While the Producers Guild included ten nominees, there were only eight Best Picture Oscar slots this year.
Here are the strengths and weaknesses of the Best Picture Oscar contenders, listed in order of their likelihood to win. While many leading indicators would suggest that “Birdman” is the obvious frontrunner for Best Picture, in a heavily contested year without the likelihood of a sweep, splits can occur. Some predict that “Birdman” will take picture while “Boyhood” lands director, others suggest the reverse. Anyone who tells you they KNOW is a fool. It’s impossible to calibrate. My instinct, based on talking to many voters, is that “Boyhood” is the consensus favorite for three Oscars: Best Picture, Editor and Supporting Actress, while “Birdman” will win Director for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (like his DGA-winning cohort Alfonso Cuaron last year), Best Actor and Cinematography.
Another factor increasing the risk of finding certitude this year: In a sea of independent contenders led by “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” potential spoiler Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” appeals to the more mainstream steak eater contingent.
Strengths: The drama is universally emotionally accessible to anyone who has been a parent or a child. It’s unique, in that writer-director Richard Linklater filmed it over 12 years, following young actor Ellar Coltrane as he grows from age 6 to 18, when his character goes off to college. Folks in the Academy recognize what a rare and brave risk the film was; they admire BAFTA Best Picture and Director-winner Linklater for pulling it off so well. He honed his skills over the years on the “Before” trilogy, and figured he could make this work.
Among the Academy branches, the actors applaud the work of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, respectively, who also earned supporting nominations for SAG, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards; Arquette won them all and should take home the Oscar as well. IFC’s awards campaign while not lavish has been on point during poignant acceptance speeches that emphasize the “Boyhood” family.
Weakness: The movie is small in scale and scope and won’t pick up the technical wins that, say, “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” will nab. But it’s still the frontrunner; Linklater is competing with AG Inarritu for directing and Anderson for original screenplay; the film should take home two Oscars, for Best Editing and Supporting Actress Arquette.
Total nominations: six. Likely wins: three.
Strengths: This audacious and sharp-edged show business comedy is all about actors–who dominate the Academy and voted it Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild. This caustic backstage world is one they all too familiar with: they know from ego, id, success, failure, and the pitfalls of seeking approval and attention. Michael Keaton won the Comedy Golden Globe and is duking it out for Best Actor with Drama Globe, BAFTA and SAG-winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”); Edward Norton and Emma Stone also grabbed Oscar noms. And the Producers Guild gave “Birdman” is top prize.
DGA-winning director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (Oscar-nominated “Babel” and “Biutiful”) is respected and admired for his artistic purity–he has never sold out to the studios–as well as his prowess with actors. This is by far his most personal–and successful–picture to date, as well as a daring and audacious walk on the high wire that was by no means a guaranteed success. Fox Searchlight has masterfully handled the awards campaign.
Like Oscar-winner “The Artist,” this movie plays best inside the show business world.
Weaknesses: But not everyone loves this artful movie, which is too satiric and dark for many; the movie is divisive. It’s more beloved by the writers, directors and crafts than the mainstream of the Academy.
Total nominations: nine. Likely wins: three.
3. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Strengths: WGA, DGA and Oscar nominee Wes Anderson’s delicious portrait of a lost European world marks the year’s most successful indie release, and Fox Searchlight has kept it in front of Oscar voters. This played best not with Academy actors (BAFTA nominee Ralph Fiennes didn’t make it) but for the crafts, who rewarded it with multiple technical nods. BAFTA gave it five awards including Original Screenplay, Production and Costume Design, Makeup and Hair and Score, which are likely to repeat Oscar night.
Weaknesses: While “Budapest” picked up the Best Comedy win at the Golden Globes, a comedy always runs the risk among serious Oscar voters of not having enough gravitas.
Total nominations: nine. Likely wins: five.
4. “The Imitation Game”
Strengths: This Alan Turing biopic falls inside the same sweet spot as another period British portrait of a misunderstood historical figure, Oscar-winner “The King’s Speech,” which this one is outpacing at the box office. Harvey Weinstein is also behind this all the way, and popular Brit star Benedict Cumberbatch, who lost at SAG, the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, was primed for his first Oscar nomination; in supporting, Keira Knightley scored her second actress nod.
Weaknesses: While this World War II thriller is impressive in its complex and artful weaving of the many accomplishments of Turing–mathematician, Enigma Code breaker, computer inventor, spy, and adapted screenplay and director nominations are among its nominations– it doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as “King’s Speech.” Audiences are admiring, not identifying with, this cool outsider. And the filmmakers and Cumberbatch have been on constant defense about the film’s avoidance of explicit homosexual encounters.
It was shocking that the film didn’t do better at the BAFTAs, where “The Theory of Everything” took Best British Film, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. Where is harvey’s Oscar mojo? The awards campaign seems oddly miscalibrated to stress the accomplishments of the man the movie is about, rather than the movie. “Lincoln” did that too and came up short.
Total nominations: eight. Likely wins: zero.
5. “American Sniper”
Strengths: This late-breaking war picture is boosted by 84-year-old director Clint Eastwood’s enduring popularity (even though he lost the DGA and was snubbed by the Academy director’s branch) as well as Bradley Cooper’s transformative performance as the title soldier Chris Kyle. The well-regarded Cooper landed his third consecutive Oscar nomination while gaining cred with his well-reviewed performance on Broadway as “The Elephant Man.” The Guilds have been supportive and Academy members are touched by the Iraq War Navy SEAL and his struggles dealing with the war and his family back home. This movie has the advantage of a late-inning box office surge, as the must-see movie that many Academy members saw most recently. It strikes an emotional nerve for many as we continue to recognize the price being paid for long tours of duty by our soldiers and their families.
Actor-turned-writer Jason Hall has been effective on the stump in distinguishing between the soldier Chris Kyle who wrote a rah-rah memoir about his exploits as a warrior in Iraq, and the emotional PTSD damage that he brought home to his family. Hall could score a surprise win for Adapted Screenplay. And the film is expected to win Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Joel Cox has a shot at the editing prize as well.
Weaknesses: The movie does not measure up to “The Hurt Locker” –its reviews are just ok at 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, in the realm of “Crash”–and plays best to the mainstream steak eaters who dominate the Academy.
Likely total nominations: six. Likely wins: three.
6. “The Theory of Everything”
Strengths: This Working Title/Focus Features movie is beloved by many, especially actors who are impressed by the tandem work by rising young Brits Eddie Redmayne (“Les Mis”) as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones (“The Invisible Woman”) as his equally heroic wife who made it possible, despite the ravages of ALS, for the physicist and his family to thrive. Redmayne has charmed voters–he’s a natural on the campaign trail, more than Cumberbatch has been– he has won the drama Globe, SAG and the BAFTA award. In the war of the dueling Brit biopics, “Theory” is beating “The Imitation Game,” winning three BAFTAs to the Turing movie’s zero.
Weaknesses: While the popular film scored a writing nomination and more, director James Marsh won his Oscar for the documentary “Man on Wire,” and some Academy voters seem unimpressed by a film that is about a relationship rather than the accomplishments of a Great Man.
Total nominations: five. Likely win: zero.
Strengths: This come-from-behind indie is a crowdpleaser; writer-director Damien Chazelle scored an adapted screenplay nomination–the film about an abusive music professor (JK Simmons) and his drumming student (Miles Teller) got made after he created a short– and workhorse character actor and Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA winner Simmons looks likely to take home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Academy voters understand the daunting challenges faced by artists trying to excel–and how crazy that quest can be.
Weaknesses: As a small-scale Sony Pictures Classics Sundance indie, the movie won’t command much support on the technical side–but landed a key editing nod and won three BAFTAS, for editing, sound and Supporting Actor.
Likely total nominations: five. Likely win: one.
Strengths: Star David Oyelowo, who channels the oratorical power of Martin Luther King, Jr., took a long-gestating project that was running out of options and brought producer Oprah Winfrey on board and recommended to the producers his “Middle of Nowhere” director Ava DuVernay. The indie filmmaker was finally able to overhaul Paul Webb’s screenplay and get the $20-million picture made. The movie has been playing well since Christmas Day.
Weaknesses: DuVernay finalized the cut very late and Paramount has been playing catchup as they build an awards campaign from behind; screeners only went out to AMPAS and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. The film has been assaulted by historians who don’t agree with its depiction of President Lyndon Baines Johnson as stalling the Voting Rights Act and allowing FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover to pursue a dirty deeds campaign against MLK. Many Academy members have not watched the film.
The producers and director DuVernay have wisely handled the film’s two nominations with grace and dignity. It’s most likely to win Best Song for the Globe and Critics Choice-winning “Glory,” by Common and John Legend.
Total nominations: two. Likely win: one.
Collecting multiple nominations but not Best Picture: Sony PIctures Classics’ “Foxcatcher” (five), Paramount’s “Interstellar” (five), Sony Pictures Classics’ “Mr. Turner” (four), Disney’s “Into the Woods” (three) and Universal’s “Unbroken” (three).
My full list of predictions here.