The critics have spoken. The guilds have spoken. The Golden Globes have spoken. And here we are feeling the ennui of another three months’ worth of Mondays weighing unusually heavy this year, though it really shouldn’t be. Not all Oscar seasons boast presumptive frontrunners as stubbornly unique and personal as Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which seem at this point like they would’ve cracked the lineup even in the old (and correct) days of five-deep best picture slates we’ll be telling our grandchildren about. Not all Oscar seasons are gifted by the original, cantankerous spirit of the National Society of Film Critics, which is to say the spirit of the group as it was initially conceived, as a staunch, vanguard opponent to staid groupthink. (Try to ignore the remaining instances of “ditto” among their roster of winners and savor everyone flipping their shit over Godard’s surprise victory.) So why aren’t we in a better mood than usual? Probably because we’ve seen it all go south in so many horrifying ways time and time again, and thus this year’s left us feeling a bit like the Witch staring down the “Last Midnight.” Oscars aren’t good, they’re not bad, they’re just nice. We’re not nice, we’re the hitch, and we’re definitely right.
The recent BAFTA nominations certainly offered a sobering reminder of what Oscar races always seem to do at this point in the season when Dumb and Dumber To—The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game—raced to the front of the pack with a downright hostile 10 and nine nominations, respectively. While neither are necessarily the worst biopics to pollute Oscar races in recent years, their endurance throughout the season testifies to a reflexive syndrome among a certain strain of awards-show voters, one sent up nicely by Nick Pinkerton in Film Comment: “These sorts of movies are popular for the same reason that fat tomes of historical fiction by the likes of James Clavell, James A. Michener, and Leon Uris used to be the only fiction that you’d find in houses otherwise devoid of books: there is a significant segment of the American public that thinks this business of making characters and stories up out of thin air is a little suspicious and possibly effeminate.”
In that sense, the only silver lining is that these two films are going to face off against The Grand Budapest Hotel, one of the most delightfully effeminate arguments on behalf of making stories up out of thin air, and Birdman, one of the most suspicious. Those four plus Boyhood would’ve made for a five-slot best picture race virtually anyone could’ve predicted, especially since the controversy erupting over Selma has gone to prove that, yes, people think it’s fine to make stories up out of thin air about certain real people (gay Brits) and not others (LBJ).
Selma remains a safe bet for a nomination, though, since the Academy has yet to prove to us that their current system won’t always result in nine nominations. Whiplash will probably slip into the lineup despite its pitiful box office, and Gone Girl because of its robust one. (Among comparable hits, Unbroken would have to survive its luke-cold reviews, and Into the Woods Oscar’s recent aversion to musicals in the main drag.) While American Sniper seems just square enough to round out the category, for the final slot, we prefer the chances of Nightcrawler, a ridiculous but undeniably beloved late-emerging sleeper. If there’s any movie in the race that’s got word-of-mouth heat behind it, it’s that one.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Richard Linklater, and Wes Anderson have all been nominated for either directing or screenwriting Oscars, but not both. This year should change that, and those three are without a doubt the frontrunners in this race. The remaining slots are basically a free for all among at least a half dozen other hopefuls, including contenders you can truly never count out with this branch no matter how well their movies were or weren’t received—namely Mike Leigh and David Fincher. But given González Iñárritu alone hogged up just about all the baton-twirling, firecracker-tossing directorly acrobatics this category can typically handle, odds seem good that the last two slots will break more toward the Tom Hooper side of the fence. (Sorry, Damien Chazelle and Dan Gilroy.) For directing The Imitation Game with maximum taste and minimum personality, Morton Tyldum fits that profile to the letter. And the fact that she’s been forced to answer for her choices more overtly than any other director out there this year means that Selma’s Ana DuVernay is consistently on the forefront of voter’s minds.
Let’s get one thing clear. This category doesn’t want for legitimate contenders. But to see it described at any given Oscar-prognostication station, Oscar voters are going to have to bend over backward not to include this year’s critical darling: Marion Cotillard. The former winner’s biggest hurdle isn’t that she has two completely acclaimed performances to choose from (buzz seems to have broken decidedly toward her performance in Two Days, One Night over her role in The Immigrant), or that it’s difficult to imagine this category—which found room for a Michel Haneke headliner two years ago—including a performance from a film by the Dardennes. Nope, Cotillard’s biggest threat remains this particular category’s notable resistance toward taking anything other than the easy road, embodied this year by not just Julianne Moore’s ever-reliable cry face, but even more so by Felicity Jones, whose role as Mrs. Stephen Hawking almost single-handedly turned “Supportive Wife” into this year’s “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” But even we’re hard pressed to say anything happens completely by default, so consider this our one moment of reckless optimism.
Closest Runners-Up: Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Now here’s a category that’s legitimately more historically open to at least comparatively risky nominations. So even though there are no fewer than three slots that seem all but rubber-stamped on behalf of biopics (as Pinkerton said, these films almost always “perform well with awards tribunals, particularly in those hard-to-quantify acting categories”), and even possibly a fourth slot depending on how much you’re willing to give in to Birdman’s meta antics surrounding Michael Keaton’s career, there’s every reason in the world to think that fifth slot isn’t going to be lazily filled by Steve Carell’s putty nose. Being a comedian in a “transformative” role didn’t work for Jim Carrey, and the satisfying implosion of the cold and pretentious Foxcatcher’s overall award hopes won’t exactly help Carell out here either. Timothy Spall’s brilliant central performance in Mr. Turner (technically a, gulp, biopic) should’ve been a lock, and one would’ve hoped the momentum behind The Grand Budapest Hotel would’ve made Ralph Fiennes’s charming turn another. But all signs point toward Jake Gyllenhaal’s scary-funny media parasite in Nightcrawler—who manages to make you forget he lost all that weight instead of drawing constant attention to it, Dallas Buyers Club style—cashing this check.