Much of the attention at Oscar’s “party” this Sunday night will be directed toward his most conspicuously uninvited “guest.” Despite handing out seven nominations, including a “can’t miss” win in an acting category, Academy pollsters inexplicably gave THE DARK NIGHT “the big chorizo” when it came time to pick the five finalists for Best Picture, Director, Original Score and Screenplay. Besides incurring the wrath of fanboys nationwide and all but guaranteeing dismal television ratings, the snub of the caped crusader made most of the six major races some of the most wide open, difficult to forecast in recent memory. With that in mind, I’ll have to slip into my elitist snob mode so I can actually think like a current Oscar voter. That means I’ll have to avoid casting my lot with any critically acclaimed movie that raked in piles of money at the box office if it was one that was animated, a comedy or had a superhero in it. After all, it’s always better to go with the “art house” flick that’s consciousness raising and seen by fourteen people.

THE ENVELOPE PLEASE…

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Traditionally, this has proved to be the most difficult bracket for me to predict and this year is no exception. Kate Winslet’s unexpected yet proper elevation to leading lady status for THE READER threw a monkey wrench into this race which has no real frontrunner. I can foresee anyone in this quintet emerging victorious with the right set of circumstances. However, since Amy Adams of DOUBT got the nomination most thought would go to Winslet, I have to think she’s the long shot here. Her presence might be a detriment to co-star Viola Davis’ chances since actors from the same film often wind up cancelling each other out by splitting votes from Academy pollsters. Marisa Tomei’s primary drawbacks are that she’s a previous surprise winner in this category for MY COUSIN VINNY (1992) plus the fact that THE WRESTLER didn’t get as much love in the nomination process as I thought it would. Taraji P. Henson was certainly a standout in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON although at times I thought she was channeling Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). That leaves Penelope Cruz who’s the sole nominee from VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. Normally, I don’t favor performers in this scenario unless their work demanded the kind of attention that the Spanish actress obviously garnered from the voters who put her here. Plus, Cruz is an international star and a prior nominee (VOLVER) who’s well thought of by her peers. With Winslet a non-factor, I like Cruz’s chances a little better than anybody else that’s in the mix.

AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO…Penelope Cruz, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Do I really need to discuss this category in any depth at all? To me, the only question is what percentage of the viewers are going to tune out after whoever accepts the award for the late Heath Ledger finishes his/her acceptance speech.

AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO…Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT

BEST ACTRESS: This has become a two filly showdown between Meryl Streep a.k.a. the best actress on the planet and Kate Winslet a.k.a. the best actress who hasn’t won an Academy Award. I think the edge goes to five-time bridesmaid Winslet mainly because her performance in THE READER singularly propelled that movie into the Best Picture stratosphere and the two-time Oscar winner Streep can’t make that claim for DOUBT. By the way, I don’t buy into the idea that the voters swing toward actors who’ve been nominated a bunch of times but haven’t won because if they did Glenn Close and Peter O’Toole would have at least one gold statuette on their mantels and it hasn’t happened yet.

AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO…Kate Winslet, THE READER

BEST ACTOR: The French revere Jerry Lewis as a comic genius. Germans dig David Hasselhoff. Oscar voters really, really like Sean Penn. Even when the surly actor does excellent work in painfully average movies, like SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999) or I am sam (2001), the Academy’s voting bloc never fails to put Penn on their short list. As San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor in MILK, the ex-Mr. Madonna was a driving force in a movie contending for Best Picture. The Screen Actors Guild liked Penn well enough to give him their highest award for a lead actor which is a fairly accurate indicator of how Oscar-voting performers will fill out their ballots. He’ll squeak by Mickey Rourke whose role as a has-been Hulk Hogan type in THE WRESTLER may seem too autobiographical to pollsters in light of that actor’s formerly self-destructive career moves.

AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO…Sean Penn, MILK

BEST DIRECTOR: I never miss when it comes to prognosticating the victor in this category. All I do is wait for the Director’s Guild (DGA) to announce their selection for the year’s top filmmaker and I know that artist better arrive on Oscar night with a prepared list of people to thank “who made this night possible.” Since the DGA tabbed SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’s Danny Boyle as the recipient of their prize, I figure that on Sunday the Brit who made “the little Indian film that could” should come prepared to say a few choice “thank yous.”

AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO…Danny Boyle, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

BEST PICTURE: Every year the Academy puts one movie in its final five that I don’t think belongs there. This time around, that film is the FORREST GUMP (1994) hybrid known as THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, which I don’t see winning any more than three awards. FROST/NIXON and THE READER are both worthy efforts that overachieved by making it this high on Oscar’s ladder. After California’s passage of Proposition 8 prohibiting gay marriage, I figured that MILK’s account about the first openly homosexual city supervisor in San Francisco would really galvanize the Hollywood crowd. But they’ve all gravitated to and embraced SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE by bestowing the Director’s, Producer’s and Screen Actors Guild awards upon it. Unless we go to war with India (hey, it’s one country we know we could whip), I don’t see any backlash derailing this oncoming train.

AND THE OSCAR WILL GO TO…SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Here are my predictions in other races:

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: MILK

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: WALL-E

BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY: MAN ON WIRE