For once, we have an Oscar race with some actual suspense.

Last year, "Boyhood" and "Birdman" went neck-and-neck for most of awards season, but by the home stretch, the results were easy to predict if you were paying attention. This year, with three strong contenders for Best Picture, guessing who'll go home with trophies on Sunday is that much harder.

Nonetheless, most of the acting categories, as well as a few others, have been pretty much locked down for months. Here, then, are my picks for who'll triumph at the 88th Academy Awards, based on research, many years spent covering the Oscars, and my gut feelings.

1. Best Original Song
Could this be the year that perennial Oscar also-ran Diane Warren finally wins? After all, she's teamed with Lady Gaga, who's been on a roll lately, in creating the tune "Til It Happens To You," from "The Hunting Ground." Warren's strongest competitors are Sam Smith's "Spectre" theme "Writing's on the Wall" and The Weeknd's "Earned It" (from "Fifty Shades of Grey"), which just won him a Grammy. But that's probably not enough cover for the Academy to risk letting "Fifty Shades" go down in history as an Oscar-winning film. Smith's James Bond theme is as divisive as its movie. And the other two nominated songs are reportedly not being performed during the show, an indication that they're very long shots. So that means the eighth time will finally be the charm for Warren.

2. Best Original Score
Legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone has been nominated for six Oscars, but has yet to win one in competition. (He won an honorary Oscar in 2007.) His work on Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" could finally right that wrong. Besides, the Academy will find it hard to resist the sentimental drama of the 87-year-old finally winning one the old-fashioned way.

3. Best Sound Editing
Typically, this award, which is for sound effects, goes to the loudest film. That's probably "Mad Max: Fury Road."

4. Best Sound Mixing
This prize honors a movie's overall soundscape. This should go to the team from "The Revenant," not just for their expert recreation of the sounds of the primeval wilderness, but also for the overall Academy love for the movie's technical achievements.

5. Best Visual Effects
This could be one of the voters' only chances to reward "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." But voters may be more impressed by the effects from "Mad Max: Fury Road," created the old-school way, without (as much) digital trickery.

6. Best Makeup and Hairstyling
"The Revenant" has a shot for turning Leonardo DiCaprio into a grizzled mountain man, but the "Mad Max" makeup team had to make a huge cast look creatively freakish, not just one star who's on-screen solo for much of the movie.

7. Best Costume Design
Before this contest, Sandy Powell had been nominated for this award 10 times and won three. She's competing against herself this year with nominations for both "Carol" and "Cinderella." (The other real contender is Jenny Beavan, for the inventively hideous outfits in "Fury Road.") As impeccable and sleek as Powell's costumes are for the 1950s period romance, the Academy likes lavish costumes, so expect Powell to win for the Disney ballroom fantasy.

8. Best Foreign Language Film
It's a horrible cliché, but the movie about the Holocaust tends to win. This year, that's Hungary's "Son of Saul."

9. Best Live-Action Short
All the nominees this year are festival prize-winners with similar themes of the difficulties of cross-cultural communication. Consensus seems to favor "Ave Maria," an international co-production about a noisy family of observant Jews trapped in a convent full of silent nuns. It's the most laugh-out-loud of the nominees; apparently, the Academy isn't so snobby about comedy when the movies are brief. Otherwise, the front-runner would be the more somber "Day One," about an Army translator's unbelievably hectic first day on the job in Afghanistan.

10. Best Documentary Short
"Body Team 12" is a timely, triumph-of-the-human-spirit account of Red Cross volunteers who collected the remains of Ebola victims during the recent outbreak in Liberia. It's been the favorite ever since it won the Documentary Short prize at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring.

11. Best Documentary Feature
"Amy," the doc about the tragic life of singer Amy Winehouse, has been such a critical and commercial success that, for months, it's been the film to beat. Though "What Happened, Miss Simone?" is hot on its heels.

12. Best Animated Short
"Sanjay's Super Team" Comes to the Con — Director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Grindle are taking Pixar Animation Studios' new short to San Diego's Comic-Con International next month for its North American premiere and a peek behind the scenes of the production process. The Super Story Behind the Pixar Short "Sanjay's Super Team," slated for Thurs., July 9 at 11 a.m. in the Indigo Ballroom, Hilton Bayfront, reveals the unique inspiration for this incredibly personal film that features superheroes like never before. The short debuts in U.S. theaters in front of Disney-Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur" on Nov. 25, 2015.As with the feature length cartoons, Disney and Pixar tend to win, so the obvious favorite is "Sanjay's Super Team." But "World of Tomorrow" is so devastatingly great that it ought to win on sheer merit. Besides, not everyone liked "Sanjay."

13. Best Animated Feature
"Inside Out" has had the inside track on the prize since it opened last June. Yes, "Anomalisa" is just as imaginative, but Pixar owns the home-field advantage in this category.

14. Best Production Design
Three of the five contenders just won prizes at the Art Directors Guild awards. The award for contemporary design went to "The Martian," for its impressively realistic space station, while the award for period design went to "The Revenant," whose designer, Jack Fisk, has a distinguished 45-year-career but has yet to win an Oscar. Nonetheless, it's unlikely that the Academy will reward him this time for a movie that's set largely in an unspoiled wilderness. So that means the Oscar should go to the ADG fantasy winner, the imaginative sets for the post-apocalyptic nightmare of "Mad Max."

15. Best Cinematography
Poor Roger Deakins. The "Sicario" cinematographer is one of the great film artists of our time, and yet he's 0 for 12 at the Oscars. Not only is he going to lose again this year, but he's going to lose to the same man who beat him last year and the year before. It's unprecedented for someone to win this prize three times in a row, but "Revenant" cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki is going to do it.

16. Best Editing
For the sheer, headlong pace of it, the award should go to editor Margaret Sixel for "Fury Road." Besides, it won the American Cinema Editors' Eddie award -- a strong predictor of Oscar gold.

17. Best Adapted Screenplay
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph should easily win for "The Big Short," their deft adaptation of Michael Lewis' book about the 2008 financial collapse. Not only is it the only nominee that's based on a non-fiction book (and is therefore about a weighty historical topic), but it also managed to explain the complicated crisis in an easy-to-understand, humorous, outrageously entertaining way. Plus, it won the Writers Guild award. Its biggest rival is Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel, "Room." Sad but true: no woman has ever won an Oscar for adapting her own source material.

18. Best Original Screenplay
"Spotlight" has the advantage. The meticulous research, serious historical subject matter, and acting showcases for a vast ensemble have made it the leading contender. Also, it won the Writers Guild prize. And it may be the only chance Academy voters will get to reward the picture that was once the Best Picture front-runner. "Inside Out" is its closest competitor, but no animated film has ever won this prize.

19. Best Supporting Actress
This is the only acting category that's still a toss-up. Kate Winslet won the Golden Globe and British Academy (BAFTA) prizes for "Steve Jobs," a movie you might not have noticed she was in. Right now, the race is between her and Alicia Vikander ("The Danish Girl") , who won the more important precursor award from the Screen Actors Guild. Plus, this was a breakthrough year for her (six movies!), and honoring her performance here also means recognizing her for her lead role in "Ex Machina" -- and for surviving unscathed the debacle that was "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

20. Best Supporting Actor
The sentimental favorite here is Sylvester Stallone, nominated 39 years ago for creating Rocky Balboa, and nominated again this year for playing the boxer in twilight in "Creed." Again, the sentimental vote factors in here, as it's hard to resist the emotional appeal of handing the 69-year-old Stallone his first acting Oscar.

21. Best Actress
Brie Larson's had this one locked up pretty much since "Room" started playing festivals last fall. As the captive mother fiercely protecting her unworldly son, and making a world for him inside a tiny cell, she both inspired and broke the hearts of pretty much everyone who's seen the movie.

22. Best Actor
This one has been Leo's to lose even before "The Revenant" opened. Maybe you're tired of hearing about all the hardships he endured during the shoot (he ate raw bison liver!), but even if you don't admire the effort, it's hard to argue with the results. More important, he's been nominated six times in 22 years but has yet to win. The whole town thinks he's due. So, DiCaprio will win this contest, as he has every prize he's been eligible for this winter.

23. Best Director
It's very rare for a director to win back-to-back Oscars. Only two men have done it, and the last was 65 years ago. Still, Alejandro González Iñárritu pulled off the unprecedented feat of winning the Directors Guild Award twice in a row; that achievement alone makes him the man to beat. Iñárritu's only real rival is "Mad Max: Fury Road" director George Miller, whose triumphant accomplishment in seeing his vision realized is just as impressive, and who, at age 70, has yet to win an Oscar despite a distinguished career. But sentiment can't overcome Iñárritu's momentum and the Academy's widespread "Revenant" love.

24. Best Picture
This is the toughest call this year, the category that's made the race so unpredictable and exciting for months. (Remember last fall, when "The Martian" and "Mad Max" were the favorites? Good times.)

At first, it looked like "Spotlight," with its prestige cast and subject matter, and Screen Actors Guild prize for Best Ensemble. But then "The Big Short" won the Producers Guild Award, the only major guild prize that uses a preferential ballot like the Academy's Best Picture category does, and the accurate predictor of the Academy vote for the last eight years. And then there's "The Revenant," which has earned a ton of money, grabbed the most Oscar nominations (12), and has momentum, with recent wins at the Directors Guild, Art Directors Guild, and BAFTAs. It's possible there'll be a split between the Directing and Picture categories, as there was in 2013 and 2014, but it doesn't happen that often. That, plus the Academy's bias against comedy and the film's low nominations tally (five), suggests that "Big Short" will get shorted.

The love for "Revenant" may not be deep, but it's broad, and it's consensus choices that win on the preferential ballot. If nothing else, "Revenant" feels like a grand achievement, something Oscar voters will feel good about having voted for years from now.
categories Movies, Oscars, Awards