At this early point in the derby, the dash for best picture has already narrowed considerably to a pack of 10 lead ponies.
Out front: "Babel," "Bobby," "The Departed," "Dreamgirls" "Flags of Our Fathers," "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Pursuit of Happyness," "The Queen," "United 93" and "Volver."
Others in the running, but yards behind (more on that later): "Blood Diamond," "Borat," "The Painted Veil," "The Good German," "The Good Shepherd," "Last King of Scotland," "Little Children" and "World Trade Center."
My biggest track bet stays on "Dreamgirls" for now because it's a Broadway-proven, heart-squeezing, feet-tapping dramatization of a real showbiz story that was important to most academy voters during their youth, however much it winks its denial that it's not really about the Supremes.
Best picture winners usually must have a strong corresponding contender for best director — that's Bill Condon, who is emerging, finally, center stage among Hollywood helmers deserving a bow.
It helps that his arrival is relatively new (although I think he was cheated out of due recognition for "Kinsey") because voters like to crown big talent on the rise (Peter Jackson, "Lord of the Rings," Sam Mendes, "American Beauty") when they're not trying to make up for past snubbings of veterans (Ron Howard, "A Beautiful Mind," Steven Spielberg, "Schindler's List").
It also has what most best picture winners have: a cast of A-Listers (Beyonce, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson).
In addition, it'll certainly nab gads of noms across many categories — that's key because the movie with the most nominations usually wins.
Beware: The best-pic victory of another musical, "Chicago" (which Condon adapted from the stage as screenwriter, but didn't direct), may be a fluke.
Other Broadway hits recently flopped when transferred to the Hollywood screen ("The Producers," "Phantom of the Opera") and no film with a black cast has yet won over the vastly white academy electorate.
Furthermore, it will need to prove itself at the box office, which is chancy. Musicals seem so old-fashioned today and so does its story line, although, happily, its telling is updated with hip new stars.
Even if it does well domestically, a black musical faces tough odds at theaters overseas, which could derail it at the Golden Globes where it's up against steep competish in that musical/comedy race opposite "Little Miss Sunshine", "Stranger Than Fiction" and "Borat."
In fact, two members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have told me — with sour, disapproving faces — that they don't think it'll sell overseas, period, which may affect how those foreign journalists vote.
Last, one of its strongest plusses and minuses is that it's about showbiz. Sometimes that helps ("Shakespeare in Love"), but usually, and quite strangely, that topic is a curse at showbiz's top awards — from the defeats of best-pic nominees "Sunset Boulevard" to "Nashville," "All That Jazz," "Coal Miner's Daughter," "The Aviator" and "The Turning Point" (Oscar's biggest loser, tied with "The Color Purple") and many others.
That means we must take rivals seriously like "The Queen," which not only has a hotshot overdue director (Stephen Frears), but features the best actress frontrunner (Helen Mirren) in a real-life role.
Often voters like to pair their best-pic choice with a lead-acting winner ("Million Dollar Baby," "Gladiator," "American Beauty," "Shakespeare in Love," "Rain Man"). Oh, yeah, and it's British (too many examples to cite!). Its reigning magnificently at the box office right now, although in shrewdly restricted release (only 152 theaters).
"Babel" has a hot helmer (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) and the A-List cast in a story relevant to today's headlines (hysteria over terrorism).
"Volver" has the strong director advantage, too (Pedro Almodovar) and the possible best actress winner (Penelope Cruz has The Babe Factor in a race crowded with older gals), although being in Spanish probably dooms its chance to win.
"The Departed" has surprising b.o., A-List celebs galore and the woefully overdue-director element (Martin Scorsese), but it's an actioner without an important message.
If "Flags of Our Fathers" gets into the top five, it will be given a major push soon after noms come out by the release of its Japanese mirror, "Letters from Iwo Jima," but Clint is so been-there-done-that right now and "Flags" is drooping commercially.
"Little Miss Sunshine" may seem too lightweight.
"United 93" came out too early and doesn't have a shot in the acting races, which is often key, but it does have behind it one of the most aggressive Oscar campaigners in the biz, a graduate with honors from The Harvey School.
Speaking of Harvey Weinstein, "Bobby" not only has major stars in a story of historic importance, but, yeowsa, it has that voracious Oscar conqueror, hungry for a comeback, mapping its academy onslaught.
Drawbacks: Its characters are mostly fictitious, Hollywood is a bit skeptical of its heartthrob director/writer (Emilio Estevez) and film critics aren't cheering it on. However, some audiences sure seem to be.
Pete Hammond reports at HollywoodWiretap.com, "At the AFI Film Fest's "Bobby" opening, applause was so enthusiastic it was hard to hear the rousing, just-recorded, end-credits song co-written by Bryan Adams and duetted by Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige."
Advance buzz over "The Pursuit of Happyness" grows louder every day and it features a guaranteed best-actor nominee who could win (Will Smith), but it may be too sappy and its director is an unknown neophyte.
But sappy is good at the Oscars, as we know. Movies that move voters the most emotionally usually win ("Million Dollar Baby"). So far that looks like "The Pursuit of Happyness," even "Bobby" to some extent and certainly "Dreamgirls."
If the contest comes down to "Dreamgirls" and "Pursuit of Happyness", it would be a vindication for the academy, which, prior to the recent same-year wins by Denzel Washington ("Training Day") and Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball"), had been accused of being stingy to African-American films.
For now "Dreamgirls" has the most over-all advantages at this point, but it's still unseen and, frankly, if it's true that Bill Condon has played down the Effie/Florence Ballard role (Jennifer Hudson) as rumor has it, that could be catastrophic.
Even though the "Dreamgirls" spotlight is mostly on Deena Jones/Diana Ross (Beyonce) in both stage and screen versions, Effie stole the Broadway show so much so that its performer (Jennifer Holliday) stole the Tony Award for best actress away from the show's lead star (Sheryl Lee Ralph).
If Deena eclipses Effie too much in the movie, "Dreamgirls" loses its soul.
Of the movies in that second tier, "Blood Diamond" has doubters because director Ed Zwick failed to deliver on "The Last Samurai" and because it looks so commercial and because of rumors that Leo DiCaprio departs too often from his South African accent into South Bronx and Confederate South.
(If true, Warner Bros. may need to boost Leo up pronto to the lead race from supporting for "The Departed.")
"The Good Shepherd" suffers from skepticism about Robert DeNiro as a director and the fact that it's not a heart-tugging tale, but early buzz about the script is aces and the topic is a politically urgent one.
"The Good German" looks good, but a bit too commercial/suspense-driven and, strangely, George Clooney is making everybody worry about what he means with his oft-heard remark, "This is Cate's movie!" (Cate Blanchett, of course. Is that a compliment? Or dismissal?)
Like "United 93," "World Trade Center" came out early, too, and there's no huge groundswell behind it at this point.
"Borat" may become a monster hit, but it's too silly.
"Last King of Scotland" and "Little Children" aren't exploding at the box office and it doesn't look likely that "The Painted Veil," however good it is, will either, being a slow-paced period piece.
So, for now, "Dreamgirls" it is.
Photos: Two African-American movies are stand-outs in the best picture race. "Dreamgirls" is the early frontrunner because it's loaded with heart, superstars, a popular emerging director and it's likely to reap wide support across many academy branches. And it was a proven hit on Broadway, where, alas, it lost the Tony Award for best musical to "Nine" in 1982.
Many early viewers of "The Pursuit of Happyness" say that its potential is far beyond just a best-actor bid for Will Smith, since it's a well-crafted weepie based upon a real-life person in the tradition of past champs like "A Beautiful Mind."