And the winner is...

So far so good. Last Tuesday, the nominations for the 80th Annual Academy Awards were announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in front of a crowd of more than 400 international media representatives.

Now comes act two: Will the writers' strike prevent the red carpet from being rolled out? And will stars, actors and the ubiquitous glitterati emerge from black stretch limos, decked out in their fashionista finest, for what is a yearly ritual for the denizens of Hollywood and beyond? The ceremony is slated for Sunday, Feb. 24, at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland Center, and will be televised live on ABC and in more than 200 countries beginning at 5 p.m. PST.

Regardless of what form the event takes (the Golden Globes was reduced to a press conference), the consensus is that 2007 was a very strong year for films.

Beginning with Best Picture, keep in mind that the Academy, with 5,829 voting members, usually favors serious drama (aka dark and grim). Heading the list would have to be "There Will Be Blood." Competing with "Blood," is "No Country for Old Men," as well as "Michael Clayton," which garnered seven nominations, one in almost every category. All three films are exceptional. "Atonement," billed as a WW II romance, packs neither the punch or the intensity of these top three, though it also received seven nominations.

But hang on: the fifth film to be nominated is the small, quirky indie, "Juno." Costing less than $10 million to make, it is nearing the $100 million mark in earnings, more than the combined totals of Oscar front-runners "Blood" and "No Country."

"Juno" ascendency as a surprise Academy selection stems from its subject matter &

a comedy about teen pregnancy with dead-on dialogue that has to be heard to be appreciated. The script, written by Diablo Cody, a former stripper making her first movie venture, earned her a nomination for best original screenplay. "Juno" is the sleeper film of 2007 and one to watch when the envelope is opened.

In keeping with the strength demonstrated by the five nominated films comes an array of exceptional performances by actors Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood," George Clooney in "Michael Clayton," Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah," Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises," and Johnny Depp in "Sweeny Todd."

For best actress in a leading role is Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," Julie Christie in "Away From Her," Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose," Laura Linney in "Savages," and Ellen Page in "Juno." If there's a sentimental favorite, it would have to be Christie for her exceptional portrayal of a woman afflicted with Alzheimer's and is slowly drifting away from her husband and herself.

Finally, one footnote to the nominations: There is always one film that goes unrecognized (call it a snub) by the Academy. This year it's "Into the Wild," directed by Sean Penn. While Hal Holbrook received a nomination for best supporting actor, many screen pundits concluded that it would be widely recognized for best direction, best picture, and perhaps best supporting actress (Catherine Keener). Not to be.

Penn had no comment.

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