And the winner is …

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    A year of “stellar” pictures makes a difficult choice for this year’s Academy Awards. Cast your own choice and see how close you come to picking the winners by filling out the ballot on page B11. The one/s who come the closest will win tickets to the New Malibu Theater.

    By Kim Devore /Entertainment Writer

    A dazzling, murder-and-mayhem musical, women wrapped up in Woolf, a street story of epic proportions, World War II survival or tales from Tolkin?

    It’s anybody’s guess which film will actually walk away with Oscar gold, but every Academy member, actor and moviegoer has a favorite.

    Film buff Pete McKellar says the Windy City is a surefire bet. “It’s ‘Chicago,’ ” he says matter-of-factly. “That was the best, and I’ve seen them all.”

    The box office blockbuster is nominated in 13 categories including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Sound and Best Score. According to McKellar, it’s easy to see why. “Wow is all I can say. It’s fast, it’s loose, its quick and, my Lord, Rene Zellweger-what a performance! “

    Zellweger had no extensive singing or dancing background, yet pulled off a Broadway-worthy performance.

    James Long agrees. “It was surprising. I never expected that from Richard Gere. Rene Zellweger has really demonstrated a range that few actresses have. They all really pulled it off. ‘Chicago’ is going to win hands down.”

    Others aren’t so sure.

    ” ‘The Pianist’ was superb, very powerful,” says Jack Roth. “I also liked ‘Gangs of New York.’ In fact, ‘Chicago’ would be fourth on my list.”

    Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” isn’t far behind splashy “Chicago,” pulling in 10 nominations including Best Picture and Best Director as well as Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor.

    “His performance was awesome,” says Long. “He just went up and grabbed you.”

    “The Pianist,” Roman Polanski’s tale of triumph in the Warsaw Ghetto, picked up seven Oscar nominations including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay. “The Hours,” with its trio of winning women consisting of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, has been nominated in nine categories. Streep already picked up the Golden Globe for her performance in “Adaptation” and now has a record 13 Academy nominations to go with her celebrated career.

    “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” is nominated for six Oscars. Although the honors are heavy on the technical side in categories such as Best Sound and Achievement in Visual Effects, the fantasy franchise also counts the coveted Best Picture nod in its potential Academy booty.

    But no matter who takes home the big prize come March 23, moviegoers agree its been a stellar year. Says McKellar, “lt’s the best l’ve seen in a long, long time.”