The Oscar race narrows ahead of Sunday’s broadcast

The 87th Academy Awards are only three days away, and the suspense is beginning to build into a battle of “wills.” Will Richard Linklater’s tender coming-of-age story Boyhood win the night as many analysts are predicting, or will Alejandro González Iñárritu’s surreal showbiz satire Birdman fly off with the top prize clutched in its talons? Will the other nominees in J.K. Simmons and Julianne Moore’s respective categories even bother to show up? Will anyone tease Best Actor frontrunner Eddie Redmayne about all the guy-liner and sinister whispering in Jupiter Ascending? Finally, there’s the most important “will” of all: Will those of us who aren’t hopeless awards season junkies care enough to tune in?

2014 was a wonderful year at the movies if you knew where to look, but with the notable exception of Clint Eastwood’s jingoistic crowd-pleaser American Sniper ($307 million at the box office and counting), none of the current Best Picture nominees were engineered to be mass-appeal hits. They’re art-house efforts for the most part, ranging from the blood-on-the-skins grit of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash to the Merchant Ivory-style polish of Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game and James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. The only other nominee to crack $100 million was Wes Anderson’s delightful confectionary caper The Grand Budapest Hotel, mainly due to its conspicuously early release date — a March opening is rare for a would-be Oscar contender — and repeat viewings from the idiosyncratic director’s sizable built-in fanbase.

So, who’s actually going home with the little gold guy? The Best Picture race is a tough call this year.  American Sniper and Selma are both too politically polarizing to have a real shot at winning, and The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are little more than glorified acting showcases, even though the performances they’re showcasing are admittedly phenomenal. Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel were my first and second favorite movies of 2014, respectively, and I’d dearly love to see one of them score a come-from-behind victory. In the end, though, it will likely come down to either Boyhood or Birdman.

Boyhood deserves to be celebrated for the sheer scope of Linklater’s creative ambition — it was filmed over 12 years, thus allowing the actors to literally grow up with their characters — but the nearly three-hour film suffers from a soppy, meandering third act and an alarmingly passive protagonist who winds up resembling the whiny, directionless cynic we all took pains to avoid in high school.

Birdman, on the other hand, is a dark and daring technical marvel — film majors will be drooling over that single-take illusion for years — elevated by a fearless, career-topping performance from the great Michael Keaton. Iñárritu, a director whose previous work was hobbled by thematic pretension, has finally discovered his own wicked sense of humor, and attention must be paid. If Boyhood wins Best Picture, it’s a good bet the Mexican filmmaker will be given Best Director as a hefty consolation prize.

What about the other major races? The Best Actor category is definitely Redmayne’s to lose at this point. His transformative portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything should be judged separately from the film itself, an aggressively mediocre mélange of historical fact, cheap sensationalism and gauzy romantic gobbledygook. Redmayne’s stiffest competition is sure to come from Keaton, the comeback kid inhabiting the role of a lifetime, and The Imitation Game’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who previously appeared as Hawking in a BBC movie back in 2004. While it’s true Cumberbatch could embody tortured genius in his sleep at this point, the actor actually manages the difficult feat of turning the coldblooded code breaker Alan Turing into a tragic, achingly human figure whose facets and foibles are distinctly separate from the shadow of Sherlock.

J.K. Simmons should be considered the lock of the night to win Best Supporting Actor for his towering, fire-breathing performance in Whiplash. As Fletcher, the tyrannical music teacher who gleefully pushes his students past their mental and physical breaking points in order to satisfy his own ruthless pursuit of perfection, the longtime character actor has finally stepped into the spotlight, and the result is both hilarious and utterly terrifying. Julianne Moore, another gifted performer whose Oscar seems long overdue, appears poised to win her first Best Actress statuette as a linguistics professor battling early-onset Alzheimer’s in the devastating drama Still Alice.

The outcome of the Best Supporting Actress race is slightly less certain. Emma Stone and Keira Knightley both turned in top-notch work in male-dominated stories, but their awards circuit track record doesn’t bode particularly well for either of them. Laura Dern’s flashback scenes prevented Wild from being too much of a slog, but sadly this just isn’t her year either. Meryl Streep was undoubtedly the highlight of Disney’s watered-down Into the Woods adaptation, but her nomination really should have been given to Tilda Swinton for the latter’s turn as a simpering, bespectacled bureaucrat in Bong Joon-ho’s certifiably insane sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. Without Swinton around to make things interesting, the award will likely go to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood, a solid but dispiritingly safe choice.

Oh well, “solid but dispiritingly safe” is often the order of the day when it comes to Hollywood’s awards season. That doesn’t mean Sunday’s broadcast won’t contain a few welcome surprises, however. Neil Patrick Harris is hosting this year. Maybe he and Rosamund Pike can recreate the bedroom scene in Gone Girl as an interpretive dance number or something. Let’s see Amy and Tina beat that craziness.

Landon McDonald is a graduate student studying public relations. His column, “Screen Break,” runs Fridays.