The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
All eyes will be on Hollywood Thursday morning as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announce the nominations for their 87th annual awards. What has become a yearlong game for Oscar prognosticators goes from marathon to sprint when, for the first time, all 24 categories will be read live at the announcement. No more waiting for next day's newspaper or scrambling to Oscar.org to find out which songs and documentaries were nominated. Now we can all scream at the television or internet stream when our favorite costumes are snubbed. Will there be such screaming though? The hope that a bit of anarchy will shake things up and even sneak in a favorite underdog or two is part of the appeal, exemplified by the pleasured shrieks of publicists in the room when their horse comes in. Will it be a morning of surprises or as predictable as many "experts" hope for?
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The category that may be the easiest to predict among the eight majors may also be the one that offers the greatest shock. J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash"), Edward Norton ("Birdman"), Mark Ruffalo ("Foxcatcher") and Ethan Hawke ("Boyhood") should be as locked in as anyone. Robert Duvall ("The Judge") was the fifth Screen Actors Guild nominee, but they have only had a perfect match twice (2009-10) in 20 years. Outdoing Duvall 10-4 in nominations amongst the critics and guilds has been Josh Brolin ("Inherent Vice"). Even in a film that has had trouble connecting with some as a whole, Brolin's work has always been singled out as a positive. Neither Duvall nor Brolin would be much of a surprise for the fifth slot. But what if the Academy decides to throw a curve ball? Forget about Andy Serkis ("Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") as it seems no voice work or digital performance capture will be nominated in our lifetime. What about Riz Ahmed ("Nightcrawler"), whose bundle of nerves and insecurity as Jake Gyllenhaal's shotgun rider recalls Ethan Hawke from "Training Day"; a role which garnered him his first Oscar nomination after receiving support from no group except SAG? Or Alfred Molina as John Lithgow's husband in the heartbreaking "Love is Strange"? The respected actor was considered a favorite to snag nominations in 2002 ("Frida") and 2009 ("An Education") but came up empty both times. Maybe this year he will be the surprise honoree.
Josh Brolin, "Inherent Vice"
Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood"
Edward Norton, "Birdman"
Mark Ruffalo, "Foxcatcher"
J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The other Supporting category is not as easy to lock down for certain, but there is some history that favors most of the potential nominees. Patricia Arquette ("Boyhood") and Emma Stone ("Birdman") should be in. Keira Knightley ("The Imitation Game") is a solid #3 on that list. The nominations of the past suggest that the next best odds belong to Jessica Chastain ("A Most Violent Year") and Meryl Streep ("Into the Woods"). Streep got a SAG nod. Chastain did not. SAG's fifth choice was Naomi Watts ("St. Vincent") who, unless has her work in "Birdman" thrown into the mix amongst voters, may be the easiest to dismiss. The only acclaim that Streep has received outside of nominations by SAG, the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics Association (considered a holy trilogy by some) has been a nomination from the Australian critics. So is this just a case of uninspired voting or will Streep receive her 19th Oscar nomination? I believe Chastain will get her third in four years regardless, but who could replace Streep? The field is abuzz with potential. There has been a groundswell of support for Tilda Swinton ("Snowpiercer"). Other potentials include Laura Dern ("Wild") and LA Film Critics winner Agata Kulesza ("Ida"). Rising as of late has been Rene Russo ("Nightcrawler"), who just added a BAFTA nomination to her resume; something only the top three on this list can also boast. Then again, as we have seen in the past with the likes of Jacki Weaver (2012's "Silver Linings Playbook") and Maggie Gyllenhaal (2009's "Crazy Heart") a nominee can appear out of nowhere simply for having their film out there at the right time. So expect some BIG shrieks if you hear the names of either Carmen Ejogo ("Selma") or Sienna Miller ("American Sniper") called out.
Patricia Arquette "Boyhood"
Jessica Chastain "A Most Violent Year"
Keira Knightley "The Imitation Game"
Rene Russo "Nightcrawler"
Emma Stone "Birdman"
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Of all the major categories, this is the one that has been notoriously the hardest to predict. Films disqualified by the Writers Guild eliminate a major forerunner and, with the exception of Woody Allen, even scripts by major filmmakers have been snubbed when they seemed like locks (see "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "The Master"). The locks should hold for "The Grand Budapest Hotel", "Birdman" and "Boyhood," but after that everything is up for grabs. The fourth slot here should have been reserved for Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" but due to some questionable category shifting we can look to that over on the Adapted side. That bumps up Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler". After that it is a roll of the dice. Your fifth Writers Guild nominee is "Foxcatcher" which both benefitted from "Birdman" being disallowed and bolstered by "Whiplash" still being considered an original by the WGA.
A real longshot would be John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary" which was the fifth choice by the Chicago Film Critics Association but was also disqualified by the WGA. Will "Selma" be rewarded or punished for its off-base controversy about who really deserved credit for the Civil Rights Movement? J.C. Chandor's first film, "Margin Call" shocked everyone when it received a Screenplay nod in 2011 over candidates like "The Tree of Life", "50/50" and "Win Win". Then last year Robert Redford was notably snubbed out of Best Actor for Chandor's "All Is Lost". Don’t dismiss the history of the author of "Mr. Turner". Also disallowed from WGA competition, AMPAS has nominated Mike Leigh in this category five times, including his last three films and four of his last five.
"Birdman" by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás
Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., & Armando Bo
"Boyhood" by Richard Linklater
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" by Wes Anderson
"Mr. Turner" by Mike Leigh
"Nightcrawler" by Dan Gilroy
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
"Gone Girl" and "The Imitation Game" look as good as we get to locks. Assuming it can get through the confusion of the category switch, "Whiplash" looks like a safe bet as well. Last week, the final two slots were a dogfight between "Inherent Vice", "Wild" and "The Theory of Everything"; the latter of which was disallowed by the WGA. All three times that PTA was nominated for a Screenplay Oscar it was preceded by a WGA nod. "The Master" was Anderson's fourth WGA nomination, but it was snubbed by the Academy. That would make everything easy if it wasn't for another script to make a serious challenge for one of the final slots. Jason Hall's rather limited screenplay for "American Sniper" is also receiving controversy for its omissions (by anyone actually paying attention.) The WGA clearly was not and slotted it in. Moreover, 25-of-27 films since 2002 that were nominated by the Producers, Writers and Directors Guilds received Adapted Screenplay nominations. (Only "The Dark Knight" and David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" did not.) Nick Hornby's terrific adaptation of "Wild" also got a WGA nod. But would it have if "The Theory of Everything" was not disqualified? Probably, since "Theory" would have taken the slot from "Guardians of the Galaxy".
What looked to be an open and shut case by Thanksgiving of the five eventual nominees was shaken up when everyone saw how great David Oyelowo was as Martin Luther King in “Selma.” At the time, Steve Carell ("Foxcatcher") still looked good and Jake Gyllenhaal ("Nightcrawler") was an underdog. Those two shifted pretty radically in December though Carell got the SAG nod and Oyelowo didn't. Some believe because of an absence of screeners on the recently completed film at the time. The season moved on and Michael Keaton ("Birdman"), Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Evetything") and Benedict Cumberbatch ("The Imitation Game") continued to behave as locks with the suddenly surging Gyllenhaal matching and even exceeding every step of the way. Though much support has also been offered for Ralph Fiennes ("The Grand Budapest Hotel"), Oyelowo has remained a strong candidate. Then the Directors Guild announced. Suddenly "American Sniper" is a serious player for nominations. Nominations like this often come in pairs, so keep an eye on Supporting Actress. If Carmen Ejogo makes it in, Oyelowo should follow. If Sienna Miller is nominated, then you can bet Bradley Cooper will be as well. Of course, both actresses are still a longshot, but now Cooper no longer is, despite only receiving nominations from the Phoenix and Denver Film Critics.
Benedict Cumberbatch, "The Imitation Game"
Jake Gyllenhaal, "Nightcrawler"
Michael Keaton, "Birdman"
David Oyelowo, "Selma"
Eddie Redmayne, "The Theory of Everything"
You want locks for this category? We got 'em. Julianne Moore ("Still Alice"), Rosamund Pike ("Gone Girl") and Reese Witherspoon ("Wild") should all be read off Thursday morning. Felicity Jones ("The Theory of Everything") looks like an unshakable #4 and if there was some justice, Marion Cotillard ("Two Days, One Night") would get the fifth slot. Winner of the NY Film Critics Award as well as the National Society of Film Critics and a lot of other nominations elsewhere, Cotillard looks to lose out on a nomination thanks to the aggressive campaigning by the folks behind Jennifer Aniston and "Cake". No unlikely surprises for Scarlett Johansson ("Under the Skin"), Essie Davis ("The Babadook") or back-to-back Golden Globes winner for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, Amy Adams ("Big Eyes"). Nope, this looks to be a year where politicking is going to be front-and-center over what's deserving, which someone once told us has nothing to do with it. Especially when it comes to the Oscars.
Jennifer Aniston, "Cake"
Felicity Jones, "The Theory of Everything"
Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"
Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl"
Reese Witherspoon, "Wild"
Unlike the other categories, none of the favorites have the kind of 100% authority that history has dictated to us. Mostly because of the infamous Ben Affleck/Kathryn Bigelow snubbing of 2012. Assuming the Academy is determined to never let that happen again, we could assume that Wes Anderson ("The Grand Budapest Hotel"), Richard Linklater ("Boyhood") and Alejandro G. Iñárritu ("Birdman") are in. Especially after receiving nods from the Directors Guild. After that, the two best choices to round things out were David Fincher ("Gone Girl") and Ava DuVernay ("Selma"). Guess who showed up to mess with things? That's right, "American Sniper" and its director Clint Eastwood, now a DGA nominee for the fourth time. His previous three nominations for "Unforgiven", "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby" all led to Oscar nods. This thought led to some considerable outrage over the DGA's choices, though not as much as Morten Tyldum ("The Imitation Game") taking a slot from either Fincher or DuVernay. St. Louis, Australia and the Golden Satellites were the only groups to laud Tyldum before the DGA. The good news for those fearing a DuVernay snub is that the DGA only has a 72.6% match rate with Oscar since 2002 and have only matched perfectly twice in that time (2005 & 2009), so somebody is not getting nominated there in all likelihood. Could it still be Fincher or DuVernay? Or will Damien Chazelle get a directorial nod to go along with his screenplay nod? It would be really unfortunate if everyone just threw up their hands and ignored Ava DuVernay for doing precisely what they thought Angelina Jolie was going to do with "Unbroken." telling an Oscar-worthy story of a true American hero.
Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Ava DuVernay, "Selma"
Clint Eastwood, "American Sniper"
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, "Birdman"
Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
It’s clear that "Boyhood" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" are stone cold locks. "Birdman" and "The Imitation Game" are very close to it. If the year were 2008, "American Sniper" amazingly enough would probably be your fifth nominee. What these five films have in common is that they are the ones to receive nominations from each of the Producers, Writers and Directors' Guilds. Only three films out of 44 have failed to receive a Best Picture nomination after that. And two of those three ("The Dark Knight", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") were in the era when only five Best Picture nominees were chosen. It would be some poetic justice if Eastwood's "American Sniper" went the way of Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". Assuming it does not though, how many other nominees will there be? I was already under the impression that nine was going to be the magic number this year. But now with "Sniper" (which was my #10 even before Eastwood's DGA nod) I'm convinced we will have an even 10.
James Marsh's "The Theory of Everything" has a similar pedigree to "The Imitation Game" and makes for a solid sixth selection. "Whiplash" has certainly done well enough to be comfortable as a seventh choice. Can the argument be made for "Selma" to be as high as 8th on this list when so many are doubting its chances after the Guild snubs? Very easily actually. Consider these films:
What do they have in common? Not a single PGA, DGA or WGA nomination between them and yet all were nominated for Best Picture in the era of the nominee expansion. So it is possible. Very possible. Even Clint Eastwood's “Letters from Iwo Jima” did it in 2006 when there were still just five slots. It is also possible that the nominations stop right there and we have a field of eight. If the Academy does go the full ten though, I am still betting against notable guild nominees "Foxcatcher", "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Wild". The National Board of Review's 13-year streak of forecasting a Best Picture nominee ends with "A Most Violent Year". Chicago Film Critics Association's nominee "Under the Skin" was always facing an uphill battle. Finally, "Unbroken" was a non-starter that may have been guesstimated for a nomination by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, but they are going to have to settle being no better than 90% accurate this year. If things play out as I imagine, your final Best Picture nominees, in order of likelihood, will be...
2. "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
4. "The Imitation Game"
5. "American Sniper"
6. "The Theory of Everything"
9. "Gone Girl"
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