Why am I the only person not making money off ‘Lord of the Rings’?

Ah, February. There is something truly magical about this time of year. It’s sort of the Thursday of winter; we’ve gotten over the hump and spring is within sight. You see the signs everywhere. The last of that dirty-ass snow is melting, fat men are going shirtless, the lines are longer at the tanning booths and the 76th Oscar nominations have finally been made. Can you feel that? It’s electric!

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I know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone care about big-money Hollywood’s masturbatory celebration of its own over-funded mediocrity? Why waste your time watching Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks do victory laps around Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen head while Billy Crystal desperately performs CPR on his long dead career? Well, because there is money to made, my friend!

And how is this money made? Why with illegal gambling, of course! Be it online, over the phone, under the Burnside Bridge, or around the water cooler, the Academy Awards are an opportunity for everyone to desperately try to win enough money to pay off the mafia boss they stole from. And to help you all out, I’m here with the Vanguard’s irony-infused picks for “Oscar Mania 2004.”

Let’s cut to the chase. I don’t know why anyone would even make a movie this year, knowing Peter Jackson’s testament to horizontally-challenged, homoerotic swordfights was wrapping up with its third installment, “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” My bookie has it winning Best Picture with odds of 1-to-3, making voting nearly pointless.

But if you’re one of those people who like to lose big (no, not a member of The Green Party), I recommend “Seabiscuit” which, with odds of 100 to 1, stands no chance of winning, even though Tobey Maguire gave the best leprechaun performance of the year.

And if voting with your heart wasn’t a sucker’s game I’d boldly recommend Sofia Coppola’s haunting “Lost in Translation,” with odds of 25-1 as my favorite for Best Picture. But we’re not here for art, just cold, hard cash.

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A small consolation is Bill Murray’s nomination for Best Actor for his amazing performance in “Lost in Translation.” He’s the favored nominee, tied with Sean Penn from “Mystic River,” at odds of 10-1. My vote is going to be with Murray though, who’s finely tuned sense of timing was finally exploited to its fullest in a movie that featured neither an elephant nor Jason Schwartzman’s scene-stealing banana nose. Besides, Sean Penn, Hollywood’s sniveling “bad boy,” will have trouble fitting in his tux this year after gaining so much weight chewing the scenery in both “Mystic River” and “21 Grams.”

Charlize Theron is the favorite for her performance as a killer prostitute in “Monster” with odds in her favor at 2-to-1. The travesty here is that Keisha Castle-Hughes, the young star of “Whale Rider” is ranked to finish last, below the insipid Naomi Watts and Diane Keaton’s drooping, uh, performance.

Actually Theron’s only real competition in the Best Actress Category is Ms. Keaton for “Something’s Gotta Give,” and I could see her getting the Oscar, if simply as a gesture from Academy members who hope it will prompt her to never act again.

And of course, it is Mr. Peter Jackson by a spread of 1-to-3 for Best Director this year. And, much like the race for Best Picture, there is really no competition, so it’s barely worth betting. But if you’re compulsive about it, and I know you are, Sofia Coppola is your next best pick. With 3-1 odds, at least you’d make money off the deal but, realistically, Jackson has it the bag.

Rumors have it he’ll be wearing a cape by Giorgio Armani and a pointy hat from Calvin Klein’s spring line when he gives his acceptance speech. There is no information yet, however, on who’ll be designing the 24 karat twelve-sided die he’ll have shoved up his fantasy-loving, Big Mac-bingeing, Frodo-humping, over-directing, Shire-sucking asshole, but I’m sure it’ll be beautiful.

The only upside to the LOTR sweep is that the trilogy is finally completed and we can get those obnoxious “X-Files” geeks out of our movie seats and back to their comic books, “Dr. Who” DVD collections and Mother’s dank basements where they belong. That is, until “X-Men 3” comes out, or it floods.