LOS ANGELES - Helen Mirren could be crowned best actress at the Academy Awards. Seven-time loser Peter O'Toole may finally win that elusive Oscar. Jack Nicholson could tie Katharine Hepburn with a record fourth win.
And Clint Eastwood may establish himself as one of the winningest directors in Oscar history.
Though plenty of Oscar-worthy films will not hit theaters until December, many potential contenders and a few early front-runners have emerged for Hollywood's big night Feb. 25.
Leading the way could be Eastwood, 2004's top winner, who won his second best-picture and directing prizes with "Million Dollar Baby." Eastwood is back with the World War II saga "Flags of Our Fathers," a sprawling account of the Iwo Jima invasion and the controversial circumstances over the raising of the U.S. flag there, an event immortalized in Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's picture.
Still to come late this year are such films as the musical "Dreamgirls," with Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy, the post-World War II tale "The Good German," directed by Steven Soderbergh and featuring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, and "The Good Shepherd," starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie in a CIA saga directed by Robert De Niro.
But here's a rundown of films already in theaters or that have screened for critics and caught Oscar buzz:
"Flags of Our Fathers" — At 76, Eastwood gets better with age, delivering his third major Oscar contender in four years after "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby." Along with his wins for "Million Dollar Baby," Eastwood took the best-picture and director Oscars for his 1992 Western "Unforgiven." Now he's crafted a remarkably rich war film that seamlessly flits from the ghastly chaos of battle to life on the homefront, the story examining the hollowness of heroism manufactured in the name of flag-waving propaganda. Another directing win would make Eastwood one of only four directors to receive three or more Oscars ( John Ford won four and Frank Capra and William Wyler each won three). Adam Beach and Ryan Phillippe are the standouts among a terrific ensemble that includes Barry Pepper, Jesse Bradford and Jamie Bell.
"The Queen" - Mirren takes on the daunting challenge of playing a universally known living icon, Queen Elizabeth II, and practically sews up the best-actress race with a performance both majestically imperious and tragically human. Mirren infuses caustic wit and wrenching pathos in her portrait of the queen in crisis, facing the ire of her subjects over the royal family's detachment in the wake of Princess Diana's death in 1997. The film could bull its way into the best-picture race and score nominations for director Stephen Frears and co-star Michael Sheen, who delivers an outstanding embodiment of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Venus" - O'Toole has played many imperious and human roles himself on the way to seven best-actor nominations, all losses. Four years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose O'Toole for an honorary Oscar for career achievement, a prize he initially thought about rejecting because he felt he still had a chance to win outright. The 74-year-old O'Toole may have been right. He's a wondrously compassionate old lecher in the darkly comic "Venus," playing an aged actor who has a last fling — in spirit, if not in body - with a friend's brassy teenage grandniece (Jodie Whittaker)
"The Departed" - Always a bridesmaid at the Oscars, Martin Scorsese is tied with four other filmmakers for awards futility: Five nominations, no wins. His latest crime epic stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a cop who's a mole in a Boston mob and Matt Damon as a gangster who's infiltrated the cops. Much of the film is vintage Scorsese, brilliantly paced, sardonically funny, viciously violent, though it grows fitful and fuzzy in the third act. Still, it could land Scorsese in the best-director race (his last loss, with "The Aviator," came two years ago against Eastwood). DiCaprio and Damon have Oscar prospects, but three-time Oscar winner Nicholson as a deliriously malignant crime boss dominates the film. A fourth win would tie Nicholson with Hepburn for the most acting Oscars ever.
"The Last King of Scotland" - In his unassuming way, Forest Whitaker has delivered marvelously understated roles in Eastwood's Charlie Parker film biography "Bird" and the quirky "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai." Now the soft-spoken Whitaker sheds his quiet demeanor for a grand, showy, supple role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who forges a simultaneously paternal and tyrannical relationship with a Scottish doctor ( James McAvoy). Whitaker could turn the best-actor category into a two-man race with O'Toole.
"Volver" - If anyone's going to challenge Mirren for best actress, right now, it's Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodovar's oddball comic drama about three generations of strong women making do without the fickle men in their lives. Cruz is a spitfire, playing a mother coping with a terrible crisis at home, a flighty sister, a willful daughter and a mother who seemingly has returned from the dead. The film is Spain's foreign-language Oscar entry, but "Volver" could follow other films by Almodovar ("Talk to Her," "All About My Mother") that have broken out into broader categories.
"Little Children" - Kate Winslet anchors a tale whose starkly satiric look at the secrets lurking in suburbia is reminiscent of 1999 best-picture winner "American Beauty." Winslet plays a discontented mother drawn into an affair with a stay-at-home dad amid an uproar over a sex offender who moves back into the neighborhood. Along with Winslet, the film features Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly and is directed by Todd Field, who made 2001 best-picture nominee "In the Bedroom."
"Babel" - Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are the marquee names in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's mesmerizing culture-clash drama that follows U.S., Mexican, African and Japanese families linked by tragic events. Pitt and Oscar winner Blanchett could easily grab supporting-acting nominations. The supporting categories often recognize new faces, though, in this case "Babel" co-star Adriana Barraza, a scene-stealer with her anguished performance as a nanny in peril.
"Infamous" - By pure coincidence, a second-straight tale of author Truman Capote's quest to write the crime classic "In Cold Blood" lands in theaters. After last year's best-picture nominee "Capote" earned the best-actor prize for Philip Seymour Hoffman, have Oscar voters had their fill of the Truman show? With a blackly comic lead performance compared to Hoffman's sober approach, Toby Jones is magnificent as Capote, while Sandra Bullock as author Harper Lee and Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) as death-row inmate Perry Smith have solid chances for supporting nominations.
"Bobby" - Following the Robert Altman school of ensemble filmmaking, writer-director Emilio Estevez has assembled enough excellent performances in a single film to fill out the supporting Oscar categories. Centered on two dozen or so characters present at the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated, the film offers standout roles by Laurence Fishburne, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Anthony Hopkins and Demi Moore.
"Catch a Fire" - Like Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland," Derek Luke does a splendid job taking on an African accent and delivers a powerhouse performance as a South African refinery worker and family man falsely accused of sabotage by the apartheid authorities. Oscar winner Tim Robbins may have supporting-actor prospects for a role both humane and creepy as a government official whose single-mindedness in catching rebels winds up fanning the flames of dissent.
"World Trade Center" and "United 93" - Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" and Paul Greengrass's "United 93" won acclaim as the first big-screen dramatizations of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The unknown ensemble cast of "United 93" is not likely to grab any acting nominations, though the film could compete in other Oscar categories. "World Trade Center" has better prospects in major Oscar categories, especially for Oscar winner Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, who star as policemen trapped in the rubble of the twin towers after they rushed in to help victims.