They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
The Closest Best Picture Race In Years?
By J. Don Birnam
February 19, 2015

Why do you think I'm high?

It’s all come down to this: Boyhood or Birdman? This year, Hollywood’s most coveted award, the Best Picture Oscar, may be the hardest to predict. Or is it? One thing is certain: whichever of the two wins Best Picture, a streak will be broken. Since 2008, the Producers Guild of America and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts have awarded the same movie for Best Picture and that film has gone on to win the Oscar. But the PGA went for Birdman and BAFTA picked Boyhood. Something’s gotta give.

Not Nominated In the Field of Eight

The big story when the Best Picture nominations were announced was that the Academy listed eight movies for the first time since the rules changed in 2011 to allow anywhere between five and 10 Best Picture nominees. Of those that didn’t make the cut, the most perplexing exclusion has to be Foxcatcher, which landed Directing, Acting, and Writing nominations. One imagines it just missed out on that ninth Best Picture spot.

Oscar watchers had also looked to famous directors and wondered whether any of their big-tent productions - Interstellar, Gone Girl, and Unbroken - would emerge as a favorite. But Interstellar and Unbroken received mixed reviews from critics and had to settle for technical nominations, and Gone Girl did well with critics, audiences, and most major guilds but was essentially shut out by the Academy, landing its sole nomination in Best Actress.

Despite some of these questionable omissions, it’s hard to argue with the field of nominees that emerged as the finalists. All are good movies, and some are great. And it is refreshing, for once, to be discussing the best among the bunch as the likely winners. But before we anoint Boyhood or Birdman, let’s discuss the other nominees and whether any has a chance of playing the role of spoiler.

The Nominees Are…

Likely in last place this year is Selma. The controversy surrounding its omission from most categories has raged on, but no movie has won Best Picture with only two nominations in the modern history of the Academy. One wonders, in fact, how the movie even made it into the final eight - only the songwriters’ guild gave it a nod, for Best Original Song - so it’s almost as if the branches felt obligated to nominate it for Best Picture but none saw it worthy of an additional nomination anywhere else. The entire handling of the release - with screeners going only to Academy members and not to any other awards group - may be the ultimate explanation for its awards failure, or maybe the controversy surrounding the portrayal of LBJ did it in. We will never know, but Selma will likely walk away with a Best Song Oscar and call it a night.

Also way behind the pack is The Theory of Everything, which made a splash in Toronto but did not land a directing nomination. It did win at the BAFTAs, but it is obviously an inherently British movie. Overall, there’s little evidence that the movie is strong on this side of the Atlantic, ceding even the Writers’ Guild Prize to the other British film in the bunch. The movie will likely walk away with a Best Actor Oscar and even has a chance at Score, but that will be that.

Despite its smashing success at the box office, I also do not buy the theories that American Sniper could be a potential spoiler in this race. The movie was also a late-breaker like Selma, but ended up with a lot more nominations. To win you have to be a consensus pick, given the preferential balloting for Best Picture. Thus, while American Sniper’s success in ticket sales makes it a serious threat for the two Sound Oscars and maybe even Editing and Actor, I think it will be ranked very low by a lot of the Academy, dooming its chances.

Passion, too, propelled the Sundance hit Whiplash into the final list of eight. If you think about it, in fact, the Oscar race began all the way back last January, when that movie and Boyhood premiered in Utah. Whiplash was the staff favorite for Best Picture here at BOP, and it has a lot of strong support. Still, I have a hard time imagining that those who don’t think of it as their number one movie will rank it higher than Birdman and Boyhood, which is what Whiplash would need to walk away with a victory. Whiplash will surely take home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and, as I predicted before the BAFTAs did it, it has a good chance at Sound Mixing, Film Editing, and even Adapted Screenplay. But Best Picture will go elsewhere, despite the fact that all pundits report hearing a lot of Whiplash votes.

After winning the audience prize at Toronto, it seemed as if The Imitation Game, Weinstein’s horse in this year’s race, would be a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, the fact that it landed a Director nod shows it is respected. In a preferential ballot, if anyone is to be the spoiler it would be The Imitation Game because it is this year’s The King Speech: the movie is impossible to dislike. Still, while it recently won the Writers’ Guild of America award for best adapted screenplay, it failed to garner major prizes even in the friendly territory of BAFTA. I suppose this could pull through if it ranks higher than Boyhood and Birdman on most ballots, but I see no evidence of this happening and would be frankly shocked if it did.

What’s likely in a distant third place is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which premiered in March and managed to hold the Academy’s attention for nearly a year, becoming the earliest-released Best Picture nominee in nearly 15 years. Indeed, Grand Budapest led the nominations on that morning, tied with Birdman for nine. It’s also done respectably well with guilds, and won the Best Motion Picture Comedy Golden Globe. So, by default, this is your potential spoiler. But it’s a comedy, and those don’t generally do well in the Best Picture race. Still, Grand Budapest looks to score several Oscars, including a likely Best Original Screenplay nomination prize for Wes Anderson and probably Art Direction, Costumes, Make-up, and even Score. It could thus win the most Oscars on Sunday, but it is still a very long shot for Best Picture. The race boils down to the two names you’re by now well-acquainted with…

Boyhood vs. Birdman

Since its premiere at Sundance in January, and then in theaters over the summer, Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s 12-year project, has dominated the awards conversation. I adored the movie personally but as an Oscar watcher I was at first skeptical that a movie that doesn’t “feel important” at first glance could win Best Picture. But it made it this far and that alone is pretty impressive. But although Boyhood has been a critical darling from the get go, there is little to no evidence that it is an industry favorite. Not only did it lose the three main guilds to Birdman, last weekend it also lost the Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I think will also happen at the Oscars.

Boyhood is a fantastic movie. The filming over 12 years is impressive on its own merits, and the emotional depth of the movie cannot be understated. Mason’s anxieties as he grows up are real - they embody many of the questions we all asked when we were growing up. Linklater also brilliantly captured the cultural ethos of each year he filmed by inserting key songs or books or movies into the plot. The movie is meticulous and careful. There is no false moment, despite contrarians’ allegations that it lacks a plot.

And Linklater’s social commentary remained up to date, with Mason at some point remarking, as he complains about people constantly on their phones and the Internet, that “everyone is stuck in this in between mode… not really experiencing anything.” Those words seem to apply quite well, at times, to the public’s and the Academy’s own relationships with the movies. Are they really watching them? Are we experiencing each other at all?

But as I said, Boyhood is not your typical Oscar movie. I thought that many of the men in the Academy would identify with the coming of age story that it tells, but it seems just as plausible that most are too old or too far removed from the everyman details that Boyhood portrays. And yet approximately half of the Oscar prognosticators on the Internet are still picking it to win Best Picture, most pointing to its BAFTA win as sign of strength.

True, BAFTA has some Academy overlap. But Birdman has won essentially every guild stateside. Over the last few days, to add to its impressive SAG/DGA/PGA trifecta, Birdman added wins from the Art Directors, the Sound Editors, the Cinematographers Guild, and the Costume Designers. The “me too” effect seems to have taken ahold fast and hard.

So what of Birdman? Birdman, too, is a superb film. Its skewering of the over-commercialization of art and of out of touch critics is timely, pointed, and highly relevant. The technical mastery behind the superbly acted and written film are impressive. It would be a very worthy winner.

Pundits and critics that seem to want to will Boyhood to a Best Picture win will point to statistics to argue that Birdman can’t win. “No movie since Ordinary People in 1980 has won Best Picture without a Best Editing nomination.” “Birdman lost the Globe Musical or Comedy, and only Annie Hall in 1977 has won Best Picture after losing that Globe.” Etc. To me, it’s perilous to believe this reasoning. No Academy member is going to not vote for Birdman because the editors branch didn’t deem it worthy of a nomination. Worse: those are stale statistics - based on acts of an Academy or industry from 1980 or 1977, not this one. True, this year’s industry did not universally embrace Birdman, as the Editors Guild and BAFTA went for Boyhood. But for those two losses, Birdman can trumpet eight total guild victories. That’s impressive and difficult to ignore. I wonder if this race is as close as people are thinking.

To be sure, at first viewing I never saw Birdman as a serious Best Picture threat, ironically, for the same reason Boyhood could lose: Birdman does not feel like an Academy movie either. It is weird, the ending is ambiguous, and the characters are crazy. Nothing of this ilk has ever won Best Picture - most of the movies that win have very traditional story arcs. Birdman is divisive at least in some circles - it is not universally loved by audiences. That could spell trouble for it with the preferential ballot. The real shocker, indeed, is not that Boyhood ran out of steam, but that it was Birdman and not The Imitation Game that stole its thunder.

In the end, I believe that any good theory of why a movie will win should be based not on silly statistics like the lack or presence if this or that nomination. Argo, 12 Years of Slave, etc., show that the old rules based on stats are going out the window. Instead, a good theory should be based on why the movie fits into the Academy paradigm of what wins. Here’s mine:

The Academy choices tend to be emotional, pull-at-the-heart-strings sorts of movies such as The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, or The King’s Speech. Those movies defeat darker, more cynical movies, like Moneyball, Benjamin Button and The Social Network. But the rule that the emotional movie wins is broken under two circumstances. The first is when there is no clear, respected emotional movie. The Departed won against Babel, No Country for Old Men against There Will be Blood, and The Hurt Locker against Avatar. They essentially had no choice but to go for something darker. The second is when the emotional movies are splitting the vote. That’s my theory as to what is happening here. Boyhood pulls at the heartstrings, but at least two movies that are respected - The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game - are pulling votes away from it. Indeed, you may even argue that American Sniper is an emotional movie in that sense. Birdman is essentially the lone dark, cynical movie of the bunch, and that may be what is putting it on top.

In the end it will come down to the preferential ballot. Remember, voters are asked to rank their picks for Best Picture from 1 to 8, and then stacks are made. The movie with the fewest #1 votes gets its ballot redistributed to the voters’ #2 choice, and the process is repeated until one movie has an absolute majority of ballots. So, in the last round, assume Boyhood/Birdman are essentially tied, and in third place is Grand Budapest or Whiplash. Where will those ballots likely go? I think Birdman - Grand Budapest is quirky and Whiplash is artistic and sinister. I wager those voters will pick Birdman higher than Boyhood and the redistribution of their ballots will put it over the top.

Under all of these theories, right now it’s Birdman’s Oscar to lose. And with that much precursor support, a win by Boyhood would be essentially an upset victory.

I’ll close with another Boyhood quote that seems quite applicable to the Oscars race. “So what’s the point? Of any of this? Of everything?” Mason asks his father at some point.

“I sure as shit don’t know. We are all just winging it.”