Off the Carpet: Pondering the twists in Oscar's road with nominations on the horizon

Posted by · 1:18 pm · January 12th, 2015

All of a sudden, this is the last Oscar column before the nominations are revealed Thursday. Wait, I have to settle on predictions soon? But… But… Seriously, there are a number of categories this year that are sort of gridlocked in interesting ways, with bubble contenders looking really strong and lots of intangible stuff flying around to keep anyone who does this – and understands it as nuanced rather than absolute – from feeling overly confident.

For instance, the Academy got “Selma” screeners whereas the guilds, which largely passed the film over, did not. The film received its first two negative reviews today (so enough with the “maybe they just don't like it” tries). Surely it's going to work out and the Academy won't embarrass itself by snubbing the film due to breathless takedowns re: its historical accuracy when others like “American Sniper” and its subject have gotten off scot-free in that regard. Right?

How about that “Nightcrawler?” The film could be set up for as many as seven Oscar nominations. But whatever it gets outside of Jake Gyllenhaal will make it a phenomenal case study regardless. Open Road had balls to go out wide with it on Oct. 31 rather than treat it with platform release kid gloves. It paid off, the film became a hit and the industry has really enjoyed it. If Dan Gilroy gets a DGA nomination tomorrow – just… Wow.

And by the way, as I look at stories landing at The Wrap which treat network ratings during the Paris crisis like a race, it's a film as relevant as ever. News is entertainment. Get used to it.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” has become the story of the month. I saw Fox Searchlight co-honcho Steven Gilula twice this weekend, and each time he offered what's become the line here: everyone thought they were silly to release the film so early. But it was a hit at the box office and ultimately held on strong in the season. Now it has a surprising Golden Globe award for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical on its mantle and a BAFTA-leading nominations haul that was enough for me to finally take it seriously. Can Wes Anderson crack the directors' field? With or without a DGA nod tomorrow, it's very possible. (I'm told DGA did not receive “Grand Budapest” until later than usual and that they didn't receive “Nightcrawler” at all, by the way, since I've brought each director up.)

Oh, and if you're keeping track, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is now the only film to have received nominations from every single industry group (save the Annie Awards, natch).

“The Imitation Game” – despite the Globes goose egg – remains strong in this race. It could be the nominations leader Thursday (as could one of the two Searchlight titles). The real test will come as the guilds dish out kudos. That starts with next Saturday's PGA Awards and the next day's Screen Actors Guild Awards. Could the Weinstein hopeful surprise over other stellar ensembles there and just cruise through phase two? My bet is on “Birdman,” but “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is coming on strong, and regardless, DGA and, particularly, PGA are more informative on these matters. So basically I think we'll know our Best Picture winner on Saturday, Jan. 24.

A few surprises to watch out for Thursday that may or may not happen but are lurking somewhere in my brain:

– Despite guild strength, “Foxcatcher” could end up too much of a bubble player in too many categories. At least one nomination feels strong, Mark Ruffalo in supporting. After that, it could be none, one or a lot. But don't be shocked if the whole thing shakes out on the paltry side.

– “Life Itself” is one of the year's most celebrated documentaries, but I can't help but wonder if it's vulnerable. Maybe it's me simply thinking there are much stronger examples of the form out there this year (same feelings re: “CITIZENFOUR,” but it's solid and the frontrunner). I don't know. Sounds like a potential “shocker” exclusion to me.

– Is “Mr. Turner” really this dead in the water? I personally found the film tough to love, but I certainly thought it was aesthetically wondrous and that Timothy Spall was excellent. I wonder if the Academy ends up liking it more than even these precursors suggest.

– That Best Actor category is crazy tight, and it's of note that Benedict Cumberbatch hasn't been able to play the game that much this season. I'm not saying he'll be snubbed, and if he is, I'm not saying it will mean anything whatsoever about how strong the film is within the Academy. But it's something to ponder with people like Jake Gyllenhaal and Bradley Cooper banging on the door.

And finally here, a question I have asked ever since more or less starting the thought process that brought it to this point: Is “Boyhood” really the frontrunner? Can it survive the preferential ballot and be crowned the year's Best Picture? I still have my doubts, and those doubts are probably much better for the film than any printed chest-puffery about it “obviously being the one so stop acting like it's not.” Just saying… Let an underdog be an underdog.

So that's more or less where we are. The Contenders section has been fully updated with commentary in each category polished anew. We'll have super final predictions to offer up later this week, but for now, tell us what you're thinking as the race for nominations draws to a close in the comments section below.

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