This has been perhaps the most boring Oscar season in recent memory.
Outside of the jam-packed Best Actor category, this has been a year where many categories were solidified back in November. There have been very few surprises, and that's contributed to a sense that everything is set in stone. Yes, every year's Oscar slate can be predicted to the tune of about 80 percent of its nominees, but this year feels closer to 90 or even 95 percent. When the nominations are announced Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern, it seems as if the element of surprise will be largely absent.
Yet there's also caution in this. In years when it seems like the Oscar nominations are set in stone, the Academy often gets a little wacky. For a while, 2012 felt like it would be like this, but the Academy ended up embracing movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Django Unchained, which weren't on a lot of predictors' radars.
So when I look at a list of predicted nominees that's largely the same as it was back in early December (from both myself and other predictors), I get a little antsy. Something strange is going to happen, probably where Oscar watchers will least expect it.
So let's take a stroll through the top eight categories. These predictions are based on a mixture of precursor awards, industry reporting, historical trends, and gut instinct.
- American Sniper
- Gone Girl
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- The Imitation Game
- The Theory of Everything
This is the most complicated category to predict of them all, for several reasons. For one, it's the only category every member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes on. (We'll get into how the others are chosen below.)
For another, it uses a slightly modified form of instant runoff voting, which results in candidates who clear a certain level of support having their ballots removed from the count entirely, while films that come up short have their second- and third-place votes allocated until five to 10 nominees have cleared 5 percent of the total vote.
If you want to know more about how this system works, please go here. But if you don't really care, all you should know is that this system gives outsized support to movies with small but incredibly passionate fanbases. A couple of hundred voters who rank a film in first are enough to get it into the Best Picture lineup. That's all it takes in a body of 6,500.
Finally, there's the simple fact that this category could have, as mentioned, anywhere from five to 10 nominees. Most commentators are predicting eight or nine nominees, but I think the Academy is going to go the full 10. The movies with small but vocal bases of support, movies like Nightcrawler and Gone Girl, also have vastly different bases of support. That suggests there will be a lot of movies just barely eking their way onto the list. Hence, 10.
Boyhood, Birdman, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything have been sitting pretty all awards season and should easily skate to nominations. Follow that up with The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash, both of which have gotten enough key support in enough places to wind up in the list.
From there, it's trickier. Clint Eastwood's American Sniper has received a lot of attention from the industry union awards that do the best job of predicting the Oscars, and it's a box office sensation in limited release. But the Academy occasionally avoids Eastwood when other bodies reward him. Still, the movie will at least be nominated.
Then we come to Selma, the most curious film in this year's race. It roared onto the picture in early December, seeming like it would race to one of the top two or three spots. Instead, its studio, Paramount, bungled the campaign, failing to send out screeners to any voting organization but the Academy itself. Couple that with concerns about the film's historical accuracy, and it has been hit by a perfect storm of Oscar controversy. It has missed every significant industry award in the build-up to the Oscars, and if it weren't for the screeners issue, I wouldn't be predicting it.
The industry awards often underrepresent films about racial minorities that the Oscars then go on to embrace. Just in recent memory, there's 2006's Letters from Iwo Jima and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Selma has some of the best reviews of the year, and it's about Martin Luther King, Jr., the sort of historical figure the Oscars usually love. I think it's in, but I'm less certain than I used to be, and the controversy will hurt it down-ballot.
Finally, Nightcrawler and Gone Girl are here because of my "barely making it in" theory.
But what about: It was a really good year for blockbusters. I'm legitimately surprised the early awards didn't find time to champion a Lego Movie or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or something. And I remain flummoxed as to how the excellent showbiz romance Beyond the Lights sank without a trace.
- Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
- Ava DuVernay, Selma
- Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
- Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Birdman
- Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Best Picture is the only Oscar category voted on by everybody at the nomination stage. The other categories are voted on by smaller groups within the Academy. Best Director, for instance, is decided solely by the members of the Academy's "directors branch." And the directors branch is famously welcoming to out-of-nowhere nominees, like when it gave Mulholland Dr. the only nomination it received for director David Lynch.
The four men listed above are four of the nominees for the Directors Guild Award. That group's fifth nomination went to The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum, but his rather typical direction is the sort of thing the directors branch often ignores. Meanwhile, Ava DuVernay, who put a personal stamp on Oscar-friendly material, is exactly the sort of person who could slip in here. I think she will.
Outside looking in: There's Tyldum, but the real threat to any of the five names above is probably Whiplash's Damien Chazelle, whose debut film is electrifyingly directed. It's also worth considering Gone Girl's David Fincher, who can be a directors' favorite. And don't sleep on Mr. Turner's Mike Leigh, either. Though the film is unlikely to crack the Best Picture lineup, the directors love the British iconoclast and could toss his name in the mix.
But what about: It's sort of remarkable that Nightcrawler's Dan Gilroy never gained any real heat for his simmering direction of a complicated story.
- Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
- Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
- Michael Keaton, Birdman
- David Oyelowo, Selma
- Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Here's the most complicated category of them all, one that I will be very surprised to get 100 percent right. Put simply, there are seven men with loud fanbases and great arguments in their favor, competing for five slots. Or, more accurately, there are four men fighting for two.
Cumberbatch, Keaton, and Redmayne have turned up everywhere, and it seems unlikely any one of the three will miss. (If one of them does, it will probably be Cumberbatch.) From there, things get tricky. Foxcatcher's Steve Carell faded a bit, possibly because he should have been in Best Supporting Actor. But that leaves Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal, American Sniper's Bradley Cooper, and Selma's David Oyelowo. One of them is getting cut, and I can't imagine who.
Cooper has Academy affection, having been nominated two years in a row, and he's also in a hot movie that's building huge momentum. If he gets in — still a big if — he's a serious threat to win. Oyelowo is playing Martin Luther King, Jr., and doing so splendidly. And Gyllenhaal is the choice of those who love off-the-wall performances (of which there are many in the Academy). The actors' branch is the Academy's largest, which also makes it harder to predict little cult sensations rising into the nominees.
My gut says Oyelowo is out. My head says Gyllenhaal misses. I hope Cooper is cut. I'll go with my head.
Outside looking in: Poor Steve Carell, who spent most of the season hanging on with Foxcatcher but seems to have faded along with his film. But this category is insane. Everybody from Gone Girl's Ben Affleck to Mr. Turner's Timothy Spall has seemed like an all-but-certain nominee at one point, then mostly disappeared.
But what about: Comedic performances rarely break through with the Academy, but Ralph Fiennes's work in Grand Budapest Hotel more than deserves to be here.
- Jennifer Aniston, Cake
- Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
- Julianne Moore, Still Alice
- Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
- Reese Witherspoon, Wild
When I say this Oscar season has been boring, this is what I mean. These five women have been locked for ages now, and nobody's looked elsewhere. It's a pity, especially since Jones's nice but not exactly amazing performance should probably not have coasted as long as it has. (I haven't seen Cake, but it's supposed to be awful, so.)
Outside looking in: As stated, nobody really went looking for other nominees, but if they did, they might have landed on Marion Cotillard, a former Oscar winner, whose work in Two Days, One Night was exactly the sort of thing that could have made a great replacement for Jones or Aniston. Amy Adams is also a possibility for Big Eyes.
Best Supporting Actor
- Robert Duvall, The Judge
- Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
- Edward Norton, Birdman
- Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
- J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
It became very clear early on who was winning each of the supporting categories, so they quickly stagnated, as often happens. In this case, Simmons jumped out to an astonishing lead, so the other four nominees quickly became frozen in place.
Duvall, in particular, seems like he should slip — he was in a movie nobody liked that flopped — but there's no real, realistic replacement for him. For a time, it seemed like Selma's Tom Wilkinson would be, but the Lyndon B. Johnson scenes are what's attracting all the controversy to the film. Even if the Academy embraces Selma completely and utterly, it seems unlikely Wilkinson will make it in.
Outside looking in: Mark Harris of Grantland made a great list of actors the Academy could turn to if it wanted to find a replacement for Duvall. Of them, my favorite was Tyler Perry of Gone Girl. But it's not going to happen.
But what about: The Academy of today is going to look awfully stupid when the Academy of tomorrow gives Andy Serkis an honorary Oscar for his groundbreaking motion-capture work. His Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was another performance that will be unjustly ignored.
Best Supporting Actress
- Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
- Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
- Rene Russo, Nightcrawler
- Emma Stone, Birdman
- Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Here's where my desire for a surprise will probably get the better of me. This category has also seemingly been locked for months, thanks to Arquette's dominance, with Jessica Chastain (of A Most Violent Year) subbing in for Rene Russo on my list. But I think this one is ripe for a shakeup, and Russo, who's in a much-loved movie that's making a late close, is exactly the sort of industry veteran such a shakeup could benefit.
Outside looking in: Aside from Chastain, there's also Wild's Laura Dern, though her character was stuck in disconnected flashback scenes. I also have a half-cocked notion that Sienna Miller could slip in here for being in both American Sniper and Foxcatcher (probably for the former film). And I'd perversely love if Kristen Stewart got in. She was good in Still Alice and is ripe for an Oscar nomination to display that she's a talented actress who got saddled with the Twilight stigma unfairly.
Best Original Screenplay
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- Mr. Turner
The disappearance of Whiplash — which the Academy considers adapted, because a short film version of it appeared first — has opened this category up a bit, but only just. There are still seven movies with a realistic shot at five spots. Everything but Mr. Turner in the above list seems pretty set, and then the other slot will go to either Turner, Selma, or Foxcatcher. But Foxcatcher has (again) faded, while Selma is credited to someone who didn't even write what's on screen (DuVernay did), thanks to interminable Writers Guild politics.
That leaves Mr. Turner, because the writers love Mike Leigh even more than the directors do.
Outside looking in: Aside from Selma and Foxcatcher, there's also A Most Violent Year, written by hot young wunderkind J.C. Chandor, as well as The Lego Movie. I would not be remotely surprised to see either force their way in.
But what about: Two Days, One Night is one of the movie achievements of the year, and so much of that is thanks to the screenplay. Honoring it would be a great way to nominate the Dardenne brothers, two of the world's best filmmakers but about the least Oscar-friendly directors you could imagine.
Gone Girl (Fox)
Best Adapted Screenplay
- Gone Girl
- The Imitation Game
- The Theory of Everything
This seems likely to boil down to a race between Gone Girl and Whiplash, in yet another weak category that only received a shakeup because Whiplash turned out to be here, not in Original where everybody (including its studio) believed it qualified. That leaves a real question of whether Whiplash will make it — since those who vote by paper ballot might have placed it in the wrong category — but I just don't imagine it being passed over.
Outside looking in: If anything gets pushed out, it will be for American Sniper. But that film has endured its own controversy over its accuracy, and that could easily be taken out on the screenplay.
But what about: Paul Thomas Anderson's script for Inherent Vice is some loopy, wickedly strange stuff. But, then, the novel it's based on (by Thomas Pynchon) is as well, making it a terrific adaptation. I don't expect it to go over well with the Academy but would be thrilled if it did.
Nominations are announced tomorrow morning. Come back here to see how I did.