The top categories in this year's Oscars are so evenly matched that many of us will applaud the winners, even if they're not our own favorites. Here's why both the Will-wins and the Should-wins have their points.
Will win: Slumdog Millionaire. To borrow a phrase from the poet Randall Jarrell, "you feel that it's happening - and to you." This film achieves immediacy and clarity in the chaotic milieu of the Mumbai slums, and creates an exhilarating experience for the audience.
Should win: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. To borrow a phrase from the poet Muhammad Ali, this film "floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee" as it brings nonstop revelation and seriocomic potency to the life of a man born old and aging backward.
Will win: Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler). Blood, guts, tears and even a rueful humor - Rourke pours it all into a comeback performance as a pro wrestler who has probably seen his last comeback.
Should win: Brad Pitt ( The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Poise, alertness and curiosity - undervalued qualities in today's often-histrionic movie acting - come to the fore in what should be recognized as a landmark characterization and a personal milestone for a star who is perhaps just starting to feel the depth of his talent.
Will win: Kate Winslet (The Reader). For bringing a tenacious honesty to the almost-unplayable role of a woman more ashamed of her personal limits than of her involvement in the Holocaust.
Should win: Melissa Leo (Frozen River). For imbuing the role of a mother just a step or two above "down and out" with a formidable fighting spirit and a ferocious tenderness.
Best supporting actor
Will win: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight). He earned the accolades he had received for Brokeback Mountain with a Joker who was thoroughly, scarily surprising in a movie that made unpredictability predictable.
Should win: Josh Brolin (Milk). As Dan White, Brolin earned the praise he got for W., finding the pathos beneath the villainy of an assassin with the emotional makeup of a bruised adolescent.
Will win: Viola Davis (Doubt). As the mother of a possibly-abused boy in Doubt, she struck a strong, true note of maternal understanding under stress that wiped Meryl Streep's almost-comical bravura as an investigating headmistress off the screen.
Should win: Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). As a tempestuous painter who can't live with or without her ex-husband (also a painter), she is a force of nature and a force of art: an emotional hurricane and a muse rolled into one.