I’ve amended my Best Picture Oscar Balloon list down to eight — American Gangster (Universal Pictures); Atonement (Focus Features); Charlie Wilson’s War (Universal Pictures); Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Universal Pictures); No Country for Old Men (Miramax); Sweeney Todd (Dreamworks SKG) and There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage).

It’s no secret that violent movies about angry, vengeful men tend to be dismissed or undervalued by older, stodgier Academy members, so if this prejudice holds the odds (obviously a spitball calculation made from a long distance away) don’t seem to favor American Gangster (although a friend who’s seen it believes it has the makings and the moxie to go all the way), No Country for Old Men, Sweeney Todd and There Will Be Blood. The music of Stephen Sondheim mitigates Sweeney Todd, I realize, but combine those throat sittings with the visual fetish tendencies of Tim Burton and you’re looking at possible recoils.

Barring a surprise electrical jolt from one of the unseen above or some out-of-the- blue Million Dollar Baby-type entry, that leaves three finalists — Atonement, Charlie Wilson’s War and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. A lavish British period romance with strong performances and great tracking shots, a feel-good ’80s political drama of redemption about a small group of wily Americans doing the right thing (also with strong performances), and a period costumer with presumably fine acting, high political intrigue and battle scenes.

I’ve been fighting a feeling about this situation for the last two or three days, which is that I’m not personally happy with it.

I’ve read Charlie Wilson’s War and have been told that its a strong and satisfying piece. We’ll know the truth about Atonement when it plays Toronto next week and some real Americans with no cousins in England have a look at it. And Elizabeth: The Golden Age has had Oscar written all over it for months. And yet once again the softest, safest and most upbeat-sounding contenders are deemed the favorites because the Academy likes soft (but not too soft), safe (as long as there’s a fair portion of smarts and edge) and upbeat (as long as it’s not too gooey or homilistic).

The other two contenders may be American Gangster and…I don’t want to say. If I could wave a magic wand and put No Country for Old Men in as contender #5, I would, but I fear too many people are going to take it as crime movie about a good old cowboy on the run with some ill-gotten drug money and a creep lugging around a device that shoot-slams metal pellets into people’s heads. Some might get what it’s really about — the simple basic decency of the past giving way to an oncoming indecent present — but not enough, I fear.

I hope I’m wrong. Please God…step in and do the right thing. And please don’t give the ’07 Best Picture Oscar to Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Not because it doesn’t deserve the honor (I’ve seen nothing, know nothing) but because of that atrocious coffee-table title. It sounds like a PBS documentary. Ask yourself, readership: if you were directing and feeling wonderful about making a real, full-hearted “movie” that was also a stirring historical drama about Queen Elizabeth (whose reign lasted from 1558 to 1603) with the great Cate Blanchett, would you want it to be called “Name, Colon, Bland Allusion to Rich Cultural Era in 16th Century England”?