It's the most wonderful time of the year with critics' prizes and best-ofs bestowing a bounty of gifts on this year's Oscar contenders. What movies are closing in on a best picture nomination? A look at that race and the contests for original and adapted screenplay:
"The Imitation Game"
"The Theory of Everything"
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Prime contenders: "Interstellar," "American Sniper," "Mr. Turner"
Bubbling under: "Into the Woods," "Wild," "Inherent Vice"
Analysis: Confession: I'm cheating here, listing 10 movies, even though with the tortured math the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uses with its preferential voting system, it's likely a maximum of nine movies can be nominated. (That's been the total for the best picture field the last three years since the rules changed allowing up to 10 nominees.) At this point, there are probably only 13 movies with a legitimate chance to be nominated. I'd like to see "Wild" in that group, but if it can't make it with the Spirit Awards voters, it doesn't have much of a shot here.
I'll save the case for "Boyhood" being the inevitable best picture winner for another time. (Short version: Voters love the movie and its back story. And actors — the academy's biggest group of voters — really dig the 12-year process behind making it. They can't stop talking about it — and wishing they had been a part of it.) Instead, let's look at the back half of the ballot — the movies that don't have a prayer of winning the Oscar but would be honored just to be nominated.
"Gone Girl" generated plenty of business — and gender-related think pieces — upon its early October arrival. It's David Fincher's biggest hit and though the academy's more squeamish voters can't see the farce through the blood spatter, all those eyeballs on it count for something. A movie that dominated the conversation like "Gone Girl" did tends to be remembered.
Earlier this fall, sight unseen, many pundits made "Unbroken" and "Interstellar" the favorites to win. Then people saw them. And that was that. Angelina Jolie's earnest survival tale will still likely be nominated, and, if enough voters reward Christopher Nolan for the ambition behind "Interstellar," it could too. But it's easier to imagine that the academy will dismiss Nolan's unwieldy jumble, ignoring Paramount's insistent ad campaign on its behalf.
Clint Eastwood ("American Sniper") and Mike Leigh ("Mr. Turner") have long histories with the academy, giving their films a legitimate shot. Both appeal to older voters; now, their backers just need to make sure the screeners make it out of the pile and into the DVD player. "Foxcatcher" owns the advantage of picking up numerous awards, but Bennett Miller's chilly movie isn't among the year's more accessible titles. Will it be loved or just admired?
You'd think a more audience-friendly movie with equal acclaim — Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" — could easily make the cut, but the academy has never nominated one of Anderson's films for best picture. Now would be a good time to start. Or they could go with "Whiplash," a film that hasn't found much of a theatrical audience but will likely be nominated in several other categories, including supporting actor, screenplay and editing. Good job, guys!
Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, "Birdman"
Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, "Foxcatcher"
Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"
Prime contenders: Paul Webb, "Selma"; Mike Leigh, "Mr. Turner"; Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, "Interstellar"; J.C. Chandor, "A Most Violent Year"; Dan Gilroy, "Nightcrawler"
Bubbling under: Chris Rock, "Top Five"; Mauricio Zacharias and Ira Sachs, "Love Is Strange"; Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, "The Lego Movie"
Analysis: The last two best picture winners came from adapted works, but that should change this year. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which "Birdman" wins this Oscar, while "Boyhood" takes the big prize as the perception lingers that Linklater's movies are something of free-for-alls without specific structure. Winning a nomination here will be a victory in itself with newcomers like Chazelle and Webb fighting for a spot with Leigh, who has earned five nominations for writing, and Chandor, another past nominee whose superb "A Most Violent Year" recently snagged best film honors from the National Board of Review.
Gillian Flynn, "Gone Girl"
Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game"
Anthony McCarten, "The Theory of Everything"
Nick Hornby, "Wild"
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, "Unbroken"
Prime contenders: Paul Thomas Anderson, "Inherent Vice"; Jason Dean Hall, "American Sniper"
Bubbling under: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, "Still Alice"; James Lapine, "Into the Woods"