Clint Eastwood has just thrown a heavyweight punch in the Oscar race, and the after-effects will be felt all the way until Feb. 27. His boxing movie Million Dollar Baby (Warner Bros., 12.17, limited) had its first-anywhere showing at a very-limited-attendance screening last Friday night on the Warner Bros. lot, and then at a press-infiltrated Academy screening last night (Monday, 11.22) at the Director’s Guild. I’ve spoken to people who attended both, and they’re all seriously impressed or floored. (I was at the DGA screening also, and I fully concur.) Baby is a major art film… easily in the same realm as Clint’s Unforgiven, and, in the view of at least one major critic who attended the DGA screening, his best ever. Trust me, it’s a multi-Oscar nominee — Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood), Best Actor (Eastwood), Best Actress (Hilary Swank). This means, of course, that Swank is once again duelling with Annette Bening — they last faced each other in the ’99 race when Swank’s Boys Don’t Cry performance beat Bening’s in American Beauty.