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Five burning questions on Oscar nominations

When Oscar nominations are announced just after 8:30 a.m. Thursday, we'll finally have the answers to several vexing questions in this somewhat odd Academy Awards season.

1. Will "The Dark Knight" become the first superhero movie to snag a best picture nomination?

Probably. Although Christopher Nolan's Batman movie had been considered a long shot more likely to be recognized for Heath Ledger's charismatically crazed Joker, too many would-be best picture nominees failed to reach critical or commercial mass ("Revolutionary Road," "The Reader," "Doubt," "The Wrestler").

Meanwhile Warner Brothers kept pushing "The Dark Knight," and despite its snubbing by the Golden Globes, the movie started to pick up key nominations, such as from the highly predictive Directors Guild of America as well as the Producers Guild and Writers Guilds of America. It's still no lock, but when you consider that "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" also received best picture nods, a "Dark Knight" nomination wouldn't be that weird.

Will "WALL-E" become the second animated movie to snag a best picture nomination?

Probably not. The best animated feature category didn't exist back when "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) became the first animated top nominee. So although Andrew Stanton's masterful computer-animated futuristic fable may compare favorably to Disney's animated musical, the actor-dominated academy may fel it can recognize "WALL-E" in its own category. Plus, Disney//Pixar didn't push "WALL-E" as hard as Warner Brothers pushed "The Dark Knight."

Will Michael Shannon receive a best supporting actor nomination for "Revolutionary Road"?

He's a long shot. Shannon has received much acclaim but zero nominations (unless the Chicago Film Critics Association counts) for his magnetic turn as a truth-telling mental patient. A Screen Actors Guild nomination might have helped, but the bigger problem is that Academy members apparently didn't like the movie, and many may have skipped it. Still, he's a standout, and the supporting categories are always volatile, so you never know.

Why might Kate Winslet in "The Reader" and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" get supporting nominations despite playing what could be considered lead roles?

Winslet is a shoo-in best actress nominee for "Revolutionary Road," and the Weinstein Company, which rushed the release date of "The Reader" to join the Oscar race, wants some representation without pitting the actress against herself. Hence, she got a supporting actress campaign despite the British Academy of Film and Television Arts giving her a lead nomination for "The Reader."

As for Hoffman, the best actor category is especially jammed this year. The automatics are Mickey Rourke for "The Wrestler," Sean Penn for "Milk" and Frank Langella for "Frost//Nixon," and Brad Pitt has picked up SAG, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" despite his achievement being more technical than emotionally engaging.

Who grabs the fifth slot? Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor") got it from SAG, Leonardo DiCaprio ("Revolutionary Road") got it from the Golden Globes (in the drama category), and many feel the otherwise unnominated Clint Eastwood will receive a career-capping nod for "Gran Torino."

That leaves no room for Hoffman, so Miramax decided to characterize his "Doubt" role as supporting despite his going toe-to-toe with certain best actress nominee Meryl Streep. The Academy generally plays along with such games.

5. Who might be the surprise nominees and snubs?

Melissa Leo may sneak into the best actress race for her turn as a single mother in the low-budget "Frozen River," joining Winslet, Streep, Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married") and Sally Hawkins ("Happy Go Lucky"). That might squeeze out not only Kristin Scott Thomas (much acclaimed for "I've Loved You So Long") but also Angelina Jolie, who has received multiple nominations for "The Changeling" but may have used up her attention quotient.

Her household could become even gloomier if Eastwood and Jenkins or DiCaprio nudges aside Pitt. And although it's still a dark horse, don't be shocked if "Gran Torino" crashes into the best picture final five.