BY DAVID GERMAIN Associated Press
LOS ANGELES---- If the victory of best-picture champ ''Crash'' over front-runner ''Brokeback Mountain'' last winter proved one thing, it's that nothing is ever certain at the Academy Awards.
Yet with two and a half months to go before the Oscars on Feb. 25, three seemingly sure picks and a wildly eclectic lineup of potential and long-shot contenders have emerged for Hollywood's top prize.
The consensus among Hollywood awards watchers is that the peppy musical ''Dreamgirls,'' the bloody mob saga ''The Departed'' and the royalty-in-crisis drama ''The Queen'' are virtual locks for best-picture nominations.
Beyond that, speculation runs wild as to what two films will grab the remaining slots. Could the beloved road-trip tale ''Little Miss Sunshine'' overcome the academy's bias against comic stories? Might either of the year's two Sept. 11 films, ''United 93'' and ''World Trade Center,'' break into the best-picture field? Will two-time best-picture winning filmmaker Clint Eastwood get back in the race with one of his World War II companion films, ''Flags of Our Fathers'' or ''Letters From Iwo Jima''?
Here's a rundown of the three favorites and some of the most likely other possibilities:
''Dreamgirls'' -- It certainly won't go down as one of Hollywood's all-time musical classics, but this adaptation of the stage hit about a Supremes-like pop trio that emerges from Detroit's Motown scene in the 1960s has everything going for it. A sharp cast led by Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and the scene-stealing Jennifer Hudson bring great vitality to the well-crafted film from director Bill Condon. And the music is irresistible, the ingredients adding up to a crowd-pleaser for academy voters and general audiences alike.
''The Departed'' -- Martin Scorsese is of the Oscars' most notorious bridesmaids, arguably the greatest living American filmmaker to be shut out on best-picture and director wins. The first two-thirds of his cops-and-mobsters epic is as grand as anything he's done in the genre, and despite a shaky third act, the film has the critical acclaim and box-office clout that spell best picture. It doesn't hurt to have terrific performances all-around from Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg.
''The Queen'' -- More likely than a best-picture nomination is the chance that Helen Mirren will walk away with the best-actress prize as Queen Elizabeth II. The universally acclaimed film from director Stephen Frears is anchored by a performance from Mirren that's equal parts withering imperiousness and deep introspection as the secluded queen copes with the crisis of Princess Diana's death in 1997. Mirren's backed by great supporting players, notably Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair and James Cromwell as Prince Philip.
''Little Miss Sunshine'' -- It's one of the year's funniest movies, a handicap at the Oscars, which rarely give comedy its due. Beneath the laughs, this tale of a seriously messed-up family headed to their little girl's beauty pageant has an undercurrent of pathos bordering on tragedy. Husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have crafted a heavy-duty film disguised as a road romp, and the ensemble of Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin are so authentic, you'd think they'd been bickering around the dinner table for years.
''Flags of Our Fathers,'' ''Letters From Iwo Jima'' -- As film twofers go, Eastwood's achievement is unprecedented. In the span of two months, he's presented bookend World War II films, ''Flags'' focusing on the American experience at Iwo Jima, ''Letters'' told from the Japanese perspective. ''Flags'' earned solid reviews but faltered at the box office. Could the decision to bump ''Letters'' to late 2006 instead of its 2007 release revive ''Flags'' sinking Oscar prospects? Or could ''Letters,'' which some early critics think is the better of the two films, emerge as Eastwood's big Oscar offering, despite being told in Japanese with subtitles?
''United 93,'' ''World Trade Center'' -- Hollywood's first big-screen treatments of the Sept. 11 attacks were well-received by audiences and critics. Paul Greengrass' agonizingly realistic ''United 93,'' a chronicle of passengers killed when their plane crashed after they fought back against terrorist hijackers, is the better of the two. But Oliver Stone's ''World Trade Center,'' starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as policeman trapped in the rubble of the twin towers, is the bigger, more Oscar-like production, with a director who's triumphed there before.
''Volver'' -- Penelope Cruz gives a career performance and is surrounded by a tremendous supporting ensemble in Pedro Almodovar's rich, vibrant portrait of strong women making do without fickle men. Cruz is radiant in this comic drama about a single mother dealing with strange crises, including a mother (Carmen Maura) who seemingly has returned from the dead. Like ''Letters From Iwo Jima,'' the Spanish-language ''Volver'' could become a rare foreign-language film that breaks into the best-picture pack.
''The Good Shepherd'' -- In his second directing effort, Robert De Niro delivers a film with all the raw materials for an Oscar champion. He just needed to whittle a good half-hour off the excessive 2-hour, 40-minute running time. There's a lot of fat De Niro could have cut off his epic saga of the CIA's founding, which stars Matt Damon as a young poetry student recruited into the intelligence game, who becomes a lifer at the Company, a true believer that the dark espionage methods he pioneers will make the world a better place.
''Babel'' -- ''Sprawling'' is an adjective that could have been invented for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's far-flung drama that unfolds on three continents as it follows American, African, Mexican and Japanese families whose lives are intertwined by tragic events. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are the marquee names, but Inarritu has assembled a group of actors mostly new to U.S. audiences whose tremendous performances cement a diffuse story into a cohesive, compelling whole.
''Children of Men'' -- If academy voters tend to shun comedy, they practically run from futuristic stories. Yet Alfonso Cuaron's stark, humanity-on-the-ropes thriller starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine is recognizably of our times and about our burning issues despite its setting 21 years from now. A provocative, frightening tale about a plague of infertility, the film is a bleakly beautiful study of how our prejudices, injustices and fear of outsiders might be magnified by a planet-wide crisis, and how something as simple as a baby can restore hope.