Last year it seemed so easy: “12 Years a Slave” was the pre-ordained Best Picture winner, Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett had acting awards locked up, and nobody was going to deny “Frozen” in the animation category.
Well, the 87th annual Oscar race has been a little more fun. Even though certain movies have been winning regularly with groups such as the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice (I’m a voting member in the latter), I do think there’s actual suspense about the big prizes this year.
It could turn into something because of the way the votes might split. “Boyhood” stands as the odds-on favorite, and critics’ awards seem to favor it. But “Birdman” has won some key prizes, including the nod from the Directors Guild.
More complications: The late-arriving “American Sniper” is the only one of the Best Picture nominees to qualify as a real box-office smash. That does count for something with Academy voters.
And then there’s the “Selma” kerfuffle. Oscar commentators and political pundits took umbrage at the film being shut out of most categories, especially Best Director, even though it was nominated for Best Picture. Could there be a strong response to the perceived snub (as there was when “Argo” didn’t have director Ben Affleck nominated, but the movie won Best Picture after all)?
So, yes: Those who love the horse-race aspect of the Oscars have something to wager on this year. Everybody else can appreciate how many good movies are up for discussion — we haven’t even mentioned my favorite movie of 2014, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which is up for nine awards, tied with “Birdman” for the most this year.
The host of the ceremony is Neil Patrick Harris, whose sly style ought to launch some barbs into the evening’s self-congratulatory mood. Expect performances of the nominated songs, and a “special appearance” by Lady Gaga, doing something as-yet undefined.
Once again the time constraints will kill most of the acceptance speeches. You’d think that people who spend their lives in show business would develop some grasp of how to pull this off.
Despite the short speeches, the show will go on and on, again. Because there’s got to be time for Lady Gaga, right?
Anyway. Here’s to the big show, and here are a few predictions — my choices for movies I think will win, not necessarily the movies I think should win. And the winner is — oops, I mean the Oscar goes to …
BEST PICTURE. “Boyhood.” This still seems like the odds-on favorite, but I sense its support is a little soft. “Birdman” is a more spectacular movie, especially in its technical achievement. Meanwhile, the part of my brain that tries to read the Oscar voter mentality tells me that “Selma” will be the sentimental choice here. “American Sniper” would be an interesting surprise. Less likely are “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” or designated little-indie nominee “Whiplash.”
BEST ACTRESS. Julianne Moore, “Still Alice.” The chatter here is that Moore is so overdue for an Oscar she’ll take this in a cakewalk, even if not that many people have seen her film about an Alzheimer’s patient. Which means a disappointing night for previous winners Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”) and Marion Cotillard (“Two Days, One Night”), and first-time nominees Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) and Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”).
BEST ACTOR. Michael Keaton, “Birdman.” Some career recognition for Keaton’s big, showy role, plus it’s a career comeback — a little like the character in the movie, but with a happier ending. Eddie Redmayne won some key awards for his turn as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” so that might happen, and in other years Benedict Cumberbatch would be a favorite for playing Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”) and Bradley Cooper (“American Sniper”) are less likely to surprise.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS. Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood.” Lovely turn as a character aging into motherhood. Can’t really see anybody else winning in this category, but the most likely upset would be Emma Stone in “Birdman.” Also nominated: Laura Dern (“Wild”), Keira Knightley (“The Imitation Game”), and Meryl Streep (“Into the Woods”).
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR. J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash.” This veteran character actor has been winning everything in sight for his role as a bullying music teacher — although if there were any logic, a part this big would be up for Best Actor. Edward Norton’s insufferable method actor in “Birdman” deserves some kind of award, and the others here are Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”), Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher”), and Robert Duvall (“The Judge”).
BEST DIRECTOR. Richard Linklater, “Boyhood.” The story of Linklater’s 12-year-long process for this production is a fascinating one, even if “Birdman” is a more obviously “directed” movie. But that film’s Alejandro G. Inarritu won the Directors Guild Award, which is a pretty good indicator of the Oscars, so the Oscar “momentum” (what does that even mean?) is with that movie. The other names are Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”), and Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”).
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness. A good consolation prize for a movie that’s not going to win Best Picture — and it would truly be a nod toward “the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.” But if the evening turns into a “Birdman” fest, that could win here too. Also up: “Boyhood,” “Foxcatcher,” and “Nightcrawler.”
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY. “American Sniper,” Jason Hall. Another handy way to honor a film that touched a nerve and turned into a big hit. The two British biopics are also possibilities here, as awards tend to go to that respectable genre: “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything.” Some Oscar touts have been calling this for “Whiplash,” as a way of honoring the indie world. Not too probable is “Inherent Vice.”
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE. “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” Not really a runaway winner in this category, but this sequel has been campaigning hard. It would be fun to see the clever “Boxtrolls” win, and “Big Hero 6” does have the Disney mojo behind it. The other two nominees, “Song of the Sea” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” have been less seen.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE. “Citizenfour.” The portrait of secret-spiller Edward Snowden seems to be the odds-on favorite for this category, even if it plays more as journalism than a movie. The voters in this category do sometimes go for the feel-good choice, so don’t be shocked if a lesser-seen title wins. Also up: “Virunga,” “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Last Days in Vietnam,” and “The Salt of the Earth.”
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM. “Ida.” This Polish film enjoyed a successful and well-reviewed run in the U.S., so it seems the favorite. This is a funny category, however, so the big Russian film “Leviathan” has a shot, but Argentina’s “Wild Tales” is being tabbed as a sleeper. Wild cards are “Timbuktu” (Mauritania) and “Tangerines” (Estonia).
BEST ORIGINAL SONG. “Glory,” from “Selma.” Look, I like “Everything is Awesome” (from “The Lego Movie”) as much as the next guy, but I suspect the Academy is going to go serious here — especially with people feeling bad about “Selma” getting shut out of the major awards. The songs from “Beyond the Lights,” “Begin Again,” and “Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me” are longshots by comparison.
Robert Horton has been a film critic for The Herald for nearly 30 years. Listen to his weekly podcast with Steve Scher, The Overlook Podcast, on iTunes or read his blog, The Crop Duster, at roberthorton.wordpress.com.