This year's Oscar race has been a thorny one to predict. Despite the emergence early on of a few front-runners in each category -- overall, the race has been dominated by "Boyhood" and "Birdman," with "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The "Theory of Everything," and "The Imitation Game" close behind -- it's those last few slots on the ballot in each category that are driving prognosticators nuts. Does "Selma" still have a strong shot in its eligible categories, or has the backlash soured Academy members? Is "Whiplash" big enough to make a dent outside the Supporting Actor category? Is "Nightcrawler" too creepy for the Academy?
We'll find out on Thursday, January 15, at 8:30 a.m. ET / 5:30 a.m. PT, when the Academy announces this year's nominees. Meantime, here are Moviefone's best guesses as to who will earn a seat when the music stops on Thursday and who'll be left standing outside the circle.
The Academy may pick between five and 10 nominees for its top prize. The last couple of years, they've picked nine, and that's likely to continue this year. "Boyhood" and "Birdman" are certain to be among them, and they will almost certainly be joined by "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Adding to the group will almost surely be some of this year's most celebrated biopics, including "The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game." "Selma," too, will probably be a nominated biopic, despite the current contretemps over its fudging of history. "American Sniper" is a bit more of a longshot, as is "Unbroken." The odds are longer still for "Gone Girl," though it's the biggest hit to date of any of the Oscar contenders. Its box office could be enough to earn it a mention (the Academy wants so desperately to be more populist and thereby drive up the ceremony's TV ratings), though it doesn't hurt that it was actually a well-crafted thriller that's sure to receive at least one other major nomination and possibly three (see below). Conversely, "Big Eyes" barely made a dent at the box office; despite likely nominations for a performance or two, it almost certainly won't crack the top category. "Into the Woods" could make it, though, following the path trod by "Les Miserables" a couple years ago. And the Academy likes writer/director Mike Leigh enough to make "Mr. Turner" a dim possibility. Finally, there are well-regarded indies "Foxcatcher" and "Whiplash," at least one of which will squeeze in.
Unfortunately, only five of the Best Picture nominees, at most, can earn Best Director nods. "Boyhood's" Richard Linklater and "Birdman's" Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu are the only locks here, though the fondness for "Grand Budapest Hotel" shown so far by the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and now the Directors Guild of America could extend to the Academy as well, meaning Wes Anderson is a near-certainty as well. Speaking of the Directors Guild -- usually a very accurate predictor in this category -- their nominations, announced on Tuesday, include those three names, plus Oscar favorite Clint Eastwood ("American Sniper") and little-known British director Morten Tyldum ("The Imitation Game"). They snubbed "Gone Girl's" David Fincher and "Selma's" Ava DuVernay, though the latter could have suffered because the guilds didn't get screeners of her movie. The Academy did, however, and the current groundswell of support for "Selma" could mean an Oscar nomination for her instead of Tyldum. On the other hand, Tyldum's DGA nod means his closest rival, "The Theory of Everything" director James Marsh, is probably out of luck at the Oscars. So are longshots Bennett Miller ("Foxcatcher"), Damian Chazelle ("Whiplash"), Rob Marshall ("Into the Woods"), Angelina Jolie ("Unbroken")
"Birdman" comeback-star Michael Keaton is a lock. So are British biopic actors Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Everything"), Benedict Cumberbatch ("The Imitation Game"), and probably David Oyelowo ("Selma"). That leaves a slot that could go to fellow Brits Ralph Fiennes ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") or Timothy Spall (in another biopic, "Mr. Turner"), but look for it to go to "Foxcatcher's" Steve Carell, since his transformation from popular comic actor to chilly, unrecognizable villain is the kind of backstory the Oscars love. The one possible surprise would be a vote for Jake Gyllenhaal's creepy turn in "Nightcrawler," but then, that performance has already received a surprising amount of awards love this season. As for Bradley Cooper, on top of his game in "American Sniper": your turn will come, but probably not this year.
The one sure thing in this category is Julianne Moore as an early-onset Alzheimer's patient in "Still Alice." The love for "The Theory of Everything" probably means Felicity Jones will be here, too. And while few loved "Big Eyes," the Academy probably hasn't yet run out of love for Amy Adams, so she's a likely contender, too. Reese Witherspoon's "Wild" made a respectable-sized splash, and Oscar loves a comeback, so she's got a good shot. Rosamund Pike's tricky "Gone Girl" performance will probably round out the category. There's a possibility, though that Jennifer Aniston will oust one of the weaker candidates (that is, anyone but Moore), since her dramatic transformation in "Cake" plays to the same backstory as Carell (beloved TV comic in an unflattering, vanity-free dramatic turn). Oh, and while critics have loved past Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard in both "Two Days, One Night" and "The Immigrant," those movies don't seem to have been on Oscar's radar. Neither was "The Homesman," so tough luck, Hilary Swank. "Into the Woods" has been huge, but Meryl Streep will suck up all that movie's oxygen, so Emily Blunt probably won't land a Best Actress nomination this time.
Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons's hard-charging jazz teacher in "Whiplash" is a sure bet for a nomination -- and probably the win. The love for "Boyhood" will earn a nod for Ethan Hawke; ditto for "Birdman" and Edward Norton. Mark Ruffalo is a likely fourth for "Foxcatcher." Christoph Waltz has won this prize twice in recent years; that won't stop him from earning a nomination for "Big Eyes," though it will keep him from winning. But instead of Waltz, the fifth slot could easily go to Robert Duvall in "The Judge," since he's been an Oscar favorite for decades (he's been nominated seven times and won once). Plus, if he wins, the 84-year-old would beat Christopher Plummer's record as the oldest acting winner ever.
Best Supporting Actress
"Boyhood" co-star Patricia Arquette has been the favorite in this category since last summer; that won't change on Thursday. Emma Stone will ride the wave of "Birdman" love to a nomination as well. Meryl Streep will set a record with her 19th nomination, for her "Into the Woods" witch. (Sorry, Anna Kendrick, but that will be the movie's only nomination in this category.) Keira Knightley seems all but a certainty for "The Imitation Game." Jessica Chastain has been earning all kinds of awards love for "A Most Violent Year," even though almost no one in America has seen the film yet. And that's five. Sorry, Rene Russo ("Nightcrawler") and Laura Dern ("Wild"), but this isn't your year.
Best Original Screenplay
"Boyhood" and "Birdman" will be duking it out here, as elsewhere. "Foxcatcher" benefits from being one of the few biopics not based on a book. Same with Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner." That last one could get ousted by the higher profile "Selma" script written by Paul Webb, but the controversy over its historical accuracy and the reports that director DuVernay essentially rewrote it put a nomination in serious jeopardy. So the fifth slot will almost certainly go to Wes Anderson for "The Grand Budapest Hotel." "Whiplash" should be here, but an Academy technicality has placed it in the adapted category, where, hopefully, Oscar voters have noticed its surprise inclusion.
Best Adapted Screenplay
"The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game" -- the "Boyhood" and "Birdman" of biopics -- will duke it out here. "Gone Girl" will almost certainly get a nod; not only will the Academy admire the way first-time screenwriter Gillian Flynn performed the difficult task of adapting her twisty best-seller to the screen while keeping the suspense intact, but she'll also offer the rare chance of nominating a woman. (Yeah, shouldn't matter, but it will.) "Wild" and "Inherent Vice" are also difficult literary adaptations, but since few have read Thomas Pynchon, voters won't recognize what an accomplishment Paul Thomas Anderson's "Vice" screenplay is. That leaves room for perhaps "American Sniper" or "Unbroken," also challenging biographical adaptations. If Oscar voters noticed "Whiplash's" sudden appearance in this category's ballot, it could squeeze in, too. "Into the Woods" is doubtful, as nominations for librettists who adapt their own musicals to the screen are rare. (Too bad, James Lapine.)