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Roller-coaster season was a thrill ride

What a long, strange kudo trip it's been

If anyone told you they “knew” “The Departed” was going to win the top Oscar, don’t believe them.

The 2007 awards season wound up being the most unpredictable within memory as no film truly dominated as the front-runner.

Instead, awards season trackers found themselves frustrated in making viable predictions throughout the months leading up to Sunday night’s Oscar ceremonies.

Indeed, each of the five nominated films had gathered enough trophies to merit consideration as the winner of the final prize, thanks to the strange roller-coaster that the season became.

How baffling was it? Warner Bros. and Martin Scorsese weren’t campaigning for “The Departed”; “Little Miss Sunshine” had a non-awards release in mid-summer plus the scruffiness of an indie made for $7.5 million; the bleakness and audacious story structure of “Babel” made it a particularly hard sell; “The Queen” was getting its recognition for Helen Mirren’s performance; and Warner hadn’t even decided whether to release “Letters from Iwo Jima” before the end of the year.

Within a few weeks, “Letters” had become the hot pick thanks to rave reviews plus critic awards from the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics. And “United 93” picked up some steam as it won the New York Film Critics award.

But the momentum shifted on Dec. 14 when the Golden Globes noms were announced and neither “Letters” or “United 93” made the cut for top drama. Instead, “Babel” piled up seven noms, followed by “The Departed” with six and “Dreamgirls” with five.

As the new year started, the four Hollywood guilds weighed in with the same four films — “Babel,” “The Departed,” “Dreamgirls” and “Little Miss Sunshine” — securing nominations except for “Dreamgirls” missing out at the DGA. “Babel” and “Dreamgirls” were firmly entrenched as the front-runners when they won the respective Golden Globes for drama and comedy/musical on Jan. 15.

But five days later, the tide shifted again when the Producers Guild of America — which usually favors big-budget spectacles like “The Aviator” — opted for “Little Miss Sunshine,” showing that perhaps the support for the dark comedy was deeper than had been thought.

With the Oscar noms on Jan. 23, the picture became even muddier as “Dreamgirls” picked up the most nominations with eight. “Babel” wound up with seven and “The Queen” received six — certain signals that both dramas were being taken seriously — while “Letters” and “Little Miss Sunshine” received only four, notably not in the director category for Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.

But at the end of that week, momentum picked up again for “Sunshine” with the Screen Actors Guild giving its top award to the comedy’s ensemble. Fox Searchlight had taken the same approach as Lionsgate last year by mailing DVD screeners to all SAG members, which undoubtedly helped “Crash” upset “Brokeback Mountain” at last year’s SAG Awards.

As for “The Departed,” the consensus was clear that Martin Scorsese would finally win his first Oscar but the question was whether that sentiment would translate to a best picture Oscar. “The Departed” had won the Broadcast Film Critics award in mid-January and Scorsese won the Golden Globe and DGA award but there were plenty of concerns for backers — the pic’s violence and the lack of cast noms with only Mark Wahlberg scoring a nod.

In fact, each film possessed a similar set of pro and con factors. “Sunshine” wasn’t viewed as weighty enough but was the feel-good pic of the five; “Letters” hadn’t grossed enough but the Academy loves Eastwood; “Babel” was audacious and global but too strange for some; and “The Queen” was much more than Helen Mirren except to those who saw it as a TV movie.

The final awards went as expected as “The Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine” won at the WGA on Feb. 11 and “Sunshine” took the Spirit Awards top feature film Saturday.

The final result was clear only in hindsight, as one of the most confounding awards season in memory came to a conclusion.

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