Start with Best Picture and Best Director.
I think the nominations and the winner are pretty straightforward here. Chicago is a slam dunk. It's middle of the road. It's quite well done. It is a film of a famous stage musical that many of the voters will have seen in one production of another. It's even a year behind the trend, which always works well for Oscar voters, many of who are ageing costume designers. Moulin Rouge was nominated last year, and was perhaps a little too frenetic for the middle of the road academy votes. Chicago is a Bob Fosse musical, however. One of those was even the last musical to win a Best Picture Oscar. (Cabaret in 1973). I think this will win Best Picture. Chicago was directed by stage director and choreographer Rob Marshall , and its his first film. He will get a nomination for Best Director, but I don't think I will win. While the academy likes first time directors who come from the theatre (eg Sam Mendes) I don't think Marshall's profile is high enough. Plus, I have heard one or two criticisms of his direction recently. Whilst I think these criticisms are misguided (the direction is good, but I think the problems are with the production design, and I think some people do not understand the difference) I think they will count against Marshall.
The Hours is one of those movies where the actors will win awards but the film itself will largely miss out. This is sort of what In The Bedroom was last year: a little too arty for the academy. The film gets a high profile in December when the critics awards come out, but then declines in profile as the awards approach. The film will get a Best Picture nomination, and director Stephen Daldry will get a Best Director nomination (with the direction nomination even more of a lock than the Best Picture nomination. It's Daldry's second film, and he also got a nomination for his first ( Billy Elliot). That helps.
The Pianist also looks close to certain in both categories. It has a good story behind it (Roman Polanski makes a comeback after some years of bad films, and some of what's in the movie actually happened to him as a child. The academy often gives awards to Holocaust themed films. Plus the film is perhaps actually the best film of the year. The longer the awards season goes on, the more this one firms, largely because the film is so good. On the down side, Polanski will be arrested for statuatory rape if he ever enters the US. This will count against him for the actual awards, but it won't stop nominations.
The Two Towers . If major category oscars are going to be awarded for The Lord of the Rings , they will be awarded next year for
Gangs of New York . This is the tricky one. This is Martin Scorsese's dream project, that he took 25 years to get made, and over which he battled Harvey Weinstein before finally getting the film into theatres. However, opinions on the film are mixed, and there have been one or two very negative reactions to it. (My opinion is that it is good Scorsese but not great Scorsese. I enjoyed it. Daniel Day Lewis is great, but Leonardo do Caprio doesn't really work, and the film is simply trying to tell too many stories at once. (Harry Knowles commented that he would rather have seen the story that preceded the action of the film: the battle between Daniel Day Lewis' character and Liam Neeson's, which the characters spent much of the movie talking about, and I think he is right. Still, though, as I was reading in some mass market publication (maybe Entertainment Weekly) a few weeks ago that "Scorsese's lack of an oscar is beginning to look embarassing". When it is beginning to look embarassing even to journalists this clueless, I suspect it is likely to actually happen. It didn't just look embarassing but actually was embarassing when the award was given to Robert Redford for Ordinary People rather than to Scorsese for Raging Bull . (That was a good film and Redford is a good director, but that was Raging Bull for goodness sake). It went beyond embarassing into utterly ludicrous when Kevin Costner was given the oscar for Dances With Wolves instead of Scorsese for Goodfellas. I suspect that Scorsese will actually get the award for Gangs of New York, although the film is no Raging Bull, or Goodfellas or Mean Streats or anything like that. The film will probably get carried along for a Best Picture nomination with Scorsese, although it is the weakest of the five likely nominees.
I am very confident that all five of these directors will get nominated. I am very confident that the first three films will get nominated, and I think the other two will. If they don't, then the only other film I can see being nominated is actually My Big Fat Greek Wedding as the story behind this film getting made and making so much money is perhaps the Cinderella story of the year, and the academy likes Cinderella stories. The people who liked the film do fit the ageing demographics of the academy. However, the film is nice enough but not really anything special. (Nia Vardalos will likely get nominated and win for Best Original Screenplay, however). One or two other films (Far From Heaven, The Road to Perdition, About Schmidt) have been mentioned, but momentum doesn't seem to be with any of them.