Behind Academy Lines

THE SCREENWRITER Though he's worked only on studio films, our screenwriter is an indie guy at heart. He calls City of God the best movie of the year and believes that the studios' failed attempt to abolish screeners caused voters to look closer at the battle-weary indies. ''Screeners help indie movies that deserve to be helped,'' he says. His picks:

BEST PICTURE THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING Our screenwriter always looks for a Best Picture that will stand the test of time. ''Lost in Translation is too small, Master and Commander too standard, Mystic River too grim, and Seabiscuit too glossy,'' he says, explaining his process of elimination. ''[Rings] feels like a movie that will never be forgotten. People aren't just awarding it for this picture but for all three.'' (Never one to split his vote, he's going with Peter Jackson for Best Director.)

BEST ACTOR SEAN PENN, MYSTIC RIVER For our screenwriter and his Academy buddies, it's a two-man race between Lost in Translation's Bill Murray and Penn. ''I liked Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog, but it was so depressing I wanted to kill myself at the end,'' he says. ''Bill Murray plays a very light, deft touch of comedy, which most actors can't do, but when you are looking for power and range that role is not enough.'' Penn gets the edge for his body of work. ''If there is an actor who is deserving and has never won, you want to make sure he wins because who knows what's going to happen,'' he says, citing Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino, who haven't been nominated since their wins.

BEST ACTRESS DIANE KEATON, SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE Talk about reverse ageism. As much as he would love to recognize Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider, he feels she's too young. ''It's hard to give a 13-year-old a Best Actress win because they are probably playing themselves.'' Like Best Actor, his choice boils down to comedy versus drama, and again, he sees a close race between Keaton and Monster's Charlize Theron. ''It's a question of, do you reward somebody who plays somebody who is clearly acting [Theron], or somebody who is so good it doesn't show [Keaton]?'' he says.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY IN AMERICA, BY JIM SHERIDAN, NAOMI SHERIDAN, AND KIRSTEN SHERIDAN After seeing the movies and reading the nominated scripts, he's ''going with the feel-good tearjerker.'' His logic: ''The Barbarian Invasions is The Big Chill for 50-year-olds. Dirty Pretty Things is well-written Brit lit. Lost in Translation worked -- but somewhere the story got lost in translation to the screen. Finding Nemo is a possible winner, but I find it hard to connect to dialogue not spoken by human beings.''

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY AMERICAN SPLENDOR, BY ROBERT PULCINI AND SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN The deciding factor for him is how well the scribes elevated the material to the big screen. His three also-rans are Seabiscuit (''good enough to place but not win''), City of God (''powerful but not enough people saw it''), and Rings (''With Tolkien on one side and the special effects on the other, who knows what the screenwriters did?''). An admirer of Mystic River (''good writing; probable winner''), he's picking American Splendor. ''Studios usually take comic books and make them into stupider movies,'' he says. ''This took a comic book and made it into a movie that was even smarter.''