As this past weekend’s Screen Actors Guild Awards made crystal clear, three of the four races for acting Oscars are essentially sealed deals. Betting against Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette and J.K. Simmons to add Oscars to the mighty award collections they already have for “Still Alice,” “Boyhood” and “Whiplash,” respectively is definitely not something any level-headed gambler would recommend. While that should make for a hardly suspenseful portion of the Oscar ceremony, there are still quite a few nail-biters left to keep us on our toes (and make or break our Oscar pool ballots). Here are seven in particular:
Not too long ago, Michael Keaton seemed like the man to beat in what has been the most competitive of all the acting races all season long. He’s the sentimental favorite, starring in the film with the most Oscar nominations. Not to mention he won both a Golden Globe (in the comedy-musical category) and a Critics Choice Award a few weeks back. But then this weekend, he lost out on what could have confirmed his frontrunner status: the SAG Award. Eddie Redmayne took that for “The Theory of Everything,” adding to his own Golden Globe in the drama category. What’s important there is that the last time the winner in SAG’s Best Actor category didn’t go on to win the Oscar was way back in 2003. So does it appear that Redmayne now has the edge in a neck-and-neck race between him and Keaton? Not if Bradley Cooper — the only nominee in this category without any previous bids for the win — has anything to say about it. Cooper wasn’t competing against Keaton or Redmayne at any of the aforementioned ceremonies, largely because his “American Sniper” was released so late in the game. The film is obviously surging in terms of box office and awards buzz (though also in terms of controversy). If Keaton and Redmayne cancel each other out, it’s Cooper who benefits. Which is still a tall order: He’d notably follow Marcia Gay Harden as only the second person ever to win an Oscar without a Golden Globe, SAG or Critics Choice Award nomination.
Best Animated Feature
When the Oscars pulled what was arguably the biggest shocker of this year’s nominations — snubbing “The LEGO Movie” for Best Animated Feature — we lost a frontrunner. Left in that wake is the suggestion that this Oscar is heading the way of Golden Globe winner “How To Train Your Dragon 2,” but some history does work against that. Only one sequel has ever won this trophy when “Toy Story 3” did so in 2010, and that film was the culmination of one of the most critically and commercially successful animated franchises ever. “Dragon 2” definitely has fans, but it was only a modest hit. Which could leave the door open for one of two foreign animated features — Tomm Moore’s “Song of the Sea” and Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” — to pull off a surprise win. Whichever film does win, however, should take a moment to thank “The LEGO Movie” for not being nominated.
Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay
It’s been a while since both screenplay categories seemed so up in the air, and even longer since each seemed to have three viable winners. But that is definitely the case this year, with six Best Picture nominees battling it out on each side: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo for “Birdman,” Richard Linklater for “Boyhood” and Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in the original category, and Jason Hall for “American Sniper,” Graham Moore for “The Imitation Game” and Damien Chazelle for “Whiplash” over in adapted. These are the categories where you could significantly pull ahead on your Oscar pool ballot, but it’s going to be a very tough call. Frankly, we aren’t sure what our own final predictions are going to be just yet, so you’ll just have to check back for any official calls (though off the record, we’re leaning toward a “Birdman”/”Imitation Game” split).
Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat vs. Alexandre Desplat? Or will Jóhann Jóhannsson give Desplat his whopping eighth Oscar loss in 9 years? The Golden Globes (who have already honored Desplat) ended up picking Jóhannsson for his gorgeous “Theory of Everything” score, and only once in the past seven years has that winner not gone on to Oscar. But will Academy voters really want to vote against Desplat again? Especially since he’s nominated for two of Oscar’s big favorites — “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game”? Or will the fact that he has two nominations work against him and cancel him out? That didn’t happen to Steven Soderbergh back in 2001.
That’s right, the grand daddy of them all remains a mystery. “Boyhood” was sailing pretty smoothly for a while there — winning buckets of critics’ group prizes and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama. But it lost the PGA and SAG’s big prizes to “Birdman,” and both of those films have to contend with the soaring box office (and — to quote my colleague Anne Thompson — the “steak eater appeal”) of both “American Sniper” and “The Imitation Game.” It seems like momentum is being split all over the place, leaving us with the most uncertain Best Picture race in nearly a decade. Whichever film you’re behind, at least that gives us a reason to stay up until the very last moment of the night.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Contibuting Editor and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.