Is it really possible to predict the Oscars a full year in advance? The answer…you bet! Last year, numerous Oscar sites, us included, had “The Departed” in the top five. But ultimately, the fact that it seemed to be a violent and commercial gangster film convinced most experts to pass it by. We should have anticipated the temptation to honor a legendary director like Martin Scorsese and the sheer power of a cast featuring the likes of Nicholson, DiCaprio, and Damon.

Also, if you examine years past, it has often been more than feasible to predict several of the nominees and even the eventual winner. In 2002, “Chicago” was on everyone’s radar a full year before it captured the Oscar. In 2003, “Return of the King” was a virtual shoo-in. Both “The Aviator” and “Finding Neverland” were regarded as serious contenders in early 2004 and “Brokeback Mountain” was another film many predicted right away. There seems to be only one general rule. With the exception of perhaps “Return of the King,” each of those above films were contenders, but not favorites or, dare we say, frontrunners. As we obviously witnessed this past season with “Dreamgirls,” tremendous buzz or hype can kill an otherwise good film’s chances. Therefore, we’ll start off this predictions article by eliminating the highest profile contenders.

The two biggest sacrificial lambs, therefore, are the Mike Nichols’ drama “Charlie Wilson’s War,” starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts about a secret plan to fund the Afghanistan War and the Tim Burton musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” featuring Johnny Depp and an all-star cast. “War” seems too political and “Sweeney” reminds us too much of “Dreamgirls.” Besides, we just can’t imagine a film with a title that long actually being nominated.

We are also wary of other oft-mentioned titles, such as “The Golden Age,” the sequel to “Elizabeth” starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, and Clive Owen. It would be tempting to pick it in light of “The Queen,” but something just doesn’t feel right about the project. Plus, the Academy doesn’t usually go for sequels. The Ridley Scott crime drama “American Gangster” starring Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington will probably turn out excellent, but has the misfortune of following in the footsteps of “The Departed.” Another drama about the Afghanistan war, “Lions for Lambs,” directed by Robert Redford and starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep may also be too serious and message-heavy for the Academy’s taste. Besides, Redford’s skills as a director have steadily eroded over the last decade (“The Horse Whisperer” anyone?)

So let’s get down to it then. Here are your five nominees for Best Picture in 2008.

Atonement (Focus Features)
His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (New Line Cinema)
My Blueberry Nights (The Weinstein Company)
The Kite Runner (Paramount Vantage)
Reservation Road (Focus Features)

1. Atonement

This story about guilt and redemption hails from the creative team behind “Pride and Prejudice.” Keira Knightley plays the lead role in the adaptation of the acclaimed book by Ian McEwan and rising star James McAvoy also has a substantial part. With a late August release date, it could be positioned to make a great first impression in the Oscar race. Focus (Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardener, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.) has a track record of producing high quality films and after an off-year in 2007, we expect them to have at least a couple of strong contenders in the Best Picture mix.

2. His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass

Hmmm. A sprawling adult fantasy tale from the same studio that brought you “Lord of the Rings?” Most people are of the belief it can never duplicate the success of the hobbit trilogy and they’re probably right. But after a few years of weak cinematic offerings, voters may be in the mood for something big, fantastical, and epic. Having stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig aboard adds depth and gravitas to the film and a December release puts it right in the heart of awards season. Look for this film to lead in total number of Oscar nominations and have a better than expected chance to score the win.

3. My Blueberry Nights

This is our one true wildcard because it’s in large part a romantic comedy with a summer release date. Furthermore, it stars singer Norah Jones, who has never ever acted before. But somehow, something feels special and different about this project. Supposedly, it’s a story about a woman who takes a cross-country journey and learns more about the true meaning of love. Look at the cast, which includes Jude Law, Ed Harris, and Rachel Weisz. Plus, it’s got the Weinstein brothers behind it. If “Little Miss Sunshine” can score a Best Picture nomination, we’re betting this film will sneak into the race and surprise a whole lot of people. It’s also helmed by a famous Hong Kong director who is making his English language film debut.

4. The Kite Runner

This film almost didn’t crack our top five and to be perfectly honest, we’re still not totally sure about its chances. On the surface, it looks solid: serious topic (the Russian invasion of Afghanistan), intimate story (the relationship between two boys, master and servant), and excellent, underrated director (Marc Forster). But the biggest problem lies in the source material. “The Kite Runner” is one of the most widely read and acclaimed books of the last few years. If you look at successful award-winning films, you’ll notice they usually come from lesser known books. Why? Because the unfamiliarity with the source material results in less vocal criticism/backlash. They’re also easier to make because there’s less pressure in adhering strictly to the book’s storyline for the sake of the fans. Look at two of the highest profile adaptations of the last five years: “Cold Mountain” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Both were touted as heavyweight Oscar contenders. Both were helmed by famous directors and had stellar casts. But both failed to score Best Picture nominations. We really like Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Monster’s Ball”) so we’ll say the film slips in just barely.

5. Reservation Road

It’s a story about how a hit and run accident intertwines the lives of two families. It’s got that dark, emotional feel similar to “In the Bedroom” and “House of Sand and Fog.” With Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly, and Mark Ruffalo aboard, it’s bound to feature some terrific dramatic performances. It’s based on a book, but not a well known one. We like director Terry George, who make a splash with his restrained direction in the underrated “Hotel Rwanda.” Something tells us this film will be a hit, and with Focus Features pushing it, it could go a long way.

Peaked your curiosity? Let’s conclude with some bold and somewhat outrageous predictions as to who will take home the big awards next year. As you all know, it’s never too early for speculation.

Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave is in two awards-caliber films next year (“The Evening,” “Atonement”) and we’re betting she gets some serious notice for the latter, but ultimately we’ll give to the nod for the second year in a row for a role in a musical. Our pick is Helena Bonham Carter for “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Best Supporting Actor: We feel most confident about this one. Mark Ruffalo has been an outstanding character actor and he’s in at least two very good films in 2007, “Zodiac,” and “Reservation Road.” He’ll win his first golden statuette for “Reservation Road.”

Best Actress: For the second year in a row, this category is loaded. Keira Knightley, Jennifer Connelly, Naomi Watts, Natalie Portman, and Angelina Jolie are all bona fide contenders. If Jolie’s film “A Mighty Heart,” (the story of journalist Daniel Pearl) is very good, look for her to be the frontrunner. But we’re going to totally go out on a limb and pick the unlikeliest of contenders…Norah Jones for “My Blueberry Nights.” If Jennifer Hudson can win an Oscar, we see now reason why the talented Ms. Jones can’t make the leap.

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix will be one of the favorites for his turn in “Reservation Road” just a few years off a career-defining performance in “Walk the Line.” But he will be going up against the ever-popular and beloved Johnny Depp in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Depp, with his endless array of amazing performances, is one of two actors that you just KNOW will win an Oscar one day (the other being DiCaprio). If “Sweeney” is as good as advertised, he’ll be making his first trip to the podium.

Best Director: It could be close between Forster and George, and we wouldn’t necessarily expect this award to line up with Best Picture given the frequency of splits over the last ten years. We say George takes it in a close one.

Best Picture: Well, well, well. It all comes down to this, right? “The Kite Runner” is out for reasons specified above. “His Dark Materials” is probably not going to win since it’s the first of a trilogy and “Atonement” may not have a wide enough appeal. That means the race comes down to “Reservation Road” vs. “My Blueberry Nights.” You would think the obvious choice is “Reservation,” since it’s a serious drama with hefty, possible award-winning performances and backed by Focus. But we still feel it may be a bit too dark and depressing to snag the top prize. Call us crazy, but this may just very well be the first year since 1998 (“Shakespeare in Love”) that another romantic comedy beats them all. It would be fitting, actually, since it is exactly a decade later. Our pick for 2008 Best Motion Picture is “My Blueberry Nights.”

See you in the summer!