The Oscars aren't until next Sunday, but the race will be all over by Tuesday. The 17th is the day ballots are due; after that, it's all in the hands of the number-crunchers at Pricewaterhouse Cooper. Still, there were a lot of last-minute awards given out over the weekend by several of the professional groups -- writers, cinematographers, sound editors, sound mixers, and makeup artists and hairstylists -- whose members will also be turning in their Oscar ballots this week. Their decisions should help you, not only to determine who'll win the prizes in the more obscure corners of your Oscar pool ballot, but also which movies have broad enough support to win the more coveted prizes.
What did we learn from this weekend's guild awards?
Well, the Writers Guild of America gave its original screenplay prize to "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and its adapted screenplay prize to "The Imitation Game." Those are safe bets for the Oscars as well. The American Society of Cinematographers gave its top prize to "Birdman," and even though Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki also won this Oscar last year for "Gravity," he's likely to win again this year for his stunning long-take tracking shots that comprise "Birdman."
The Cinema Audio Society, which recognizes the work of sound mixers, gave its live-action prize to "Birdman," which not only makes that film the favorite for the Sound Mixing Oscar but adds yet another burst to its momentum for Best Picture. Don't confuse this group with the Sound Editors (who handle sound effects, rather than the overall soundtrack), whose Golden Reel award this weekend went to "American Sniper." That film is a safe bet for the Sound Editing Oscar, which, after all, usually goes to the loudest movie. (Yes, there are three war movies competing; besides "Sniper," there's "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" and "Unbroken," but the Academy will want to give at least one Oscar to "Sniper," and this is about the only one it's likely to get. As for the other two nominees, "Interstellar" had sound problems, according to many listener complaints, and "Birdman" hardly seems to belong in this category.)
As for the Makeup and Hairstylist Guild Awards, they gave two prizes each to "Budapest" (Best Period Makeup, Best Period Hairstyling) and "Guardians of the Galaxy" (Best Contemporary Makeup, Best Special Makeup Effects). Since these two films are competing for the Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar (along with "Foxcatcher," which went unrewarded by the guild), they seem to be evenly matched going into the final stretch. It's a tough call; "Budapest" has an impressive array of whimsical mustaches and beards, not to mention Tilda Swinton's elaborate old-age makeup, but "Guardians" had impressive makeup as well, was one of the year's biggest hits, and is unlikely to win any other Oscars except maybe Visual Effects. So this category looks neck and neck.
So, is it gonna be "Boyhood" or "Birdman"?
Tough to say. There's a precedent either way. "Boyhood" won the BAFTA for Best Picture last weekend, along with many precursor awards earlier in the season, and the last six BAFTA winners have gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar as well. Then again, it's not clear that people in Hollywood actually care what the British Academy thinks; rather, the BAFTAs seem to reflect conventional wisdom, not generate it.
"Birdman" has won the three major guild awards (Producers, Screen Actors, and Directors), and it's been 19 years since a movie ("Apollo 13") won all three of those and failed to win Best Picture. Also, the Academy seems to have gotten over its long-standing bias against movies about show business (see recent winners "The Artist" and "Argo"). Plus, there's the simple fact that it has nine nominations to six for "Boyhood." On the other hand, it's very hard to win Best Picture without even scoring an Editing nomination (as "Birdman" failed to do), and there's also just the general weirdness factor, contrasted with the more traditionally heartfelt "Boyhood." So I'd say the odds favor "Birdman," but it's going to be very close.
Does any other movie have a chance?
Not really. The way the weighted voting system works for Best Picture ballots favors movies that are widely admired (if not loved) over movies that inspire passionate feelings for or against. So movies that are divisive or don't inspire much enthusiasm will fall by the wayside. Not everyone loves "Boyhood" or "Birdman," but they're both widely admired.
As for the others, "American Sniper" may be far and away the most populist movie among the Best Picture nominees, having earned more than $300 million to date, but to the Academy, it's still too controversial. "Grand Budapest Hotel" has as many nominations as "Birdman," but it's a more overt comedy, and comedies almost never win. "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory of Everything" are pretty standard-issue biopics, with only their strong lead acting performances to distinguish them. "Selma" is as divisive in its own way as "American Sniper," though it'll probably win Best Original Song and have to be satisfied with that. "Whiplash" doesn't feel like the kind of grand, ambitious movie that says "Best Picture," though tyrannical music teacher J.K. Simmons is a lock for Best Supporting Actor.
Who'll win the acting prizes?
Along with Simmons, "Still Alice" star Julianne Moore and "Boyhood" co-star Patricia Arquette have been locks for Actress and Supporting Actress since day one. That leaves Best Actor as the only truly suspenseful race.
Let's see, Benedict Cumberbatch did a solid job playing Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game," but the role isn't as flashy as the others in the category. Bradley Cooper is nominated for the third time in three years, but the Academy's ambivalence toward the real-life story of Chris Kyle, which will keep "American Sniper" from winning Best Picture, will extend to Cooper's performance as well. (Indeed many pundits were surprised he was even nominated.) Steve Carell's physical and dramatic transformation for his creepy "Foxcatcher" role is impressive, but it's not clear that the movie is all that well regarded or even widely seen. Besides, if the narrative behind the performance is what a great job a comedian did with a dark and dramatic role, it's easier to go with Michael Keaton for "Birdman," which also has the virtue of being the actor's comeback role and his first recognition by the Academy during a long and celebrated career. The only one who can trump him is Eddie Redmayne, for his striking physical transformation as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." Playing someone who overcomes tremendous physical or mental disability is often a sure path to Oscar success. Both actors have won a number of precursor awards this season, so this category remains a toss-up, to be decided according to which personal narrative the Academy prefers.
Is Oscar campaigning getting out of hand?
Seems so. After all, it's kind of silly that personal narrative should matter so much (as opposed to, you know, merit), but it does. The "For Your Consideration" ads for "The Imitation Game" popping up on the trade websites are just the latest symptom. They hint that Academy members should pick the film (and Cumberbatch) because it's a way of honoring Turing as a gay martyr. That's pretty rich for a film that's been accused of downplaying the World War II codebreaker's homosexuality. Plus, it's a tactic likely to backfire, as it did nine years ago for "Brokeback Mountain."
Meanwhile, songwriting nominee Diane Warren, who's been nominated six previous times without a win, is griping that neither singer Rita Ora nor the Relativity record label are doing enough to campaign for her tune "Grateful," from the film "Beyond the Lights." She may have a point -- the song is certainly an underdog in a category that contains "Glory" (from "Selma"), "Everything Is Awesome" (from "The LEGO Movie") and "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" (from "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me."). "Glory" is the favorite (because "Selma" has to win something), and everyone loves "Everything Is Awesome" (though not enough to overcome the Academy's aversion to satirical songs). Campbell's tune, inspired by his valiant struggle against Alzheimer's, has sentiment and personal narrative on its side. The other nominee, "Lost Stars," from the little-seen musical "Begin Again," has even less of a shot than "Grateful." Which makes Warren's carping seem, well, less than "Grateful." To the extent that personal narrative matters, she's not helping her cause.
Is it really an honor just to be nominated?
Yes. In fact, it's lucrative. Not only to the nominees enjoy the likelihood of salary raises the next time they're up for a role, but even if they don't win, they'll take home a swag bag this year worth a reported $125,000. This collection of luxury goods and travel gift certificates isn't an official Academy gift (it's put together by an outside firm, without the Academy's endorsement), but it's still a pretty nice consolation prize for the 80 percent of nominees who won't go home with trophies.
In the grand scheme of things, how much does all this matter?
Not much, perhaps. As film critic Richard Roeper pointed out in a tweet, "Fifty Shades of Grey" earned more during its Valentine's Day weekend debut than "Boyhood," "The Theory of Everything" and "Whiplash" have earned all together during their entire runs. Of course, "Grey" isn't going to win any Oscars next year, but swag bags aside, it looks like this year's Best Picture contenders are fighting over who gets to be king of an awfully small anthill. The winner, whether it's "Birdman" or "Boyhood," will be celebrated for a moment and forgotten by the time next year's Oscars roll around. After all, last year was the year of "12 Years a Slave," and yet this year, the Academy seems to have forgotten that black people exist, either as story subjects or as performers and filmmakers.
Then again, who's to say this year's Oscar race will have no larger impact? Five years ago, "The Hurt Locker" became the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in ages, and yet it seems Clint Eastwood must have seen it. What else is "American Sniper" but his "Hurt Locker," an Iraq War movie that is careful not to take a political position on the war itself, that celebrates the heroism of the troops while reckoning the moral and soul-destroying cost of combat on the lives of individual servicemen and their families? Five years ago, that seemed a radical artistic approach; today, it's a mainstream blockbuster. Whose to say that, a few years from now, we won't be seeing mainstream hits that incorporate the structural innovations of "Boyhood" and "Birdman"? For all the seasonal squabbling over politics, ego, wounded pride, and money, the art of storytelling through moving pictures continues to advance, and it's good to have an annual excuse to stop and recognize that.