Dave Karger calculates how he thinks the votes will break down on Feb. 22

By Dave Karger
Updated February 13, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

We know: you’re just not that into the Oscars this year. Leo, Clint, and Bruce aren’t nominated, and with Slumdog Millionaire hogging every prize in sight, the Best Picture race has essentially been over for weeks. But before you make that dinner reservation for Feb. 22, consider that this year’s ceremony is being orchestrated by two real Hollywood showmen, Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, who know how to mount a lavish production (they created 2006’s Dreamgirls) and have pledged to deliver an evening at once tasteful and irreverent — and under three hours.

First, they hired song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman as host, a departure from the stand-up comic mold. But you’ll see big changes before the show even starts: While nominees will walk the red carpet and debut their gowns and tuxedos as usual, some of the high-wattage presenters won’t. As Mark puts it, ”Why should you know every single presenter and what they’re wearing before you even see the show?” (Red carpet purists may revolt at the move, but the producers say they haven’t had much push-back from fashionistas.)

The strangest tease to surface is that the awards themselves will be given out in a way that tells a story. What on earth could that possibly mean? ”Well, we can’t tell you what it means,” says Condon, except that ”it’s not about telling a story. There’s just some structure to the evening, is all I can say.” The duo’s biggest fear: that all the secrecy and hype will lead to overblown expectations. ”The whole evening is just presented in a different way,” Mark says. ”It’s not like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s Attila the Hun!”’

Of course the Oscar competition itself is providing a little excitement too. Though a handful of races appear to be foregone conclusions, there are just as many (both female acting categories, for starters) that have become true nail-biters as this year’s awards season rounds its final turn. Will Meryl Streep win her first Oscar in 26 years, or will Kate Winslet pull off her first career win after five previous losses? And with Winslet out of the Supporting Actress race, who will take home that up-for-grabs trophy? We offer our predictions in every category and hear from a handful of Academy members who give us a peek at their ballots. And guess what? They’re not all voting for Slumdog.

Best Picture

Back on Dec. 4, the National Board of Review kicked off the awards season with its list of motion picture honorees, including Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire. And with the exception of a few critics-award losses here and there, the crowd-pleasing Mumbai fairy tale has been unstoppable ever since. Its bucket of awards (including top honors from the British Academy, Golden Globes, Broadcast Film Critics Association, Producers Guild, Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and Writers Guild) has placed it so far out in front that its competition has a seemingly unbridgeable gap to cross. If there’s any possibility of an upset, however, it’s either by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which leads the field with 13 nominations but has its best chances in some of the technical categories, or by Milk, whose buzz has been steadily growing but has better odds in the Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay races. The Reader became a surprise contender when it earned five nominations, but although producer Harvey Weinstein is campaigning aggressively for his polarizing Holocaust-themed drama, the film’s real shot at a win rests with Kate Winslet’s performance. The category’s final nominee, Frost/Nixon, also scored five nods, but it seems resigned to become the first Best Picture nominee since 2005’s Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck to go home completely empty-handed on Oscar night.

Frost/Nixon: 8%
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: 25%
Milk: 20%
Slumdog Millionaire: 35%
The Reader: 12%

Best Actor

A pair of Hollywood tough guys have been splitting most of the pre-Oscar prizes. The Wrestler‘s Mickey Rourke seems to have charmed the most international voters, winning the British Academy and Golden Globe awards for his astonishingly sensitive turn as an aging Hulk Hogan type. But since a large part of the Academy lives in post-Prop 8 California, Milk‘s Sean Penn, who picked up the SAG and Broadcast Critics prizes for his utterly transformational performance as gay politician Harvey Milk, has politics on his side and should top Rourke in this tight race. In a weaker year, Frost/Nixon‘s towering Frank Langella, already a Tony winner for the same role, would be a strong candidate for the win instead of being relegated to third-banana status. Meanwhile, The Visitor‘s Richard Jenkins, a lauded character actor who scored the role of a lifetime, is the sentimental favorite who stands to be overshadowed by his showier competition, while Brad Pitt’s fascinating but CGI-aided performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is more likely to be rewarded with an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

Sean Penn, Milk: 33%
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor: 10%
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler: 30%
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: 5%
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon: 22%

Best Actress

The long-predicted Kate Winslet-Meryl Streep showdown finally comes to fruition — just not in the manner everyone expected. Streep’s record-extending 15th nomination, for playing Doubt‘s suspicious Sister Aloysius, was always a given, while most Oscar watchers predicted Winslet would be recognized for Revolutionary Road. But the Academy, ignoring a supporting-actress campaign for her in The Reader, voted her powerful turn as a Nazi camp guard into the lead race instead. So can a supposedly secondary part trump Streep? Since six-time nominee Winslet has yet to win an Oscar and The Reader is the only Best Picture nominee in this race, probably so. Rachel Getting Married‘s impressive Anne Hathaway, who tied with Streep for the Broadcast Critics prize, would be a stronger contender if the film hadn’t been shut out of every other category. Another indie standout, Melissa Leo, has kept Sundance hit Frozen River‘s buzz alive for over a year with her lived-in performance as a cash-strapped mom, but lacks the killer scene needed for a win. And for another tireless screen mother, Changeling‘s Angelina Jolie, the victory lies in proving to the world that her one previous nomination (and win) for Girl, Interrupted was no fluke.

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married: 20% Angelina Jolie, Changeling: 5%
Kate Winslet, The Reader: 32%
Meryl Streep, Doubt: 28%
Melissa Leo, Frozen River: 15%

Best Supporting Actor

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this year’s Oscar nominations was the inclusion of Michael Shannon for his three riveting scenes as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s mentally unstable neighbor in Revolutionary Road. That he failed to land on any major pre-Oscar short list, most notably the SAG awards, means the nomination is his win. Ditto Tropic Thunder‘s Robert Downey Jr., who reminded the Academy that comedy, when truly inspired, indeed has a place at the Oscars. On the heels of his lead role in last year’s Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men, Josh Brolin scored his first Academy recognition this year thanks to his portrayal of city supervisor-turned-murderer Dan White in Milk. And the year’s only back-to-back acting nominee, Philip Seymour Hoffman (cited last year for Charlie Wilson’s War), was so mesmerizing as Doubt‘s shifty priest that he might have earned a Best Actor nod had Miramax campaigned for that category instead. But they all have the misfortune of going up against Oscar’s surest thing: Heath Ledger, such an unforgettable villain in The Dark Knight that he’ll easily add a posthumous Academy Award to the 28 other prizes he’s won this year.

Josh Brolin, Milk: 25%
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt: 25%
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder: 5%
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight: 40%
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road: 5%

Best Supporting Actress

The Academy’s decision to nominate The Reader‘s Kate Winslet in the lead-actress category instantly created this year’s most wide-open major race. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s Taraji P. Henson was the heart of the film, but her role doesn’t allow for much scenery chewing. Likewise, Marisa Tomei provided the emotional entry point for the audience in The Wrestler but seems destined to yield the spotlight to her costar, Mickey Rourke. Then there’s Amy Adams, who picked up her second career nod for Doubt, though fans of the film are more likely to get behind her costar, Viola Davis. With just two scenes in the film, the theater veteran created one of the most indelible screen characters of the year and could very well join the ranks of Shakespeare in Love‘s Judi Dench and Network‘s Beatrice Straight as winners who made the most of their limited screen time. But our money is on Vicky Cristina Barcelona‘s Penélope Cruz, who goosed Woody Allen’s comedy with so much danger and sex appeal that she should become the third member (along with Dianne Wiest and Mira Sorvino) of another supporting-actress club: Woody’s winners.

Amy Adams, Doubt: 6%
Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona: 33%
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: 9%
Viola Davis, Doubt: 32%
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler: 20%

Best Director

Can anyone possibly top Slumdog Millionaire‘s energetic Danny Boyle, who’s already picked up awards from the DGA, BAFTA, Golden Globes, and Broadcast Critics? This year’s only other first-time nominee, David Fincher, beautifully balanced The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘s eye-popping visuals and heart-tugging emotion, but his is arguably the most polarizing film of the bunch. Frost/Nixon‘s Ron Howard and Milk‘s Gus Van Sant both picked up their second career nominations (after A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting, respectively) and have campaigned efficiently, but the traditional nature of their largely biographical films will count them out against such groundbreaking competitors. And following his nods for 2000’s Billy Elliot and 2002’s The Hours, The Reader‘s Stephen Daldry has made Oscar history by becoming the only filmmaker to score Best Director nominations for his first three films. He’ll certainly win one day, but just not this year.

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire: 35%
Stephen Daldry, The Reader: 20%
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon: 5%
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: 27%
Gus Van Sant, Milk: 13%