film,” but simply a straight-ahead crowd-pleaser. For a while we fell for it, until we realized that its noncampaign could actually be its campaign. It’s no accident that after losing the Best Director prize for Gangs of New York and The Aviator despite glad-handing Academy members at screenings and cocktail parties, Martin Scorsese was largely absent from the Oscar circuit this year. Just watch it pay off.

Generally speaking, this year’s race is rich with audience discoveries rather than force-fed ”awards films.” While 2005 was the year of the political film (like Munich or Good Night, and Good Luck), the current class feels lighter, eschewing hostage crises and McCarthyism for beauty pageants and royal gossip. (Iwo Jima and Babel, of course, are exceptions.) This year also marks a continued respite from the megabudgeted, effects-heavy Oscar movies of the past, which explains why no single film received nominations in more than six different categories. And unlike most years, when as many as six of the Best Actor and Best Actress competitors come from the Best Picture nominees, this crop is dominated by ensemble films. Of the 10 lead-acting nominees, only Mirren comes from a Best Picture contender. Not since 1932 has there been such a disconnect.

So as you attack your Oscar pool, keep in mind that this year’s awards are likely to be spread out among several films. In fact, if Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest takes home trophies in the four technical categories in which it’s nominated, then the No. 1 grosser of last year could end up winning the most Oscars as well. As for Best Picture, it’s such a tight race that any prediction feels like going out on a limb. Read ahead for our final guesses. And let’s hope we end up getting more than 25 percent correct.

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