This year's Best Picture Oscar race is truly a stunner, and the envelope hasn't even been opened yet. Let's review how we got to this place, shall we? And let's do it in present tense, to really relive the magic.
Sundance supercharges the season in January with bows for two dynamic indie players: Richard Linklater's “Boyhood,” already set up at IFC Films, and Damien Chazelle's “Whiplash,” which is acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. With early festival dabbling and domestic releases still to come, it's assumed they could stick around as passion players throughout the next 12 months. They'll have to grow into that role, however.
Wes Anderson's “The Grand Budapest Hotel” starts off the year for prestige filmmaking in the marketplace, releasing in March after bowing at the Berlinale in February. It's critically acclaimed and a box office success, but it's far too early to resonate nine months later with the major awards season hopefuls coming down the pike. What a blunder by Fox Searchlight! But hooray for a hit.
Cannes adds a few would-be Best Picture players to the overall equation in May, but is mostly a launching pad, as ever, for the foreign language film race. “Whiplash” keeps its mojo going as the esteemed Sundance holdover, however.
As usual, the fall festival corridor really ignites things in Italy, Colorado and Canada. In late August, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's “Birdman” drops in Venice as what would appear to be Fox Searchlight's big ticket player. It goes on to Telluride, where “The Imitation Game” (Weinstein's major hopeful from Norwegian director Morten Tyldum) comes out to play. They're easily the hottest tickets there as the calendar turns to September.
“Birdman” skips out on Toronto but “The Imitation Game” heads north of the border, where James Marsh's “The Theory of Everything,” already positioned by Focus Features, joins the party. The two films are audience favorites but “The Imitation Game” walks away with the People's Choice Award, a sometime Oscar Best Picture harbinger.
The New York Film Festival adds a few more would-be players to the stack as October descends, closing with a big “Birdman” coming-out just ahead of release. “Whiplash” opens and underwhelms at the box office, while still remaining an industry favorite.
November brings one last festival opportunity to make a splash: AFI Fest. And they both come from major studios. Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper” (Warner Bros.) and Ava DuVernay's “Selma” (Paramount) take advantage ahead of late-December release dates.
More would-be players come and go in release, falling to the wayside to allow for these eight to maintain a foothold.
“Boyhood” dominates the early precursor circuit, gobbling up more than 20 Best Picture prizes from the critics in late December, while landing at the top of the lion's share of top 10 lists. It holds onto this status, fascinatingly reminiscent of “The Social Network's” run four years ago as the new year dawns. But also coming on strong in this phase, proving it has kept enough gas in the tank, is “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
In January, the industry (guilds, etc.) starts weighing in, with little in the nominations phase to suggest that “Boyhood” isn't sitting pretty, poised to be the first Best Picture winner ever to begin its journey at Sundance. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” also digs in deeper with near-unanimous industry/guild approval. (Meanwhile, “America Sniper” explodes at the box office, setting its sights on records every step of the way.)
Trouble arises for “Selma” as guild after guild passes on it. There's some discussion by way of explanation regarding screener copies of the film arriving late to guild members, and there's some doubt as to whether it has rallied enough passion within the Academy as Oscar nominees are announced. And, for the first time since expanding the field five years ago, the Academy settles on less than nine Best Picture nominees: “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma” (just making it with only one other nomination to show for itself) and “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash.” Searchlight celebrates the loudest with “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” leading the way in overall nominations.
IFC Films is emboldened as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globe Awards) and Broadcast Film Critics Association (Critics' Choice Movie Awards) anoint “Boyhood” the year's best, drawing the critics' circuit phase to a close. But surprise lurks around the bend.
Doubt still lingers as to which film will be industry's favorite as the Producers Guild – the first of the industry groups – announces its choice. It's a particularly nail-biting evening given last year's tie. Will “Boyhood” transition to this phase with ease, or, like “The Social Network,” will it find Hollywood drawn to something else? The potential for widely palatable offerings like “American Sniper” (continuing to make bank) or “The Imitation Game” to seize the moment is all too real, and then, on a preferential ballot similar to the Academy's Best Picture tabulation system, “Birdman” comes out on top.
But it doesn't end there. On the wings of a meta narrative and a super game Michael Keaton, the film goes on win the Screen Actors Guild's ensemble prize and the Directors Guild award, locking up a trifecta that hasn't been doused since “Apollo 13” lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Braveheart” nearly 20 years ago. The art directors, cinematographers, costume designers, sound editors and sound mixers all add their seal of approval, increasing the film's status as an industry favorite.
“Boyhood” looks doomed, like a horse that didn't have the stamina to finish the race, until a sliver of hope beams down: The British Academy (BAFTA) hands Linklater's 12-year opus Best Picture and Best Director honors. What's more, the group rallies behind films like “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash” while awarding “Birdman” just a single trophy (suggesting the film's appeal isn't so wide-reaching). Pundits scratch their heads and call it what it is:
A close race for Best Picture at the 87th annual Academy Awards.
It probably can't be put any more succinctly than that, and you can see, of course, how things can be argued a number of different ways. The gridlock is evidenced by our own predictions here at In Contention, where Greg Ellwood and I see things unfolding in two different ways. It all just boils down to how you choose to contextualize the events as they've played out. We'll all have to wait until that envelope is opened, and then we'll contextualize it all over again.
Biggest campaign moment: It would have to be “Birdman's” Producers Guild victory, catapulting it from a divisive presumed also-ran to a dominant Best Picture hopeful in an instant.
Should have been here: It's lovely that Bennett Miller got something of a surprise nomination for Best Director, but his film, “Foxcatcher,” should have found room in the big category. Equally, it's nice that a couple Academy branches stuck up for Paul Thomas Anderson's “Inherent Vice,” but as further proof that he may be the most exciting filmmaker of his generation, it should have been included, too.
Will win: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Should win: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”