There's a running theme as we wrap up the major categories for this year's Academy Awards: "Slumdog Millionaire."  A fantastic achievement in filmmaking, marketing and Oscar campaigning, the almost tossed away Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. picture is on its way to making Hollywood history.  But first, let's take a look at the filmmakers behind the Best Picture nominees.

BEST DIRECTOR

The nominees are....

Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Lowdown: You try and shoot an entire film in Mumbai.
David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Lowdown: A more conservative approach for the groundbreaking director, but couldn't bring the heart.
Stephen Daldry, "The Reader"
Lowdown: Two movies, two Oscar nods. 
Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"
Lowdown: Arguably, his best film.
Gus Van Sant, "Milk"
Lowdown: Did the most with the weakest script and pulled out the best performances overall from his actors, but couldn't overcome the film's problematic third act.

This category comes down to two directors whose films have inspired countless imitators in the world of film, TV and music videos.  Both are well on their way to lifetime achievement awards, but this year is different.  Fincher oversaw an amazing technical production, but Boyle pulled out charismatic performances from young kids from the slums of Mumbai.  It's hard to compare, but the love for "Slumdog" will give Boyle the bump.

Winner: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

The nominees are....

"Frozen River," Written by Courtney Hunt
Lowdown: A clear example of sending out your screeners as early as possible.
"Happy-Go-Lucky," Written by Mike Leigh
Lowdown:  Well respected enough to continually receive nominations, but still hasn't won.
"In Bruges," Written by Martin McDonagh
Lowdown:  A sign the movie could have been more of a player overall and was seriously underestimated by its studio.
"Milk," Written by Dustin Lance Black
Lowdown: He helped bring the story to the screen.  That might be enough.
"WALL-E," Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by
Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

Lowdown: Wonderful story, but will lack of dialogue in first act and the fact it's animated hurt it?

Almost every filmmaker or screenwriter you speak to in town agrees the power of "Milk" lies in Gus Van Sant's direction, not the Black's conventional screenplay. However, this year's crop of original screenplay candidates has always been weak and Black has received a lot of love for helping get "Milk" off the ground.  Especially considering a competing project, "The Mayor of Castro Street" spent over 15 years in development and still couldn't get made. "WALL-E" may be more deserving artistically than "Milk," but it's hard to see it upsetting at this point.

Winner:"Milk," Written by Dustin Lance Black

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The nominees are....

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Screenplay by Eric Roth, Screen
story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord

Lowdown: Based on the merits of the actual category, the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story should be the clear winner.
"Doubt," Written by John Patrick Shanley
Lowdown: Respect pt. 1, but probably shouldn't be here.
"Frost/Nixon," Screenplay by Peter Morgan
Lowdown: Respected pt. 2 and quite possibly an improvement on his play.
"The Reader," Screenplay by David Hare
Lowdown: Respected, pt. 3 and will win down the road.
"Slumdog Millionaire," Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy
Lowdown:  Riding the "Slumdog" wave and not a bad script from a former nominee.

An incredibly competitive category that is actually ripe for an upset.  Many are assuming the love for "Slumdog," which won the equivalent Writer's Guild Award, will win, but don't be surprised if "Button" or even "Frost/Nixon" sneak in and win.  And yet, that's still a fairly long shot at this point.

Winner: "Slumdog Millionaire," Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

BEST PICTURE

The nominees are....

"Slumdog Millionaire"
Lowdown: And to think Warner Bros. was ready to send this film straight to DVD.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Lowdown: Technical and artistic achievement, but couldn't overcome the missing emotional impact.
"The Reader"
Lowdown: Picture will be more appreciated as the years pass.  If Miramax had released this (ironically), critical reception and box office would have been stronger.
"Frost/Nixon"
Lowdown: The movie may have had more of an impact if it was released during Bush's last term.
"Milk"
Lowdown: An important civil rights dealer finally gets his due.  Everyone associated should be happy that important feat was accomplished.

I've witnessed spontaneous standing ovations for films such as "Dreamgirls," but when I saw the audience at "Slumdog's" premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September start to clap along to "Jai Ho" as the credits rolled, this writer knew "Millionaire" was in the final five.  What was so surprising is just how much of a crowd-pleasing hit the movie has become.  The inspirational story crossed multi-cultural lines during trying times here and abroad and cemented itself as the clear frontrunner.  Yes, "change" hasn't just come to Washington.

Winner: "Slumdog Millionaire"

As we countdown to the biggest night of the year, here's the rundown of even more Oscar content this week on HitFix:

Monday: Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor
Tuesday: Best Actor
Wednesday: Best Actress
Saturday: Coverage of The Spirit Awards, where Hollywood honors its Indie brethren.
Sunday: Breaking coverage of the 81st Academy Awards with red carpet galleries, winners, running blog and the ever-popular wrap "Best and Worst" of the show.

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