Oscar nominations roll out this Thursday morning, marking the end of the period where any picture could be a little hopeful – Guardians of the Galaxy? The Hundred-Foot Journey? Rosewater? who knows? – and the beginning of the These.Are.Oscar.Movies.Who.Will.Win? phase. This year’s second phase is already dreaded because there’s no Gravity or similar box-office juggernaut to get casual fans to care (with the possible exception of Gone Girl). We face the less-than-encouraging possibility of watching Selma, The Imitation Game, and American Sniper race each other to a domestic $100 million with the “prize” being wags’ insistence that the winner deserves the people’s Best Picture. With such a dispiriting second phase predicted, you can bet critics and pundits have been loving this first phase, right?

Uh, no, not exactly. This year’s Best Picture Oscar race isn’t behaving. For the first time since the 2009 expansion of the Best Picture category, only four nominees can truly said to be set – Birdman, Boyhood, The Imitation Game, and Selma. Whatever you may have heard, the omission of any of those from the top category would be as shocking as a new Apple phone with a tactile keyboard. But the rest of the field is absolutely unset and unsettled. What’s unusual is that no fewer than ten films stand to fill out the other (five?) slots (more on that number in a moment), but we really don’t know which of them have the best odds. As of this writing, any of these films’ chances of making that Best Picture circle are about as good as any of the others:

American Sniper


Gone Girl

The Grand Budapest Hotel


Into the Woods


The Theory of Everything



Are the pundits annoyed that the Oscars are ignoring worthy fare like Snowpiercer, Citizenfour, and Goodbye to Language? Nah. They’re annoyed that they can’t agree on which of these ten films are in and out, as this chart shows. Most years, the variance is far lower; those linked pundits can typically agree on most of the list. This time, they seem peeved that no one is listening to them. Also, in recent years, the (linked) pundits have made much out of the fact that each individual voter only chooses five Best Picture nominees, and somehow (don’t ask me to explain the math) this tends to lead nine overall nominees (when there could be as few as five or as many as ten)…but this year, even that level of guesstimation has fallen out of fashion. 7 BPs? 8? 10? Who knows?

For the rest of us, this uncertainty has been fun! Why do we need so much predictability every year? Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel were on almost none of these prediction lists a month ago, and now they’re on all of them. Yay chaos! Further, what if the Academy went wild for Wild? Decided to have a most violent year with…well, you see what I’m saying.

It’s possible we’ll look back on the fluxing and flummoxing this year and ascribe it to the fact that the Best Picture hammerlock-winner, Boyhood, was decided over the summer, and the rest was all just jockeying for lesser glory. But that’s another thing pundits are hardly in agreement over; Boyhood wasn’t made by an “established” indie like the Weinstein Company but by the relatively undecorated IFC Films; it cost too little ($4 million); it made too little ($24 million); it isn’t about anything important enough; et cetera. Personally I don’t buy any of that. Boyhood is the people’s Best Picture.

Boyhood and Birdman are feats, stunts even, that dazzle with their technical virtuosity – while exploring subjects and themes that aren’t exactly outside the Oscar wheelhouse. Selma and The Imitation Game are more conventionally made period biopics about flawed men at the forefront of history – this being the very sturdy foundation of the Oscar wheelhouse. Boyhood and Birdman and Selma and The Imitation Game will be Best Picture nominees for these reasons and because they have been crushing the “pre” awards, laurels, and lists. The same is almost, pretty much, probably true about The Theory of Everything, even as it remains dogged by quibbles that it plays like a strong Masterpiece Theatre episode. (For a film with that title, the film might have ventured into more imaginative, even celestial, imagery.)

Ever see Citizen Kane? Remember the scene where the newspaper has two different headlines ready to go – “KANE WINS!” or “FRAUD AT POLLS!”? That’s not unlike the way the GoldDerby pundits have to write their columns in advance for this Thursday. Just to help them out a little, and in salute to the way Bill Simmons previews, say, a Cowboys-Packers game with both Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Cowboys and Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Packers, here’s a little primer before you read this Thursday’s, ah, morning quarterbacks:

Why I Always Knew American Sniper Would Make It: Cliiiiiiiint. Came out at just the right time. The Iraq War gives this race some gravitas that the 3 Bs just don’t (Boyhood, Birdman, and Budapest). Hits the Oscars right in its pro-war/anti-war/who knows? sweet spot.

Why I Always Knew American Sniper Wouldn’t Make It: Clint fatigue. Came out too late, one screener in the pile out of too many. Took care of the Iraq War with The Hurt Locker. The movie fudges the truth, can’t decide if it’s pro-war, anti-war, or what.

Why I Always Knew Foxcatcher Would Make It: A juggernaut since Cannes. Bennett Miller’s track record (Capote and Moneyball both got BP nods). In these twitterized days, the Academy loves a story about problems between a 1%-er and a 99%-er. Carell, Ruffalo, and Tatum are hardworking, courteous actors who deserve good things.

Why I Always Knew Foxcatcher Wouldn’t Make It: Lost all that steam since Cannes. Lesser Miller; no rooting interest, not a really compelling story, and the third act felt tacked on. In these twitterized days, we deserve a better tale about problems between a 1%-er and a 99%-er. Carell not only hasn’t won any awards, he’s missed some shortlists he should’ve made.

Why I Always Knew Gone Girl Would Make It: Better than Fatal Attraction, which was 1 of 5 nominees way back when. Brought back the sexy, intelligent, ripped-from-a-best-seller adult thriller. Only real (pre-nomination) earner and real female-led narrative in the race. Dominated the zeitgeist throughout autumn. Academy’s blessing will welcome more such films, cheaply made enough to provide alternatives to tentpoles-or-bust.

Why I Always Knew Gone Girl Wouldn’t Make It: Better than Fatal Attraction isn’t enough; still needed to deliver instead of divide. Can’t decide if it’s feminist or satire or if Amy is over-reacting to Nick or what. Academy hates unsentimental side of David Fincher (Dragon Tattoo failed to be 1 of 10 even after Fincher got 1 of 5 DGA nods that year). Academy’s blessing will bring more such films, which will be unwelcome failures, uh, without Fincher.

Why I Always Knew The Grand Budapest Hotel Would Make It: Wes Anderson’s most socio-political story, and the Oscars knew they had to give him a Best Picture nod at some point. Hollywood’s favorite period – the jittery time just before World War II. More than any film in the race (save Birdman), Ralph Fiennes’ lead looks like the Academy’s lead demographic – old white guys. Just won Golden Globe.

Why I Always Knew The Grand Budapest Hotel Wouldn’t Make It: Are you kidding me? This wedding vanilla truffle? Way too frothy and weightless and just plain silly; next you’ll be predicting a nomination for O Brother Where Art Thou 2. Academy owes Anderson nada. Got “hot” too late; half the Academy had turned in their ballots before it turned the corner.

Why I Always Knew Interstellar Would Make It: Oscar-level scope plus Oscar-level sentimentality. People underestimated the Academy’s “daddy-daughter” demo. People forget that when a film gets several below-the-line nods (e.g. visual FX) it’s easier to include it up-ballot. Voters want to make it up to Christopher Nolan after TDK snub. McConaissance not over.

Why I Always Knew Interstellar Wouldn’t Make It: Underperformer at all levels; couldn’t crack $185 mil domestic. Too obvious a play for Oscar sentiment via daddy-daughter pathos; nice try. Oscars happy to do below-the-line nods while keeping BP separate (e.g. recent Hobbit films). Voters love snubbing Nolan. McConaissance has become McConexhaustion.

Why I Always Knew Into the Woods Would Make It: Say it with me now: Les Miserables. Academy has proved time and again that they prefer a lineup with even a half-decent musical (or worse, like Dr. Dolittle) than one without. BP lineup needed another $100 million hit. Only big Disney money in the race. Streep! Sondheim!

Why I Always Knew Into the Woods Wouldn’t Make it: Oh, come on, do I have to explain this to you? Plays like Shrek 6, though at least Shrek had some non-whites. Unlike Les Miserables, has neither “real singing” gimmick nor French proletariat gravitas; never makes itself more than odd. No Streep film’s been in a BP race since the 80s; no Sondheim since the 60s.

Why I Always Knew Nightcrawler Would Make It: Academy loves a cynical statement about our current media that’s smart enough not to let up in the final act. Needed flipside to Boyhood/Whiplash’s optimism about millennials; the Gyllenhaal character says he knows “we’ve grown up privileged, but I expect to work” and we all see how that works out.

Why I Always Knew Nightcrawler Wouldn’t Make It: Too cynical for the Academy; needed a happier ending. Wrong message about millennial generation in the year of Boyhood/Whiplash. Too small and not by an established auteur; rookie director should try for BP after 2 or 3 more films.

Why I Always Knew Unbroken Would Make It: Angeliiiiiiiina, who’s been campaigning harder than Hillary Clinton. The Academy laps up World War II heroism/suffering with a tin spoon. Jolie smart to delete most of religious subtext for agnostic Academy. The BP lineup badly needed another $100 million-earning hit. Look at that feisty name: Unbroken. They couldn’t leave it Unnominated!

Why I Always Knew Unbroken Wouldn’t Make It: Jolie gets no automatic pass, as the Sony emails revealed. If WW2 was enough, why not Jolie’s husband’s (arguably better) Fury? Big mistake deleting most of religious subtext; the movie has no third act, turns out to be about nothing more than suffering. Unbroken? Try Unadapted. Didn’t make enough precursors; rottentomatoes rating was just too low.

Why I Always Knew Whiplash Would Make It: This year’s Rocky, and there always has to be one. Feelgood. You can’t forget it after you’ve seen it. Size doesn’t matter when you’re the little film that could.

Why I Always Knew Whiplash Wouldn’t Make It: Most years there isn’t a Rocky, and besides they’ve routinely passed over Hustle & Flow and anything set in school and lots of other dreamer-to-dream/student-to-master stories. Too small.

My cautious, final predictions for Best Picture nominations:

American Sniper



Gone Girl

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game


The Theory of Everything