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The stage is set In the year of the underdog, Arts Editor Jeff Simon takes a few flyers in his predictions for the Oscars, which is sure to offer some memorable moments

And you thought last year's Oscar TV ratings were weak . . .

Wait until you see this year's after next Sunday.

Believe me, it won't be the movies' fault. Unlike 2007, there are actually some 2008 contenders that are certifiable, card-carrying crowd-pleasers ("Slumdog Millionaire," the near-certain winner for Best Picture is beloved in a way that such extraordinary 2007 contenders as "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men" could never dream of being.) But the minute the Oscar producers named Hugh Jackman this year's Oscar host, a unanimous cry of "what the ----?" was heard from Maine to Manitoba, Nome to Naragansett.

But hey a marginally good time may actually be in the offing. Near-certain winner Danny Boyle -- director of "Slumdog Millionaire" -- is a guy liable to say anything at any given time, and it will be fun to watch if he does.

No matter who wins of the two major Best Actor contenders (Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke), something unusual may be said. These, to put it mildly, are two-fisted noncomformists.

These, to be sure, are the Underdog Oscars. Most of those with the best chances are underdog candidates writ large. If it isn't an audience favorite of a movie about the bottom dogs of Mumbai, India, it's an actor (Mickey Rourke) whose career had already received last rites -- or one whose movie ("Milk") represented such an underdog cause -- gay America -- that one of its issues was on the losing side of the ballot in the last California election.

This annual Oscar tip sheet is now in its 36th year of fun and frivolity, which means that there are major contenders this year (Anne Hathaway, the late Heath Ledger) who weren't even born when it started. Count on my usual percentage going between .500 and .750, but bettors and Oscar pool-swimmers looking for help, be forewarned: This year will probably be lower. I'm taking a few flyers against all odds and logic.

*BEST PICTURE -- The nomination of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" instead of "WALL-E" or "The Dark Knight" is both an appalling tribute to the industrial power of Paramount and Dreamworks studios and how absurd Oscar business-as-usual can be (Jon Stewart said it most succinctly about "Benjamin Button": "equal parts 'Forrest Gump' and. . . (his head falls to his chest with eyes closed and he begins to snore loudly)."

No matter. The category is a near-gimme. If the winner isn't "Slumdog Millionaire," the ultimate crowd-pleasing underdog favorite (an oxymoron "Slumdog" has achieved with splendid ease), it will be proof that the whole town has gone nuts and ought to be quarantined.

Unless, of course, the surprise winner is "Milk," which would make matters feistily political and inflammatory and make up for passing up all those Oscars they could have pitched at "Brokeback Mountain."

In the year of the feel-good presidential election, "Slumdog" is the feel-good movie candidate.

*BEST ACTOR -- Everyone in it is good (even Brad Pitt was unusually subtle and gentle in "Benjamin Button") but it's a two-man race: Sean Penn vs. Mickey Rourke. Rourke would be my personal preference for "The Wrestler," but I can't imagine that Hollywood disgust for the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 won't team up with admiration for the sudden wit and charm that the frequently charmless Sean Penn is exhibiting at award shows to indicate anything but Penn. Pitt, Frank Langella and Richard Jenkins, worthy as they are, are lucky to be in the category.

*BEST ACTRESS -- OK, Meryl Streep won the Screen Actors Guild award for "Doubt." Case closed, right?

Maybe not. I can't believe that the older-skewing Motion Picture Academy won't overrule SAG and opt instead for Kate Winslet or even Anne Hathaway, the extreme long shot. I'm taking a total flyer here and guessing Hathaway, who was amazing in "Rachel Getting Married" and whose personal story -- a con-man boyfriend now behind bars -- will win her a lot of pity votes from older, wiser Academy types who know a thing or two about women who mate foolishly.

*BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR -- Here is the Oscar that provides the dramatic reason for the entire show. While it's not 100 percent impossible Robert Downey Jr. could overthrow Heath Ledger's ghost, it's certainly 99.7 percent. A posthumous Oscar for Ledger is not only the most deserved Oscar of the entire show but will also provide everyone in the audience (and at home) the only possible feel-good moment that could emerge from such a terribly unfortunate premature death. Pay careful attention to whomever is allowed to accept it for him. His father? His director Chris Nolan? His final paramour Michelle Williams?

*BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS -- The best category of the entire night. An equal case of award affection could be made for anyone in it. I'm taking a flyer and guessing Penelope Cruz for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (and for surviving Tom Cruise, career intact) even though I wouldn't be surprised by Amy Adams in "Doubt." My personal choice 10 times over would be Viola Davis for her tiny, searing role in "Doubt."

*DIRECTOR -- Danny Boyle has already won the Director's Guild Award. A funky fellow if ever there was one, he's even odds to accept the prize with a lot of eloquent blarney or startling pub wit you don't expect.

*ADAPTED SCREENPLAY -- Simon Beaufoy's screenplay for "Slumdog Millionaire" is both wonderful and wildly unusual. Years from now, no one is ever likely to regret a single Oscar that goes to "Slumdog" next Sunday, no matter how many future police scrapes its principals could get into (as unlikely as that would be for this cast and crew).

*ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY -- "In Bruges" would be an exhilarating surprise winner, a bit less so would be "WALL-E" but there are just too many reasons, aesthetic, political and otherwise, to opt for "Milk."

*ANIMATED FEATURE -- "WALL-E," for sure. It should have been a Best Picture nominee. It's a bit of a travesty that it isn't.

*FOREIGN FILM -- Take your pick in another bifurcated race -- "The Class" or "Waltz With Bashir." I'm guessing "Waltz With Bashir," which is scheduled to open here next week. "The Class" is now scheduled to open in Buffalo in March.

*ART DIRECTION -- "Benjamin Button" might well deserve it if it didn't make me sleepy just to say so. That's why I'm guessing the criminally undernominated "The Dark Knight."

*CINEMATOGRAPHY -- It would have been a repeat of the above except that "Slumdog's" vibrant visual style changes the whole category. I'm invoking the "no one will ever regret a single 'Slumdog' Oscar" rule.

*ORIGINAL SCORE -- Alexander Desplat's music for "Benjamin Button" was the worst single element in the film. Another travesty nomination, therefore. A.R. Rahman for "Slumdog" will offend no one, though Danny Elfman for "Milk" has an outside shot.

*ORIGINAL SONG -- What? No Bruce Springsteen for his contribution to "The Wrestler"? Didn't these Oscar nominators see the Golden Globes? Are they crazy? Answer: Yes. It's amazing the number of worthy things they can figure out reasons to avoid nominating. "Jai-Ho" from "Slumdog" is fun to sing along to and, as the film's Bollywood ending showed, dance to.

*COSTUMES -- Oh, all right, if they have to give "Button" something, they could always go into the closet for this one. "Milk" would be a happier, though more peculiar, choice.

*EDITING -- "Slumdog" would be a different film altogether without the editing virtuosity of director Danny Boyle and his cutter Chris Dickens. An Oscar to Dickens would seem hard to avoid for anyone who actually knows what film editors do.

*MAKEUP -- Another palatable consolation prize for "Benjamin Button" unless anger at the slender fortunes of "The Dark Knight" pulls it through with another prize for helping make Heath Ledger's performance unforgettable.

*VISUAL EFFECTS -- The only Oscar Benjy Button flat out deserves to win.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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