Well, what better time to look ahead than the day after the big show. Last year, we correctly forecast “Atonement” as a Best Picture nominee one-year-in-advance. Two years ago, we nailed “The Departed.” This year, we hope to improve on our track record. As you will see, there are some heavy hitters coming up later in 2008, films with big stars AND big directors. It could be one of the most competitive seasons in recent Oscar history. Here are the names of the Best Picture films we think will be announced on nominations morning.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount)

David Fincher directs Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in this story, based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald book, about a man who ages in reverse. The concept sounds positively intriguing to us and every single major player attached is coming off a big hit. Fincher directed last year’s underrated “Zodiac,” Blanchett was nominated twice for “The Golden Age” and “I’m Not There” and Brad Pitt exceeded expectations in “The Assasination of Jesse James.” The film also features current Supporting Actress winner Tilda Swinton. Put them all together and it could be nothing short of magic.

Australia (20th Century Fox)

After a long hiatus, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) is back with this epic love story about two people who embark on a journey herding cattle across the outback, and then must survive numerous obstacles including bombing by Japanese forces. Once again, Luhrmann has enlisted the services of his leading lady Nicole Kidman and teamed her with the versatile Hugh Jackman. We have little doubt the chemistry will be there between the co-stars, so the big question is whether the historical elements will mix in well with the personal story. Luhrmann’s attention to detail should hopefully make the film more “Gladiator” than “Alexander.”

The Reader (The Weinstein Company)

End of Days the movie

Based on the best-selling book by Bernard Schlink, the story chronicles the relationship between a young boy and a woman accused of Nazi war crimes. The story spans many decades and takes many turns along the way. Stephen Daldry (The Hours) directs Academy Award nominees Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. This film screams prestige and bears some resemblance to “Atonement.” The big challenge will be whether it can satisfy fans of the book. We think it will.

The Changeling (Universal)

Clint Eastwood is back and that usually strikes fear in the hearts of other directors with hopes of adding a gold statute to their collection. This time, he’s got a story about a mother whose son is kidnapped. When he is returned, she starts to suspect that it is not really him. Angelina Jolie plays the mom and Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan also has a meaningful role. At first glance, the story seems more mystery and suspense than drama, but Eastwood is always a wizard at creating powerful, conflicted characters and fleshing out deeper themes in the story. It’s Mystic River meets Gone Baby Gone and to us, that’s a winning combination.

Revolutionary Road (Paramount, Dreamworks)

This is the big one. The director is Sam Mendes, Academy Award winner for American Beauty. The co-stars are Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. You might remember them from somewhere. The story is about a married couple who have to deal with the realities of life during the depression era while raising their two small children. It’s based on a novel by Richard Yates. As of present, the film is already positioned for a mid-December release, perfect timing for next year’s Oscar season. When you reunite arguably the best young actor and actress of our generation in a story that seems to have so many potential layers, we are absolutely sold.

So now, let’s take a look at the individual races and make some projections.

Best Actor:

Sean Penn will be a contender for playing gay activist Harvey Milk in “Milk” and Benicio Del Toro will undoubtedly shine as legendary Che Guevara in “The Argentine,” but Leo is so overdue and he could ride a “Revolutionary” sweep to the podium.

Best Actress:

The array of strong contenders here is mind-blowing. You have past winners Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, and Cate Blanchett. You have rising star Keira Knightley in the costume drama “The Duchess.” And then you have Kate Winslet possibly competing against herself in “The Reader” and “Revolutionary Road.” The five time nominee finally gets her award for the latter.

Best Supporting Actor:

Even before his unexpected death, people were wowing over his masterful and unique portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” It will be very hard, we feel, for the Academy to pass up this opportunity to pay tribute to a great character actor, the talented Heath Ledger.

Best Supporting Actress:

Amy Ryan came so close to winning this past year as the mother of a kidnapped child in the edgy “Gone Baby Gone.” Now, she’s got a wonderful part in Eastwood’s Best Picture contender “The Changeling.” And we all know how good Eastwood is at getting his actors hardware.

Best Director:

Sorry Clint Eastwood. But you do already have two Best Director trophies. It’s time to make way for a new face to join the two-win club. Sam Mendes will triumph for “Revolutionary Road.”

Best Picture:

And it all comes down to this, right? “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” for its innovative storyline and probable stylish feel, has a shot. And we foresee a tight two film race. But in the end, we think 2008 will see a single film plow through everything in its path, reminiscent of a “Schindler’s List,” “English Patient,” or appropriately, “Titanic.” Yes, it is very difficult to be the early front runner and it’s likely “Revolutionary Road” will carry that burden the entire way through. But somehow, with that creative team on board, we think they have the goods to go all the way. “Revolutionary Road” is your 2009 Oscar Best Picture winner.