Three of the four acting contests are sewn up, and the fourth (Best Actor) is reaching mathematical certitude. The Best Director prize looks to be won by a Mexican for the second straight year. But when the Academy Awards air on Feb. 22, on ABC with host Neil Patrick Harris, the Best Picture category will make this one of the cloudiest Oscar races in ages.
The top contenders are trickster endeavors, each filmed in 30-some days: Birdman, which pretends to be a single shot lasting nearly two hours, and Boyhood, which spans 12 years of a Texas lad’s life. Earlier awards from the most influential Hollywood guilds—Producers, Directors and Screen Actors—give Birdman the edge: no film that failed to take at least one of these awards has won Oscar’s top prize since 1996, when Braveheart defeated the guilds’ favorite Apollo 13. Then again, the British Academy (BAFTA) has picked the “correct” film for the past six years. And this time, BAFTA chose Boyhood.
Hovering above these two acclaimed movies is the movie American Sniper, which has earned more at the domestic box office than the other seven Best Picture nominees combined. But it won’t win. The Academy voters typically prefer to honor a socially relevant artistic triumph (12 Years a Slave last year, The Hurt Locker five years ago) over a crowd pleaser of distinction (Gravity, Avatar).
Here, then, are the picks for which films, filmmakers and stars will carry home 8½ lb. of Motion Picture Academy love from the 87th annual awards.
Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Laura Dern – Wild
Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
The movie could almost be called Momhood, and Arquette, who brought grit and a frazzled eccentricity to the main adult role in Linklater’s family-values drama, should probably be vying for Best Actress. But she has taken nearly every award in this safe slot, over women playing the standard Supporting Actress roles of sainted dying mother (Dern), feisty daughter (Stone) and semi-girlfriend (Knightley). Oh, and the Into the Woods Witch. Arquette will become the 16th actress to win an Oscar for which Meryl Streep was nominated.
Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
Robert Duvall – The Judge
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Edward Norton – Birdman
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash
Simmons, a character-actor lifer most familiar to TV viewers for his Farmers Insurance commercials, has been a lock since the earliest critics’ awards for his turn as the tyrannical teacher in the highly praised, barely seen Whiplash. (The movie recently crept to a $10-million box-office take after four-and-a-half months in theaters.)
No reason even to provide aisle seats for the other four nominees—though Norton’s sexy-menacing work merits lavish praise, and there would be a lovely chronological symmetry in a Duvall win. He earned his first of seven Oscar nominations at 42 in The Godfather, and last month turned 84, still in fine fettle and fury.
Best Original Screenplay
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman – Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dan Gilroy – Nightcrawler
We’re looking for spoken words here, eloquent and precise. So discard Foxcatcher—a tone poem of mute male gazes. The scenes in Boyhood seem less written down than lived in and overheard. Birdman is plenty chatty, but the dialogue isn’t nearly as telling or voluble as the labyrinthine camerawork.
Nightcrawler, which deserved more Oscar attention than it got, portrays its smiling sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal) through his creepy-smooth patter. But the glittering specimen is The Grand Budapest Hotel. The lines spoken by concierge Ralph Fiennes (robbed of a Best Actor nomination) are every bit as florid and delectable as the movie’s Russian-doll design. This will be Anderson’s take-home prize, for a movie that could earn four other Oscars—Costume Design, Production Design, Makeup and Hair and possibly Alexandre Desplat’s Original Score—and be the night’s top winner in sheer volume of statuettes.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game
By all awards logic, Foxcatcher, which scored nominations for Director, Screenplay, Actor and Supporting Actor, should also be a finalist for Best Picture. It isn’t, and this chilly true-life tale may end up empty-handed on Oscar night. The Imitation Game, with its gaudy cache of eight nominations, could be similarly stiffed, unless it wins Best Adapted Screenplay. Scratch Miller and Tyldum.
Anderson’s fantasy of European luxe deserves Oscars galore but won’t get this one, leaving Linklater to duke it out with Iñárritu. Securing a consistent tone over a 12-year shoot should win Linklater big points, but Boyhood isn’t as ostensibly fancy as Birdman. Lately, this award has gone to directors who mastered devilishly difficult camerabatics, whether or not their films won Best Picture. In 2013 Ang Lee took the prize for Life of Pi, which lost the top prize to Argo. And last year Iñárritu’s Mexico City campadre Alfonso Cuarón took Director for Gravity, though 12 Years a Slave beat out his space epic for Picture. Degree of difficulty will triumph again. Advantage Iñárritu.
Note that the third of the three amigos, Guillermo del Toro, has an artful ghost story, Crimson Peak, due this October. Shall we pencil del Toro in as next year’s Best Director?
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon – Wild
Sadly, Best Actress is nearly an irrelevant category in this year’s Oscar chatter: Cotillard, Pike and Moore are the only nominees from their films. Wild was tapped for Witherspoon and, for Supporting Actress, Laura Dern. In an ensemble of fireworks performances in The Theory of Everything, Jones arguably out-acts her costar Eddie Redmayne. But no matter. Four Actress nominees will be bridesmaids Sunday night, applauding Moore.
Sony Pictures Classics has put Still Alice in the movie-release equivalent of a tines Protection Program: the number of theaters in which it’s playing finally jumped from a minuscule 135 to a still-limited 502. The picture’s box-office tally now stands at $5 million. That’s the lowest gross by far of any film with a Best Actress win this century. Even the French-language La vie en rose, which cadged an Oscar for Marion Cotillard, earned more than $10 million at the domestic wickets. For a true comparison you must go back to 1995, when Jessica Lange was cited for Blue Sky, which scraped $3.3 million at the box office. In today’s dollars that would be about $7 million.
Still Alice shouldn’t be hidden. It’s a smart, affecting drama, a view of early-onset Alzheimer’s seen from the sufferer’s point of view. As the afflicted professor, Moore is subtle, poignant—great, really—and a sure winner. Also, with four previous nominations, she’s long overdue.
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper – American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton – Birdman
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything
This one is iffy. The only easily discountable finalist is Carell, who loses by a nose. Cooper, earning his third consecutive Best Actor nomination, could be a late-entry spoiler. American Sniper pushed itself into the conversation just a month ago, when it instantly became the lone box-office smash among the Actor (and Best Picture) shortlisters.
In the race of conjoined-twin movies about tortured Cambridge geniuses, Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing didn’t register quite as Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking impersonation has. Cumberbatch is imperious, intimidating and wounded by his outlaw homosexuality; Redmayne triumphs over an impossible affliction—how is Hawking still alive a half-century after receiving a death sentence for his motor-neuron disease?—and remaining somehow cuddly-worthy throughout.
Keaton was the strong early favorite, both for the audacity of his washed-up star role and for its meta references to his own career as an ex-superhero. Either he or Redmayne could win. But the young Brit has taken the SAG and BAFTA prizes, which makes him the slim favorite.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Four of the finalists— American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma and The Theory of Everything—fit the old mold of fact-based stories about heroes conquering adversity. None of these is in serious play for Best Picture. Sorry, Selma. The Oscar votes figure they gave at the office last year, with their Best Picture nod to 12 Years a Slave.
For the first time in a long time, that leaves four original, made-up stories among the healthy prospects. Okay, make that two. Whiplash occupies the left-field indie slot filled two years ago by Beasts of the Southern Wild (everybody loved it but nobody saw it); and The Grand Budapest Hotel is too wondrously weird for mainstream Oscar tastes.
So… Boyhood vs. Birdman. To go with Linklater’s family epic, you must first be impressed by the great nerviness of the scheme—a summer reunion for a few days’ shooting that spans a dozen years—and then commit emotionally to its coming-of-age story. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many viewers (not this one) tired of the concept around the time that Ellar Coltrane’s voice changed. They considered it worthy but not a Wow.
Birdman has its problems too, one of them being that you need a director’s statement to learn that this tale of Broadway angst and abrasion was meant as a comedy. The movie is also a distinctly niche item, having earned a modest $36 million after more than four months in theaters.
But Birdman plays to a primal love of the Hollywood elite: movies about acting. Consider the 2011 winner The King’s Speech, detailing King George VI’s rehearsal for a radio address against Hitler; the 2012 champ The Artist, a virtually wordless valentine to a silent movie star; and the 2013 recipient Argo, in which a CIA agent tutors U.S. Embassy personnel in Teheran how to act their way out of Iran.
Birdman is basically All About Eve—the 1950 comedy about rehearsal rivalries in a Broadway show, and another Best Picture laureate—reimagined as a Batman suicide mission. In what would arguably be the oddest choice for Best Picture since Crash in 2006, Birdman is expected to parlay its all-the-world’s-a-stage milieu into this year’s ultimate Oscar prize.