oscars 2015 predictionsWhen it comes to predicting success and failure in Hollywood, as "The Princess Bride" screenwriter William Goldman famously said, "Nobody knows anything." Well, nobody except the accountants at PricewaterhouseCooper, who are currently counting the Oscar ballots in anticipation of Sunday's Academy Awards. But the rest of us know nothing, even experienced Oscar prognosticators.

That's especially true this year, when only a handful of the 24 categories seem like foregone conclusions. The rest are tight races, all the way down to Best Picture. This should make the Feb. 22 telecast suspenseful, but it also makes filling out your own Oscar ballot harder. Still, here are my predictions, based on nearly three decades of covering the Academy Awards, attending the ceremony a few times, having kept a close watch on the current race, and a wet index finger held up to the wind. If I do well, I'll be bragging on Monday; if not, remember what Goldman said.

1. Best Original Song
Let's start with an easy one. "Selma" got only two nominations, and this is one. Sounds cynical, but giving the prize to "Glory" will help Academy members feel like they've erased some of the #OscarsSoWhite stigma that greeted this year's less-than-diverse nomination slate. That'll outweigh the sentimental vote for Alzheimer's-afflicted Glen Campbell ("I'm Not Gonna Miss You") and the awesome vote (for "Everything Is Awesome," a humorous tune that was actually integral to "The LEGO Movie."

2. Best Original Score
Alexandre Desplat is nominated twice (for "The Imitation Game" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), but the award will go to Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, whose score really makes "The Theory of Everything," and which has won the major precursor awards so far.

3. Best Sound Editing
This award, for sound effects, typically goes to the loudest movie. In this case, the gun battles of "American Sniper" should hit the mark.

4. Best Sound Mixing
This award represents a movie's overall soundtrack. Last weekend, the Cinema Audio Society, representing Hollywood's sound mixers, gave its prize to "Birdman," and that's also the likely pick for the Oscar.

5. Best Visual Effects
It's really between Marvel's smash "Guardians of the Galaxy" and Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar." Nolan's films tend to clean up in the technical categories, and the movie's striking space-travel sequences mean the rest of the contenders are likely to be sucked into a wormhole.

6. Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The primary contenders here are "Guardians," again, and "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Given the Academy's general disdain for comic-book films and fondness for period pictures -- not to mention the Wes Anderson comedy's impressive array of facial hair and turning Tilda Swinton into an ancient dowager, I'll go with "Budapest."

7. Best Costume Design
Again, handsome period pictures rule, which rules out "Into the Woods" and "Maleficent," the scruffy hippie-wear of "Inherent Vice," and the too-subtle 19th-century England of "Mr. Turner." The more flamboyant 1930s costumes of "Budapest" should take the prize.

8. Best Foreign Language Film
Russia's "Leviathan" has been a strong contender so far, but when in doubt, pick the movie about the Holocaust. That would be Poland's "Ida," which also happens to be a standout for its stark black-and-white cinematography and its not-too-taxing running time.

9. Best Live-Action Short
Three of the shorts are fascinating glimpses of remote cultures that most Hollywood viewers will find too exotic. "Boogaloo and Graham" has the cute-Irish-kids factor going for it, but it'll be trumped by the Academy's Anglophilia. "The Phone Call," starring well-respected British thespians Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, in a movie with a tearjerking suicide-hotline plot, will win.

10. Best Documentary Short
All five films are about extraordinary bleak subjects, so the most accessible one will win. That rules out the two Polish entries ("Joanna" and "Our Curse") and Mexican slaughterhouse tale "La Parka (The Reaper)." That leaves American entries "White Earth" and "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1." Not only does this tie neatly into the likelihood of a Live-Action Short win for "The Phone Call," but it also gives the voters a way to prove they support the troops without having to honor "American Sniper." Plus, it's made by HBO, usually a quality seal of approval for documentaries.

11. Best Documentary Feature
I've seen indications of support for jungle doc "Virunga," and artist bio "Finding Vivian Maier." "Last Days in Vietnam" and "The Salt of the Earth" are by filmmakers (Rory Kennedy and Wim Wenders, respectively) who are familiar enough that they could get votes on name recognition alone. But the standout, as a work of reportage, as a treatment of a timely subject, and as a winner of numerous precursor awards, is Laura Poitras's documentary about her interaction with Edward Snowden, "Citizenfour." It seems all but unstoppable.

12. Best Animated Short
When in doubt, go with the Disney cartoon. That means "Feast," the endearing tale about a dog's life that some wags have dubbed "Puppyhood."

13. Best Animated Feature
With the snub of "The LEGO Movie" and the absence of a Pixar entry, this is a tough category to guess. Leaving aside the little-seen "Song of the Sea" and "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," that leaves "The Boxtrolls" (too weird, not popular enough), "Big Hero 6," and "How to Train Your Dragon 2." "Dragon" has won most of the precursor awards, so it's the favorite.

14. Best Production Design
Production design is practically a character in Wes Anderson's movies, never more so than in the extravagant life-size dollhouse that is the Grand Budapest Hotel. The Academy is bound to recognize that.

15. Best Cinematography
Someday, the Academy will give "Unbroken"'s Roger Deakins an honorary trophy for a career's worth of painterly imagery, to make up for the fact that he's been nominated 12 times without winning. That'll include this year, since the award will go to last year's winner, Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, for his seemingly seamless work on the long tracking shots of "Birdman."

16. Best Editing
This is an especially difficult category, with many strong contenders. The comic rhythms of "Budapest," the tightly-wound jazz tempo of "Whiplash," the battleground suspense of "American Sniper" -- all are worthy choices. But the prize will probably go to Sandra Adair for the monumental achievement of cutting 12 years worth of footage on "Boyhood."

17. Best Adapted Screenplay
"Whiplash" doesn't even belong here; it should be in the Original Screenplay category, but for a hairsplitting technicality in Academy rules. That Paul Thomas Anderson was able to make even a semi-coherent script out of Thomas Pynchon's shaggy-dog detective novel ought to win the prize for "Inherent Vice," but the movie is too polarizing. Jason Hall has been accused of copping out by not making any moral or political judgments about Chris Kyle, so "American Sniper" is out. That leaves the British biopics "The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game." Of the two, "Imitation" is less conventional, and criticism that it downplayed Alan Turing's homosexuality hasn't stuck. Plus, it has the mighty Weinstein campaign apparatus behind it. So Graham Moore gets the trophy.

18. Best Original Screenplay
"Birdman" is kinda weird and surreal, "Boyhood" seems like it was more improvised than written, and "Foxcatcher" and "Nightcrawler" are lucky just to be nominated. So that leaves Wes Anderson's clever comedy-drama "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a screenplay everyone admires and likes, if not loves.

19. Best Supporting Actress
It's so patronizing when critics and industry insiders talk about how "brave" an actress's performance is. Usually, that's code for "she took off her clothes" or "she went without makeup." In the case of Patricia Arquette, it's that she allowed herself to be seen aging 12 years on screen, without the crutches of cosmetics or plastic surgery. Of course, she also acted the hell out of her motherly "Boyhood" role. Which is why she's had a lock on this category since day one.

20. Best Supporting Actor
Again, despite all the fine work done by the competition, J.K. Simmons's whip-cracking "Whiplash" music teacher has steamrollered everyone since the film was released.

21. Best Actress
This category was Julianne Moore's to lose even before most people had seen her performance as an early-onset Alzheimer's patient in "Still Alice." Once the movie finally opened in January, the buzz was confirmed. Of course, it doesn't hurt that this is the kind of physical/mental challenge role that routinely wins Oscars, or that people feel Moore is due after being nominated four previous times without winning.

22. Best Actor
This is the only acting category with any suspense. Still, as great as Benedict Cumberbatch was in "The Imitation Game," his character may be too chilly to be the kind of hero the Academy can line up behind. Steve Carell made an astonishing transformation from comic actor to weirdo villain in "Foxcatcher," but there's not much love for the movie. Bradley Cooper earned his third nomination in three years for playing Chris Kyle in "American Sniper," and his only flaw was that he's not Eddie Redmayne or Michael Keaton this year. In "The Theory of Everything," Redmayne had the more physically challenging role, as the increasingly immobile Stephen Hawking, but Keaton's role in "Birdman" offers the semi-autobiographical comeback narrative that the Academy loves. Plus, it's his first nomination, despite a three-decade career as a beloved star. And can you imagine anyone else in the part? The category is a tough call, with Redmayne and Keaton so close that Cooper could step in as a spoiler if they cancel each other out. But I'll give the edge to Keaton, especially since "Birdman" will be riding a wave of good will.

23. Best Directing
You can forget "Foxcatcher's" Bennett Miller and "Imitation Game's" Morten Tyldum (who?) People love "Grand Budapest Hotel," but Wes Anderson will be happy to settle for a screenplay Oscar. That leaves "Boyhood" creator Richard Linklater and "Birdman" auteur Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu. The latter won the Director's Guild prize, but we've seen Best Picture and Best Director split six times over the past 16 years. Which is why I think this prize will go to frequent precursor award winner Linklater. More than the story (which is obviously autobiographical and very personal to Linklater), the Academy admires the sheer nervy feat of seeing his vision through over the course of 12 years. "Birdman" may be a work of art, but "Boyhood" is a labor of love.

24. Best Picture
The complicated proportional-voting rules, which urge voters to pick their top five movies in order of preference, encourage consensus choices and weed out divisive movies. That's why "American Sniper" and "Selma" won't win. Movies that don't have broad consensus support -- "The Theory of Everything," "The Imitation Game," and "Whiplash" -- won't make it either. There is a lot of support for "Grand Budapest Hotel," which is tied with "Birdman" for the most nominations this year (both have nine, compared to six for "Boyhood"), so there's a slim chance that it could sneak in if "Boyhood" and "Birdman" cancel each other out. But the race has been between "Boyhood" and "Birdman" for months now, and while "Boyhood" was the early frontrunner, a backlash has now set in against it.

Why the sudden turn against "Boyhood"? There have been all kinds of crazy rationales floated in the last couple of weeks. One Academy member couldn't relate to the everyday struggles of its ordinary characters, calling them "garbage and losers." The movie's 12-year shoot supposedly made it derivative of Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries. Its allegedly patronizing treatment of its sole substantive Latino character (the one who takes up the suggestion by Patricia Arquette's character that he should go to college) makes the film even more insidiously racist than "Birth of a Nation." But the simplest explanation, and the one that holds the most water, is that it peaked too early. It was dubbed the frontrunner from the time it was released eight months ago. (Yes, "Grand Budapest Hotel" came out even earlier, but no one was making the extravagant claims for it that "Boyhood" enjoyed.) And it's hard to be the frontrunner for that long without getting a big fat target painted on your back.

"Birdman" pulled up even with "Boyhood" as soon as it was released last fall. As with "Boyhood," everyone respected its craftsmanship, artistry, and daring structure (though not its prickly cynicism). While "Boyhood" won a lot of early awards, especially at the Golden Globes, "Birdman" won the ones that matter -- the Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and Directors Guild, picked by industry insiders who are often Academy voters as well. The movie has a better backstage narrative than "Boyhood," not only as Michael Keaton's vindicating comeback, but as the underdog for being slightly behind "Boyhood" for so much of the Oscar race. Finally, it's a movie about self-absorbed showbiz folk, people Academy voters will find a lot more relatable than "Boyhood"'s middle-American nobodies. The underdog/showbiz angle means Iñarritu could lose Best Director to Linklater and still have the movie win Best Picture, à la "Argo."

It's going to be close -- how close, we'll never know, since the Academy never releases vote tallies -- but in the end, I expect "Birdman" to soar.
categories Movies, Oscars, Awards