Most years, predicting the winners of the Academy Awards race is a by-the-numbers process. Thanks to the multitude of websites that have sprouted over the last decade devoted entirely to tracking Oscar contenders starting in August (!), along with the predictable smear campaigns that pop up with increasing regularity designed to damage fictional films for their historical inaccuracies, guessing who will end up standing behind the podium clutching a statuette and thanking their agents has become easier than ever.
But there’s something afoot with the 87th Academy Awards, which will be presented starting at 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Most of the usual Oscar shoo-ins — the British period pieces, the historical dramas, the biopics about heroic people overcoming impossible odds — are going to have to settle for the honor of being nominated. This year, the big race — Best Picture — is a competition between two peculiar, divisive movies, one a plotless coming-of-age tale shot over 12 years, the other a strident high-wire act about an actor trying to regain his mojo.
Normally, pictures like Boyhood and Birdman would be lucky to land a spot on the Oscar ballots. But tonight, they are the leading contenders in a competition that has traditionally honored safe, respectful movies over films that break the traditional rules and push the envelope of what typical Hollywood productions do.
So how did we get here? Did the 6,000-plus stodgy members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences develop a taste for eccentricity and creative daring? Did the same people who thought Crash was better than Brokeback Mountain and deemed The Artist more memorable than The Social Network and found How Green Was My Valley more impactful than Citizen Kane suddenly become a bunch of hipsters? How to explain that the group that never rewarded Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock with a Best Director Oscar is suddenly snubbing longtime darlings such as Clint Eastwood and toasting out-of-the-box filmmakers such as Richard Linklater and Alejandro González Iñárritu?
Maybe this year’s batch of nominees, which also includes a low-budget indie by an unknown director (Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash) and a gloomy, downbeat crime-drama told in an elusive, subtle manner (Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher), are a reflection of the dwindling importance of “serious” Hollywood movies, which continue to be edged aside in favor of giant blockbusters and event films (The Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy, Transformers, The Hobbit). Yes, occasionally a movie aimed at adults breaks through into the mainstream pop culture. No one — not even distributor Warner Bros. — expected American Sniper to earn more than $300 million in a little over a month. David Fincher turned the bestselling conversation piece Gone Girl into an equally intriguing cinematic conversation piece. Christopher Nolan, picking up Kubrick’s baton, aimed higher than ever with his mind-blowing, challenging Interstellar, a picture that, whatever its flaws, was as far away from a sure thing as Birdman yet still raked in nearly $700 million worldwide.
And the Academy is still capable of dunderheaded mistakes, such as the weak showing by Ava DuVernay’s superb Selma, which eked out a measly two nominations including a token Best Picture nod. But for the most part, this year’s nominees are evidence that the Academy is paying more attention to the most inventive artists of the moment — people like Wes Anderson and Linklater and Iñárritu — instead of traditional Oscar bait such as Unbroken or Into the Woods.
This is why some of this year’s races are simply too close to call. Yes, you can bet the farm on Julianne Moore winning Best Actress for her performance as a linguistics professor stricken by early onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice: She deserves the Oscar not just for her body of her work, but for her indelible portrayal of the heart-rending tragedy that occurs when a person is robbed of what they treasure most — their memory. There’s no stopping J.K. Simmons in the Best Supporting Actor category for his turn as a take-no-prisoners music instructor in Whiplash: He was the furious spark plug that fueled the movie’s relentless energy.
Patricia Arquette is unbeatable in the Best Supporting Actress category for her humane depiction of a single mother who keeps making the wrong choice in husbands in Boyhood: The movie was as much about her as it was about its central protagonist. And although Eddie Redmayne’s uncanny physical contortions as the genius Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything fits the mold of surefire Oscar winners, the actor deserves the recognition for allowing us to see the man trapped inside a malfunctioning body.
Aside from these, though, most of the rest of tonight’s Oscar races will go down to the wire, which is as it should be when you’re truly honoring the best cinematic work of the year instead of celebrating the films that reflect well on Hollywood, making the industry look good and important. For a change, we’re in for a nailbiter. Pass the popcorn.
The 87th Academy Awards will air live at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. Neil Patrick Harris will host.