Tales of tragedy and struggle will vie for Oscar attention today as an unusual awards season overshadowed by the Hollywood writers’ strike heads into its final stretch.

Nominees for the 80th annual Academy Awards, the film industry’s highest honours, will be announced at the crack of dawn in Beverly Hills, Calif., (about 8:30 a.m. EST) amid a rare degree of agreement among critics and Oscar pundits about the most likely, and most deserving, contenders.

But there is always room for surprise. In a caustic open letter to Oscar voters, Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers said they deserve to watch Transformers forever in hell if they do not nominate the likes of There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men for best picture.

As is often the case, the majority of the front-runners in this race are films whose rave reviews have yet to excite the masses, though their distributors are hoping Oscar recognition will provide a box-office bump.

One such movie is There Will Be Blood, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s grim exploration of the corrupting nature of power and money. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a turn-of-the-century oilman in California, who says “I hate most people.” Most pundits expect he will add a best-actor statuette to the one he picked up in 1990 for My Left Foot.

The film has earned just $8.2 million US since opening Dec. 26. Now playing in 389 theatres, it will double its theatre count next weekend, said Paramount Vantage, which partnered on the film with Miramax Films.

No Country For Old Men comes from sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who could end up with nods for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and editing.

Their gritty thriller features actor Javier Bardem as a homicidal psychopath cutting a path of destruction across small-town Texas, pursued by a weary lawman played by Tommy Lee Jones. Bardem is considered a lock for a supporting-actor nomination. As with Day-Lewis, he has already won honours at the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards.

Other dramas regarded as favourites for best picture are the legal thriller Michael Clayton, which stars George Clooney as a lawyer who specializes in getting clients out of a jam; and the French-language film The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, the true story of a paralyzed magazine editor who dictates a book by blinking his eye for each letter.