Friday, Feb. 23: I can barely bring myself to come up with another list of Oscar predictions. I did this last year, but this year my heart just isn't in it. It's not that I suddenly realized that the correlation between cinematic quality and awards recognition is tenuous at best, and usually outright incompatible; I've felt that way for a while now. No, there are several reasons, mainly this: The awards aren't so much won as bought. Sure, every now and then a dark horse comes along and dominates, as The Silence of the Lambs did in 1991. But for the most part, Oscar recognition is the result of a long and arduous PR campaign meant to sell the Oscar voters (and the public at large) on the worthiness of the film in question. Miramax didn't just luck out when it came to distributing Oscar winners in the 1990s; the Weinsteins shamelessly sold their films as Oscar winners, and then sat back and watched the self-fulfilling prophecy fall into place. That's what was so shocking about Crash's victory last year over Brokeback Mountain; Paul Haggis' film wasn't just the lesser of the two, but Ang Lee's film had been so flawlessly marketed — with playdates platforming out a week at a time leading up to the Oscars, not to mention its branding as part of a national movement — that it was literally supposed to win. I'm making two predictions this year, a main one and a "dark horse" selection that's meant to hedge my bets or just let me be a little hopeful for upsets. Last year I hit 18 of 24 only making one prediction per category, and I'm bound to do at least that well (I hope) by spreading out the guesses. I'm also playing two ballots in the office Oscar pool instead of one, in hopes of taking home some cash. Then again, I live and work in L.A. with some horribly well-informed coworkers competing against me in the pool; if this were Texas, I would clean up, but as it is, I'll probably have to settle again for a four-way tie for fourth. Sunday, Feb. 25: Well, it seems I'm getting my ass kicked in all new ways. Pride goeth before a great loss in the office pool. This year I went for 19 of 24 categories, only one better than I did last year. I'm a little surprised that I managed a 79% accuracy rate this year even by making two guesses per category, but then again, this is far from an exact science. Sometimes I was happy to proven wrong: I liked seeing Melissa Etheridge win for original song for An Inconvenient Truth over the bloated, melismatic crapfest that is Dreamgirls. And I was happy to see Thelma Schoonmaker win for editing The Departed; she's worked with Scorsese for years, and his films aren't the same thing without her skill informing their relationship as director and editor. But I was disappointed with several other outcomes, most notably Alan Arkin's win for Little Miss Sunshine instead of Mark Wahlberg's work in The Departed. Sure, Arkin's performance as the lecherous grandpa (He's horny! He's profound! He's dead!) was entertaining, and the cast still managed to successfully pull off the prefab quirk of the comedy, and Arkin deserves some of that credit. But whereas Little Miss Sunshine was the ready-made indie-that-could — funny, sad, sweet, but still ready-made — Scorsese's fierce, sweeping crime drama contained the year's best everything: Story, performances, even the atmosphere. (Who could forget that gorgeous shot of the mobile of mirrors as Leonardo DiCaprio pursued Matt Damon over the wet streets and down that alley?) Wahlberg's ferocious but loyal cop was an integral part of Scorsese's film, which is fantastically, beautifully, wonderfully beyond its inspiration, the Hong Kong flick Infernal Affairs. It was fitting that Scorsese was presented his award by Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas, the fellow kings of his era, the first kids to blast out of film school and change the face of American cinema. But Coppola has been phoning it in since Jack, and Lucas is a brilliant set designer and conceptual artist who long ago lost whatever connection he had to human emotion and his ability to write from the heart. Spielberg continues to grow as an artist, yet while he tackles the daddy and Holocaust issues that have colored his work from the beginning, Scorsese has become the most truly American filmmaker of the bunch. The Departed isn't just an adaptation of another film, or even a crime story, but a film that's relentlessly American, pulsing with the homegrown hate and love and despair and fratricide of the spacious boroughs and blood-stained waves of grain. A few of my coworkers have alternately referred to Departed as a "guy movie" or "popcorn actioner" (thus casting eternal doubt on their ability to actually discern good films from bad), but they're missing the point. From Jack Nicholson's coke-fueled Caligula to DiCaprio's lonely yearning to find a father in Martin Sheen, The Departed really was the best film of the year. Anyway, on to my predictions and the winners: Best Picture Prediction: The Departed. Dark Horse: Little Miss Sunshine. Winner: The Departed. Best Actor Prediction: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland. Dark Horse: Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond. Winner: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland. Best Actress Prediction: Helen Mirren, The Queen. Dark Horse: Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada. Winner: Helen Mirren, The Queen. Best Supporting Actor Prediction: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls. Dark Horse: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed. Winner: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine. Best Supporting Actress Prediction: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls. Dark Horse: Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine. Winner: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls. Best Director Prediction: Martin Scorsese, The Departed. Dark Horse: Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima. Winner: Martin Scorsese, The Departed. Best Original Screenplay Prediction: Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine. Dark Horse: Paul Haggis, Iris Yamashita, Letters From Iwo Jima. Winner: Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine. Best Adapted Screenplay Prediction: William Monahan, The Departed. Dark Horse: Sacha Baron Cohen et al.,Borat. Winner: William Monahan, The Departed. Best Cinematography Prediction: Emmanuel Lubezki, Children of Men. Dark Horse: Guillermo Navarro, Pan's Labyrinth. Winner: Guillermo Navarro, Pan's Labyrinth. Best Film Editing Prediction: Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse, Richard Pearson, United 93. Dark Horse: Stephen Mirrione, Douglas Crise, Babel. Winner: Thelma Schoonmaker, The Departed. Best Art Direction Prediction: Eugenio Caballero, Pilar Revuelta, Pan's Labyrinth. Dark Horse: John Myhre, Nancy Haigh, Dreamgirls. Winner: Eugenio Caballero, Pilar Revuelta, Pan's Labyrinth. Best Costume Design Prediction: Sharen Davis, Dreamgirls. Dark Horse: Consolata Boyle, The Queen. Winner: Milena Canonero, Marie Antoinette. Best Original Score Prediction: Alexandre Desplat, The Queen. Dark Horse: Gustavo Santaolalla, Babel. Winner: Gustavo Santaolalla, Babel. Best Original Song Prediction: Henry Krieger, Scott Cutler, Anne Preven, "Listen," Dreamgirls. Dark Horse: Henry Krieger, Siedah Garrett, "Love You I Do," Dreamgirls. Winner: Melissa Etheridge, "I Need to Wake Up," An Inconvenient Truth. Best Makeup Prediction: David Marti, Montse Ribe, Pan's Labyrinth. Dark Horse: Aldo Signoretti, Vittorio Sodano, Apocalypto. Winner: David Marti, Montse Ribe, Pan's Labyrinth. Best Sound Mixing Prediction: Dreamgirls. Dark Horse: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Winner: Dreamgirls. Best Sound Editing Prediction: Letters From Iwo Jima. Dark Horse: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Winner: Letters From Iwo Jima. Best Visual Effects Prediction: Superman Returns. Dark Horse: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Winner: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Best Animated Feature Prediction: Cars. Dark Horse: Happy Feet. Winner: Happy Feet. Best Foreign-Language Film Prediction: Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico). Dark Horse: The Lives of Others (Germany). Winner: The Lives of Others (Germany). Best Documentary (Feature) Prediction: An Inconvenient Truth. Dark Horse: Deliver Us From Evil. Winner: An Inconvenient Truth. Best Documentary (Short Subject) Prediction: Two Hands. Dark Horse: The Blood of Yingzhou District. Winner: The Blood of Yingzhou District. Best Short Film (Animated) Prediction: The Little Matchgirl. Dark Horse: Lifted. Winner: The Danish Poet. Best Short Film (Live Action) Prediction: West Bank Story. Dark Horse: Binta and the Great Idea. Winner: West Bank Story.