If you want to win a big race, is it better to be out front early, or be patient and make your charge at the end? As they say, the only thing that matters is who’s on top when it’s all said and done. Sometimes, being dubbed the prohibitive favorite is a curse, rather than a blessing. Just ask Howard Dean. Though we’re dealing with movies rather than political campaigns, some things remain the same.

If you believe the pundits, Dreamgirls is sitting pretty. Fresh off a strong, limited screening at Cannes and thanks to positive word of mouth, it’s positioning itself as the film to beat for Best Picture. Close behind is Clint Eastwood’s World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers. But seriously folks, what are the chances that either film can live up to the hype? At this point, neither film has been screened for critics or on the festival circuit in its entirety. To assist you in properly analyzing these frontrunners’ chances, let’s take a closer look at Best Picture races of the past ten years.

 Munich. The Aviator. Gangs of New York. Ali. Amistad. What do these films have in common? Well, at some point early in each respective year, each of these films was widely considered to be the favorite to win Best Picture. As you can deduce, none of them actually did. The first question that comes to mind is why were these movies favored? The obvious answer is that they were spearheaded by marquee directors. In fact, two directors, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, account for 4 of the 5 films. The danger is predicting based on director is that even good directors can make mediocre films. Furthermore, even if the film is solid, it may not appeal to the masses in a current climate, as with Munich.

Though none of the above five films captured the top prize, it should be noted that three of them were NOMINATED for Best Picture. That’s a pretty good track record. If you go a little further back in history, you can add one more name to the list: Saving Private Ryan. Here’s another film that was easily the frontrunner well before it opened. It was nominated for Best Picture and by all accounts should have won. So what does all this mean for 2006? Clearly, the marquee director of the moment is Clint Eastwood. His two previous efforts, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, both figured prominently into the Oscar race, the latter capturing highest honors. Unless Flags of Our Fathers is a total dud, count on him to at least score a third straight Best Picture nomination.

On the other hand, when your film is not headlined by a star director and still overhyped, that’s when you should probably watch out. Does anyone remember a little project called The Crucible? Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder and helmed by upstart Nicolas Hynter, it was predicted by many to win Best Picture back in 1997. You’d be hard pressed to find it on any year-end top ten lists. Try Lifetime at 3 in the morning instead.  Or how about last year’s Memoirs of a Geisha? Though director Rob Marshall had won an Oscar for Chicago, it was still only his second feature film. Geisha was a critical disappointment, which brings another rule into the forefront – be careful when predicting adaptations of prestigious books to win Best Picture. Sometimes, the better the book, the harder it is to translate effectively to the big screen (see The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, Seabiscuit).

Of course, there are years when everyone’s best guess turns out to be positively golden. But the common denominator here is that usually we’re talking about a blockbuster film. In 1997, after people finally realized Amistad was no Schindler’s List, most people figured out Titanic would sail into the sunset amidst Oscar glory. Likewise in 2000, Gladiator was so well done and lavish that many experts figured it would withstand tough challenges from Traffic and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Most recently, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was a shoo-in for win Best Picture for 2003, as everyone knew the Academy would have to reward New Line for three incredible and difficult to make films.

Considering everything, Dreamgirls looks like an interesting proposition. It’s no blockbuster, but it is a musical, and musicals have historically scored well with the Academy (although mostly in the 60s and 70s). Back in 2002, Chicago was an early favorite (right behind Gangs of New York) and look what ultimately happened. On the other hand, Phantom of the Opera was highly touted as an Oscar contender and flopped. Since Dreamgirls’ director Bill Condon also wrote Chicago, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. However, though we think a nomination is possible, if not even likely, we exercise healthy skepticism toward its chances to WIN Best Picture. Remember, Crash and Million Dollar Baby pretty much came out of nowhere, and 2001 winner A Beautiful Mind wasn’t seriously favored until late December. Dreamgirls would be bucking a lot of precedent to ride its current momentum all the way to the podium.

Flags of Our Fathers looks like a better bet at the moment. But don’t go placing your bets yet. At least not for the win. Remember, two years ago, Oscar prognosticators were picking Oliver Stone’s Alexander to be a serious Best Picture contender. I don’t need to fill in the rest.

We’ll be updating our Best Picture nominees in a few weeks and reporting the latest developments from the Toronto Film Festival. Will the current favorites stay on top or will a new contender emerge from the ashes? Nobody knows…at least not yet. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why the Oscars are the greatest show on Earth!