Off the Carpet: ‘Birdman’ asserts itself as the Oscar frontrunner

We've come to an interesting crossroads in the race. With all eyes on “Boyhood” coming into the weekend, and a few others on “American Sniper” and “The Imitation Game,” it was “Birdman” that walked away the PGA champ Saturday. The SAG Awards left some doubt late in the evening Sunday as to whether the film's odds-on favorite status for the ensemble prize was jeopardized by Eddie Redmayne's lead actor win over Michael Keaton, but when the dust settled, “Birdman” was on top once again.

So, some notes on the history. Films that have won both of those awards and gone on to claim the Best Picture Oscar: “Argo,” “The King's Speech,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Chicago.” Films that have won both and gone on to lose the Best Picture Oscar: “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Apollo 13.” The year of “Little Miss Sunshine,” Martin Scorsese won the DGA and, of course, “The Departed” won Best Picture. The year of “Apollo 13,” Ron Howard won the DGA but “Braveheart,” not even nominated for SAG ensemble, won Best Picture.

“Birdman” is a film that appeals overwhelmingly to actors (the largest branch of the Academy) and certainly below-the-line artisans (more or less the rest of the Academy, save a couple branches). In those terms, it makes a whole lot of sense as a Best Picture winner.

But speaking of below-the-line, there's a quirky little element of “Birdman's” nominations showing that a number of people are clinging to: It didn't get a Best Film Editing nomination. The last film to win Best Picture without an editing nomination was “Ordinary People,” well over three decades ago. Nevermind the fact that stats are meaningless and broken all the time (Ben Affleck's lacking Best Director nomination for “Argo” being the most notable recent example), or that the editing situation with “Birdman” is nuanced (it is conceived to look like a single take with editing that is in place to mask those transitions rather than tell the story with traditional montage). This is simply enough for some people to dismiss its chances. Silly, I say.

I've said from the beginning that, due to the shared preferential ballot that hints at how films might break down in that voting scheme, whatever wins the PGA Award is my pick. So “Birdman” is now my pick, and the SAG support, expected from the moment the film revealed itself at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, is just icing on that cake.

However, this is definitely a competitive year. I have no doubt there's a lot of clustering in these races and nothing is the dominant, runaway winner. So if it's a bit up in the air and we're in a situation akin to “Little Miss Sunshine's” year, I guess we turn to the DGA for some guidance, where frankly, an Alejandro González Iñárritu win makes a lot of sense. But that also still feels like Richard Linklater's domain this season, so we'll just have to sit back and see what those 15,000 people ultimately thought. And it's sort of grueling that we have to wait two weeks for that.

In the meantime, we do have the ACE awards later this week, awarding the best in film editing. “Birdman” is likely to beat out Oscar nominee in the comedy category “The Grand Budapest Hotel” there, while “Boyhood” is the favorite in the drama category. So it really does feel like these are the two duking it out going into phase two. If there's softness, though, no doubt about it, something could spoil. “American Sniper” is catching a (controversial) stride and the non-SAG-nominated Bradley Cooper could steal Redmayne and Keaton's thunder. “The Imitation Game” is just acceptable enough to be a consensus favorite across the board. Etc.

You just have to think about that preferential ballot. What films are likely to have the least amount of #1 votes in the first round? Probably “Whiplash,” maybe “Selma” or “The Theory of Everything.” The guessing game is trying to understand what the #2 vote on a “Whiplash” ballot would likely be, or a “Selma” ballot, etc., as those will be reallocated as #1 votes in the second round. And that's nothing more than a guessing game because, you know, people contain multitudes.

So what we have is a compelling race, to say the least. And if Clint Eastwood or Morten Tyldum or Wes Anderson win the DGA, well, bedlam. Oscar ballots don't go out until Friday, Feb. 6, the day before the DGA Awards. So that DGA winner, it could be an influential piece of the puzzle this year. And we could end up with a nail-biter all the way up until the moment the Best Picture envelope seal is cracked. Just like last year.

All I know is this: Any bellyaching a “Boyhood” fall from grace is rich. We in the media put films on those pedestals by talking about them in terms of being “the frontrunner” (he said knowing full well what his headline would be). I've always sensed some softness in that steamroller, and again, I've been looking at “The Imitation Game.” But everything is in play. Sometimes it's better to just let an underdog be the underdog. No one was really expecting this of “Birdman,” and boom, there it is. And the critics, to say it for the umpteenth time, don't have a vote here. People fooled themselves into thinking “The Social Network” was unstoppable in 2010, and, well…

The season pushes on. People will put these films in the cage and make them fight it out, but it's all a little silly. They're both great films, and a number of others in the category, too. Let's just try to enjoy the ride and not chew on it too endlessly.