Three weeks ago, the best picture Oscar race looked like a wide-open contest between "Birdman" and "Boyhood," and credible cases could be made for the likes of "The Imitation Game," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "American Sniper," the latter a commercial phenomenon that has played with motion picture academy members of all political stripes.
That's all but over now, though. After taking top honors from the Producers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America, two big best picture bellwethers, "Birdman" has all but locked up the race, which culminates Feb. 22. If another movie wins, it'd rank as one of the most shocking upsets in the history of the Academy Awards, bigger than "Crash," "Shakespeare in Love" and Juliette Binoche over Lauren Bacall all wrapped up together in a Godiva chocolate gift box.
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And yes, OK, fine, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration born of complete denial over how thoroughly "Birdman" has steamrolled the competition the past few weeks. "Boyhood," the movie I've been predicting would win the Oscar, took the best picture prize from the British film academy last weekend and might somehow still win best picture or at least an award for its director, Richard Linklater. Probably not. I do know many motion picture academy members who are voting for it, but maybe I just gravitate toward people who think big meaning can come from small, tender moments realistically depicted on screen over the course of a dozen years.
How did "Birdman," Alejandro G. Iñárritu's technically dazzling movie about an actor's quest for reinvention and redemption, bushwhack the competition and capture all the mojo and nearly every award? The answer lies in that most elusive element of any awards season — momentum.
Two years ago, "Argo" won best picture partly because (certainly not despite) its famous, press-friendly actor-director Ben Affleck failed to receive an Oscar nomination for direction. Affleck's omission made headlines, and it didn't hurt his cause that he won a directing award (even if it came from the Broadcast Film Critics Assn.) some 14 hours after the academy announced its nominees.
Affleck and "Argo" didn't lose again, all the way to the moment Michelle Obama opened the envelope and declared it the best picture Oscar winner. The movie's unstoppable forward motion began immediately after the Affleck exclusion, but really that "snub" just triggered all the passion and goodwill the movie had already won after its early fall screenings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
The momentum, in other words, began more than four months before the academy ignored Affleck and was then carefully managed in the ensuing weeks. Timing is an art of the seemingly endless awards season. Peak too soon and academy members will become indifferent when it matters — the moment they're filling out their ballots.
"Birdman," like "Argo," premiered in the fall, landing at both the Telluride and Venice festivals. Critics went cuckoo. Variety's Peter Debruge called it "a triumph on every creative level, from casting to execution, that will electrify the industry, captivate art-house and megaplex crowds alike, send awards pundits into orbit and give fresh wings to [Michael] Keaton's career." And that was one of the more measured reactions.
"Birdman" opened in mid-October and did in fact captivate art-house crowds, though megaplex moviegoers remained indifferent. And then, publicly at least, its awards campaign went dark for the next several weeks. But behind the scenes, the film's Oscar consultants were making sure it would show up in the right places (Spirit Awards, AFI) and the right outlets in December. Momentum remained steady, and voter fatigue never set in.
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"Boyhood," meanwhile, faced a more difficult challenge. It debuted at Sundance last year and arrived in theaters in July. While the movie had a formidable and fascinating back story — Linklater shot it over the course of 12 years using the same actors, as you undoubtedly know by now — it was a micro-budgeted, experimental movie, resolute in its understatement. The rhythms of life and the passage of time were its main concerns, neither of which has any kind of tradition as Oscar catnip. (Movies about families don't usually win either. Fox Searchlight tried that gambit a few years ago with "The Descendants.")
"Boyhood" won a host of critics prizes as well as the Golden Globe for drama, making it, for want of a better candidate, the Oscar front-runner. But its support within the guilds proved soft. The movie's campaign has attempted to right the ship, creating a new tagline — "one family's life ... everyone's story" — that highlights its universal, emotional appeal.
But recapturing that early momentum at this 11th hour might prove elusive. "Birdman," with that PGA and DGA combo, will probably win the Oscar, a case of a very good movie, one of the year's best by most measures, winning academy members' hearts over a slow, steady and successful courtship.