RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Oscar ballots go into the mail today, which can mean only one thing - the start of the Annual Academy Awards derby. Who will win, who will lose and who will take home the coveted best picture prize.

NPR's entertainment correspondent Kim Masters joins us at NPR West to talk about some of the contenders. Good morning.

KIM MASTERS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's start this conversation with a clip from “Dreamgirls,” which is a movie that has barely come out and is already getting a lot of buzz for best picture.

(Soundbite of movie, “Dreamgirls”)

Mr. EDDIE MURPHY (Actor): (As James Early) (Singing) But you can take away to the top, round and round.

Try that part right there, baby.

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Actress): (As Effie White) (Singing) Round and round.

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) Make your way to the top.

Ms. HUDSON: (Singing) Round and round.

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) Yeah, you fell right in there, didn't you, Sweetheart? You can make your way to the top.

Ms. HUDSON: (Singing) Round and round.

MONTAGNE: That is Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson.

MASTERS: Yes, Eddie Murphy doing his own singing. I think we'll see a lot of nominations for “Dreamgirls,” including one for Eddie Murphy in the supporting actor category and one for Jennifer Hudson, the loser on “American Idol,” who is considered almost a sure thing for best supporting actress.

MONTAGNE: What other pictures are likely to make it to the top?

MASTERS: This year I think we'll see three nominations that we can kind of be sure of. That would be “Dreamgirls”, “The Queen” and “The Departed.” Other than that, there are just a group of movies vying for the last two slots, assuming I'm right about the first part, “Babel,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “United 93,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Little Children.”

And, you know, any of these movies could get nominated. Any of these movies could even win. And it's very unusual for things to be this much up in the air at this point.

MONTAGNE: Let's spend a couple of minutes with the other big awards, best actress, Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth II. Is that a lock?

MASTERS: I think Helen Mirren is as close to a luck as you can be, we'll see maybe at Kate Winslet for “Little Children” or Judi Dench for “Notes on a Scandal.” Certainly Meryl Streep for “The Devil Wears Prada”. But Helen Mirren seems to be marching to victory.

MONTAGNE: In “The Queen.”

MASTERS: In “The Queen.”

(Soundbite of movie, “The Queen”)

Ms. HELEN MIRREN (Actress): (As Queen Elizabeth II) How nice to see you again, Mr. Blath(ph)? (Unintelligible) start a nuclear war yet?

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN (Actor): (As Tony Blair) Ah, no.

Ms. MIRREN: Oh, first thing we do, apparently. And we take away your passport and spend the rest of the times sending you around the world.

MASTERS: So that's Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II with her new Prime Minister Tony Blair. Best Actor? Well, you know, it's funny. One of my favorite Oscar pundits always says that they should call these categories in recent years the best celebrity impersonation. Because just as we have Helen Mirren channeling Elizabeth as the Queen, we have Forest Whitaker who pretty much is Idi Amin in the “The Last King Scotland.”

(Soundbite of movie, “The last King of Scotland”)

Mr. FOREST WHITAKER (Actor): (As Idi Amin) I can't eat. I can't sleep. Look at this - the British newspapers say I am a madman. The American newspapers say I am a cannibal.

MONTAGNE: Really, I thought this movie is really remarkable performance.

MASTERS: He is not alone, though, in contention for the best actor prize. There's Will Smith - very popular person in Hollywood with “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

I'm kind of thinking Peter O'Toole might jump up. He's in a movie called “Venus,” and a lot of people in the academy are sort of older white men and Peter O'Toole is certainly one of those and they like seeing him in the somewhat romantic role.

And of course Leo DiCaprio who's up against himself in the Golden Globe contest for the movies “The Departed” and “Blood Diamond.”

MONTAGNE: Well, let's finish by turning to best director.

MASTERS: Well, in that category we have a probable favorite in Martin Scorsese. He has - for “The Departed,” of course. He's been called many times, but he has never been chosen. He still has some tough competition. There's Clint Eastwood, probably, Bill Condon for “Dreamgirls,” maybe Paul Greengrass for “United 93.”

I think a lot of academy members might not have wanted to watch the movie, but they may acknowledge him by nominating him.

MONTAGNE: Kim, we'll check back with you in late January when Oscar nominations are announced. Thanks very much.

MASTERS: Thanks. I'll be here.

MONTAGNE: NPR entertainment correspondent Kim Masters.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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