By RUTHE STEIN
Scripps Howard News Service
This time last year, anyone attempting to divine the Oscar nominees would have had a lot more to go on. ''No Country for Old Men,'' ''Michael Clayton,'' ''Into the Wild,'' ''Eastern Promises,'' ''Away From Her,'' ''La Vie en Rose'' and ''In the Valley of Elah'' were all already in release. Other potential nominees such as ''Atonement'' and ''Juno'' had played festivals, leaving a trail of reviews to aid one in prognosticating.
This time around, reels of the most likely Oscar nominees are locked in a vault somewhere in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Oscar buzz for earlier releases such as ''W.'' and ''Rachel Getting Married'' is barely audible anymore. The perception that this is an off year for movies could change once the studios march out their top-of-the-line product.
Here's how the Oscar race is shaping up ...
Potential nominees are in alphabetical order. Nominations will be announced Jan. 22, and the 81st annual Academy Awards will take place a month later to the day.
''FROST/NIXON'': All the interest in politics this year should give this drama a push at Oscar-nomination time. Ron Howard directs an intricate conversation between British TV commentator David Frost and disgraced President Richard Nixon. We're guessing academy voters will be engaged, not put off, by the film's intellectual tone.
''THE DARK KNIGHT'': In recent years, smaller films such as ''Crash'' and ''No Country for Old Men'' have captured the Best Picture prize. Studios are making a big push this year to go back to the days when huge, popular movies were Oscar winners. ''The Dark Knight'' is most likely to benefit from a marketing boost since, besides making more than $400 million, it is an elegantly crafted piece of cinema.
''DOUBT'': Although set in the 1960s, the movie has subject matter -- a priest in trouble for possible molestation -- that is as topical as ever. With John Patrick Shanley directing, you can be sure nobody messed with the words of his award-winning play.
''MILK'': Deserving of a nomination for telling the story of slain San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. Led by Sean Penn in the title role, the acting is extraordinary. But the film could be hurt by a bias against smaller films with a gritty indie feel.
''REVOLUTIONARY ROAD'': Academy members who are fond of ''Mad Men'' are likely to be drawn to this movie set in a similar milieu around the same time. A troubled marriage catches people's attention because it makes their own unions look not so bad. Director Sam Mendes proved that he has a touch for this kind of story with ''American Beauty.''
ALSO IN THE RUNNING: ''Defiance,'' ''Gran Torino,'' ''The Reader,'' ''Slumdog Millionaire,'' ''The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.''
RICHARD JENKINS for ''The Visitor'': The consummate supporting actor, Jenkins is finally given a leading role at age 60, and he hits one out of the park. He plays a widower who discovers he has rhythm.
FRANK LANGELLA for ''Frost/Nixon'': Academy members might want to make it up to Langella for being cheated out of a nomination for last year's ''Starting Out in the Evening.'' He brings humanity to Richard Nixon. You actually end up liking the guy.
SEAN PENN for ''Milk'': The main concern about Penn playing Milk is that he wouldn't be able to capture the politician's lighter side. But Penn proved to be wonderful at being silly.
BRAD PITT for ''The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'': Academy members like to watch actors distort their faces and bodies. So Pitt is sure to engender interest for playing a man born in his 80s who grows younger. The only time he was a nominee was more than a decade ago, for ''Twelve Monkeys,'' and he and the mother of his children would be most welcome at the 2009 ceremonies, adding their flash of glamour.
MICKEY ROURKE for ''The Wrestler'': Score some extra points for Rourke for a comeback that has all of Hollywood buzzing. Once a romantic lead, he disappeared for years, only to regain attention by playing a wrestler trying to make a comeback. His face and body are bruised for real, but he has never seemed so emotionally accessible.
ALSO IN THE RUNNING: Leonardo DiCaprio, ''Revolutionary Road''; Clint Eastwood, ''Gran Torino''; Ralph Fiennes, ''The Reader''; Ben Kingsley, ''Elegy''; Will Smith, ''Seven Pounds.''
CATE BLANCHETT: Early reviews talk about how essential Blanchett's character is in ''The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.'' She is Brad Pitt's romantic interest, the force that keeps him going through his very strange trajectory from an old man to a young one. Blanchett is already an academy favorite.
ANNE HATHAWAY in ''Rachel Getting Married'': The movie disappeared without a trace. But the memory of Hathaway as a young woman fresh out of rehab and hell-bent on spoiling her sister's wedding lingers. A backlash against indie films could hurt Hathaway's chances.
KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS in ''I've Loved You So Long'': It takes a minute to adjust to her speaking French and a few minutes more to her wearing no makeup. Then, suddenly, you realize that this is acting -- barebones and magical. It's a transformative performance and would probably not only be nominated but also win, except for Kate Winslet.
MERYL STREEP in ''Doubt'': She looks scary and acts scary as the head nun in a parochial school. Streep doesn't try to get you to like her character, only to accept that she is on the side of God. This would be her 15th nomination. She beat Katharine Hepburn's previous high of 12 five years ago. Now all Streep can do is top herself.
KATE WINSLET in ''Revolutionary Road'' or ''The Reader'': This actress, 33, with five nominations is a double threat for a sixth. She could get it as a Nazi war criminal in ''The Reader'' or as an unhappy 1950s housewife in ''Revolutionary Road.''
ALSO IN THE RUNNING: Penelope Cruz, ''Elegy''; Angelina Jolie, ''The Changeling''; Emma Thompson, ''Last Chance Harvey''; Michelle Williams, ''Wendy and Lucy.''
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
JOSH BROLIN in ''Milk'': With most of the script focusing on Milk, Brolin had to move quickly to present assassin Dan White as a confused and complicated man. You may even feel sorry for him.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. in ''Tropic Thunder'': Another beneficiary of the push by major studios to see their big-ticket movies on the Oscar ballot. Downey has done better work, but not in blackface.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN in ''Doubt'': As the priest whose moral principles are in question, Hoffman holds his ground. He also holds the screen -- even opposite Streep.
HEATH LEDGER in ''The Dark Knight'': As the Joker, Ledger's face of evil stays with you, and you wonder what it took out of him to inhabit this monster. He will almost certainly win the Oscar, but it will be a bittersweet victory for the late actor's family and friends.
MICHAEL SHANNON in ''Revolutionary Road'': As the mentally disturbed son of a suburban real-estate agent, this young Chicago stage actor is said to turn in a performance reminiscent of Edward Norton's role in ''Primal Fear.''
ALSO IN THE RUNNING: Ralph Fiennes, ''The Duchess''; James Franco, ''Milk''; David Kross, ''The Reader''; Sam Rockwell, ''Frost/Nixon''; Liev Schreiber in ''Defiance.''
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
AMY ADAMS in ''Doubt'': Each of her co-stars knows where they think the truth lies. Adams wins us over by presenting her young nun as riddled with doubt.
KATHY BATES in ''Revolutionary Road'': As a go-go real-estate agent, Bates sees the unhappiness in her clients' homes but doesn't understand it. Her obliqueness is the strength of the performance.
PENELOPE CRUZ in ''Vicky Cristina Barcelona'': Cruz has been so miscast in Hollywood it's a pleasure to see what she is capable of in a proper role, in this case the loony Spanish-shrieking ex-wife of a lothario.
VIOLA DAVIS in ''Doubt'': As the mother of a boy who possibly has been sexually abused, Davis tells Streep's principal off. That alone should win her a nomination.
MARISA TOMEI in ''The Wrestler'': Tomei goes the full 12 rounds as a stripper who becomes Rourke's confidante and almost girlfriend. The two make an odd but touching couple. Tomei is as naked emotionally as she is physically.
ALSO IN THE RUNNING: Dakota Fanning, ''The Secret Life of Bees''; Taraji P. Henson, ''The Curious Case of Benjamin Button''; Sophie Okonedo, ''The Secret Life of Bees''; Debra Winger, ''Rachel Getting Married''; Elsa Zylberstein, ''I've Loved You So Long.''
David Fincher, ''The Curious Case of Benjamin Button''
Sam Mendes, ''Revolutionary Road''
Christopher Nolan, ''The Dark Knight''
Gus Van Sant, ''Milk''
John Patrick Shanley, ''Doubt''
ALSO IN THE RUNNING: Darren Aronofsky, ''The Wrestler''; Danny Boyle, ''Slumdog Millionaire''; Stephen Daldry, ''The Reader''; Ron Howard, ''Frost/Nixon''; Baz Luhrmann, ''Australia.''