Inside the 2015 Oscar Race

Ah, the Academy Awards – Hollywood’s biggest night. It’s here again, and there will be plenty of places you can watch this year’s Neil Patrick Harris-hosted event. Whether you’re watching from a bar hosting an Oscar party or from the comfort of your own home, though, you’ll want to make smart guesses as to what films will go from “Oscar nominee” to “Oscar winner.”

Consider this your guide. Whether you want to know who’s most likely to win or just figure out what films you should make a point of seeing before Sunday, Feb. 22, we break down some of the biggest categories of the night just for you.

BEST PICTURE

This year’s Best Picture category has eight nominees, and while there is no clear frontrunner, it’s safe to eliminate a few nominees from the discussion: for Whiplash, The Theory of Everything and The Grand Budapest Hotel, the nomination is the honor, and each film has a shot at winning in other categories. Of the remaining five, The Imitation Game and Selma have outside chances, but this category is shaping up as a three-way race.

With a box office take that’s, quite frankly, insane, American Sniper is becoming a phenomenon just as voting takes place. Conservatives in particular seem to love this film, and the film’s box office haul of over $300 million in a month means that it’s earned more than the other seven nominees combined. It’s got a solid chance, in other words.

Realistically, though, this year is shaping up as a battle between Boyhood and Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Both have the critical acclaim, but in the various critics’ awards last year, Boyhood had the edge. It also has the fact that it took 12 years to make, and turned out to be a poignant coming of age story. Birdman, though, has momentum from the various guilds, which have some membership overlap with the Academy. Plus, it’s a film about actors with showy technical achivements, so there’s plenty of ways Academy members can relate to the film. I’d give the slightest of edges to Boyhood, but this category could go in a few different directions.

BEST DIRECTOR

If there’s a theme to this year’s nominees, it’s a long-overdue appreciation of film auteurs of the last 20 years making it big at the Oscars with films that wholly represent their own unique visions. Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a worthy contender who fits the auteur billing, but this category is a tight race between Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) and Richard Linklater (Boyhood). There’s a good chance that, as we’ve seen the last few years, there will be a split in Best Picture and Director, with one film taking Picture and another, Director.

BEST ACTOR

Of the four acting categories, this is the only one without a clear frontrunner. Of the five nominees, there are two viable contenders and one spoiler. Michael Keaton (Birdman) has the comeback story that the Academy loves so much, while Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) had to physically manipulate his body to play Stephen Hawking. Both have claimed their fair share of awards from various critics’ groups and the guilds, with Redmayne having a slight edge. But keep an eye out for Bradley Cooper, working with his third acting nomination in three years. Voters may choose his performance as a way to reward American Sniper without voting for the film as a whole.

BEST ACTRESS

While all of the nominees in this category are worthy contenders, this category has belonged to Julianne Moore for her turn in Still Alice since the film premiered last fall. The closest thing to a spoiler in this category is Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night. Fun/ disturbing fact: if Moore and Redmayne win, look for mentions of their film work together in Savage Grace, where the two starred as a mother and son in an incestuous relationship.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

There are plenty of worthy contenders in this category, plus Robert Duvall for his turn in The Judge. Character actor J.K. Simmons, though, is deservedly sweeping awards season for his work in the appropriately titled Whiplash. If you want a sure bet for the night, this is it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

A close second for a sure bet at the Oscars is Patricia Arquette winning this category. Her competition here is weak (seriously, you’d give Meryl Streep her record-tying fourth Oscar for a supporting role?) and Arquette has a tremendous arc of her own in Boyhood. Then again, this category has a history of some surprising winners, so don’t rule out a win from, say, Emma Stone for her role in Birdman.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

For months, pundits expected the year’s biggest commercial and critical animated hit, The LEGO Movie, to win Best Animated Feature. Its snub opens this category up wide, with a pair of box office hits (How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6) going up against smaller successes (The Boxtrolls) and foreign productions (Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya). The first How to Train Your Dragonlost in this category to Toy Story 3, so a win for its sequel could be seen as a makeup win for the first film. It’s the most likely choice, but just barely.

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Originally published in David Atlanta.

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