Well, here we go, trying to deconstruct the most challenging and potentially unpredictable Oscar race in years. When is the last time mid-December rolled around without a clear frontrunner? “Dreamgirls” seemed poised to trump the competition and roll through the Oscar season Chicago-style, but its opening last week was met with solid, yet unspectacular reviews. Now it’s just another likely nominee. Of course, being the early favorite hasn’t always been a good thing. Just look at “The Aviator” and “Brokeback Mountain” from the last two years. So when it comes to this year, the big question is, has this year’s Best Picture already been released like “Crash” of 2004 (possibly a “United 93”) or is it still looming on the horizon in the mold of a “Million Dollar Baby” (“Letters From Iwo Jima”). We might not know any concrete answers until January, but here’s our slightly bold take on the situation.

It looks like there are eight films vying for five spots in the Best Picture race. They are:

“”Babel”
“The Departed”
“Dreamgirls”
“Flags of Our Fathers”
“Letters From Iwo Jima”
“Little Miss Sunshine”
“The Queen”
“United 93”

Of those, four appear to be locks or near locks. “The Departed” has wowed critics and audiences alike and is near the top of every critics’ top ten list. It should be in there. “Dreamgirls” hasn’t exactly met expectations, but its showsmanship will likely win over the Academy for at least a nomination. “The Queen” is a solid film and appears to be standing its ground, thanks mostly to the brilliant performance of Helen Mirren. Finally, Clint Eastwood is receiving some of the best advance reviews in his storied career for “Letters From Iwo Jima.” It has been a long time since the National Board of Review winner has not been nominated for Best Picture.

So that leaves one spot. How will it play out? “United 93” is an easy choice since it has won the top prize with New York, Washington DC, and Dallas critics, among surely many others to come. We think, however, it was more of a well directed film, so expect to see Paul Greengrass’ name among the Best Director nominees while the film itself get snubbed. “Babel” is a love/hate affair. Given the Academy’s nominating procedures, a film with a smaller, but extremely passionate base of support could steal a nomination. Still, we don’t believe “Babel” supporters constitute a significant enough proportion of voters. It was interesting to see Eastwood get a Globe nomination for directing “Flags of Our Fathers,” a film many thought to be dead after “Letters From Iwo Jima” got pushed up. “Flags” seems like the type of film the Academy would normally embrace, but even though they love Clint, giving him TWO Best Picture nominees seems a bit too much. This is especially considering the fact that “Flags” is flawed in many ways and received mixed critical support.

That leaves only the little movie that could. The movie has a van rolling around Santa Monica with the words “Little Best Picture” carved into its side. That’s right, it’s beginning to look like nobody is running a better, more inventive campaign than the studio behind “Little Miss Sunshine.” The fact that the film was released in summer, yet is still playing in some theaters is another indication of its popularity, popularity that the Academy will be hard-pressed to ignore.

So there you have it folks, your five Best Picture nominees for the 2007 Academy Awards:

“The Departed”
“Dreamgirls”
“Letters From Iwo Jima”
“Little Miss Sunshine”
“The Queen”

Okay, let’s get to the even bigger question. Who will be flaunting the gold trophies when all is said and done on February 25, 2007? There will be lots of twists and turns before most of these categories are settled, but here’s the early line as you start dreaming of showing up your co-workers in your Oscar pool.

Best Picture: The Departed

You won’t see too many experts predicting this. But in a weak year, it just might happen. Advance reviews for “Letters From Iwo Jima” have been very good, but not quite masterful. Given that, we hold onto our instinct that a foreign language film doesn’t win Best Picture. It’s never happened before. “Dreamgirls” seems to be faltering a bit and there’s a chance it could even get upset at the Golden Globes by “Borat” or “Little Miss Sunshine.” If “The Departed” gets a timely DVD release right before the Oscars, that could end up being the difference.

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, The Departed

It’s probably his time. Many will opt to go with the master Eastwood again, but I think enough people will want to spread the wealth and give Marty his due. The Oscars are notorious for being make-up awards, you know.

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed

Okay, no, we are not affiliated with Warner Bros., not from Boston, and not crazy. Yes, Forest Whitaker has won every critics’ Best Actor award imaginable and he will likely win. But we just have a hunch here. Leo was really good in TWO films this year (“The Departed” and “Blood Diamond”) and he’s due after such a strong performance in 2004’s “The Aviator.” Voters will want to shake things up at least a little and a DiCaprio win will certainly command headlines.

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen

This is really beginning to seem more and more like a sure thing. Like Whitaker, she has swept every single critics’ award from Florida to Phoenix. The movie is solid and she is a well respected and deserving actress. Kate Winslet might have a slim, slim chance for “Little Children,” but it’s hard to see her generating enough buzz for a film that probably won’t be nominated for Best Picture. It’s a little too bad though, because wouldn’t it be something to see both the “Titanic” alums take the podium in the same year?

Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine

This will be the most competitive category come Oscar night, with big names Jack Nicholson, Brad Pitt, and Eddie Murphy duking it out. But we think the race will come down to Arkin and the underrated Michael Sheen of “The Queen.” Academy voters may opt for Arkin in order to give some props to the film.

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

She is said to be incredible and upstage everyone else in the film. After a slow start, she is really wrapping up the critics’ awards now. Rinko Kikuchi of “Babel” has a chance, but we give Hudson the edge because of her story. Voters may find it endearing that a former American-Idol runner up can become an Oscar winner.The Moguls film