Oscars 2015: Who Will Win, Who Should Win (Analysis)

It's a year filled with no best pic frontrunner, too-tight-to-call face-offs and, in some cases, a pretty weak field, as THR's chief film critic Todd McCarthy first offers his picks for who should win and THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg offers his predictions for who will win.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

A version of this story appears in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on Feb. 22 (voting for which ended at 5 p.m. PT on Feb. 17), THR's chief film critic Todd McCarthy offers his pics for who deserves to win in the major categories and awards analyst Scott Feinberg predicts who is most likely to win in all 24 races.

See more Oscars: 'Boyhood'-ing the Acting Nominees


Birdman is the best of a very good, but not stellar, group of eight nominees. There's a distinctly indie, film-festival feel to this year's contenders, and American Sniper is the only one to have connected in a big way with the general public. But Birdman is the most vibrant, original, pulsating, unpredictable movie in the field. SHOULD WIN: BIRDMAN

It is not unlike anything that’s ever been done before (BAFTA winner Boyhood), about anything of great consequence (film fest favorite The Imitation Game), deeply moving (box-office hit American Sniper) or reflective of the zeitgeist (late-breaking Selma). But, like two of the past three winners (The Artist and Argo), it's about show business. Plus, only one film, Apollo 13, has won the top PGA, SAG and DGA awards — as Birdman has — and not won best picture. (And it's worth noting that Birdman won the PGA Award under the same preferential voting system that the Academy employs to determine its best pic.) So, even though a film without a best film editing nom hasn't won best pic since Ordinary People 34 years ago, it's still the safest bet. WILL WIN: BIRDMAN


All five nominated directors delivered bold work, but the one who flew closest to the sun, gambled most and showed the greatest creative resourcefulness was Alejandro G. Inarritu. If he wins, it would represent a stunning one-two punch from the vanguard of Mexican filmmakers, after Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity win in 2014. SHOULD WIN: ALEJANDRO G. INARRITU (BIRDMAN)

Winners of the top DGA Award — this year, Birdman's Alejandro G. Inarritu — and this prize have overlapped in all but seven of 66 years. But directors account for only 6 percent of the Academy's membership, so that's more coincidental than causal. Even those who don't love Boyhood appreciate the vision and 12-year commitment required from its helmer. WILL WIN: RICHARD LINKLATER (BOYHOOD)


At least three others belong in this category — Locke's Tom Hardy, Selma's David Oyelowo and Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal — and a very good case could be made for all five nominees. But the actor whose role has strong self-referential reverberations has the edge. Will the man with the underpants and wings, Michael Keaton, please stand up. SHOULD WIN: MICHAEL KEATON (BIRDMAN)

By playing a real person who has made his mark on the world despite a physical disability, Eddie Redmayne has followed the path of many past winners. He faces stiff competition, notably from Michael Keaton, but nobody has campaigned harder. Plus, he won nearly every major precursor prize — including Golden Globe and BAFTA awards, as well as the SAG Award (which has correctly predicted this category each of the last 10 years) — and got a ringing endorsement from Stephen Hawking. WILL WIN: EDDIE REDMAYNE (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING)

See more Oscars: 20 Best Actor Winners of Past Years (Photos)


I love all of these actresses but it's a weak year for this category; none of these performances electrified. On a moment-to-moment basis, Julianne Moore is terrific and deserves to win — even if her film is medicine I have not, in good conscience, been able to urge anyone to see. SHOULD WIN: JULIANNE MOORE (STILL ALICE)

No active actress under the age of 60 who doesn't already have an Oscar is more respected by her peers than Julianne Moore, who heartbreakingly portrays a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's. Depressing subject matter can frighten off voters, but Moore is up against two past winners (Reese Witherspoon and Marion Cotillard) and two newbies (Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike). WILL WIN: JULIANNE MOORE (STILL ALICE)


Not only does J.K. Simmons give a knockout performance as the type of teacher some recognize from experience, but also, how often does a lifelong character actor get a chance to break out with a meaty part that makes him a household name? And at 60, no less? Simmons had the great fortune to show what he's capable of and made the most of it. SHOULD WIN: J.K. SIMMONS (WHIPLASH)

J.K. Simmons' face has been well known for years; now the prolific character actor's name is catching up. For his portrait of a demanding music teacher — a tyrant in the vein of John Houseman in The Paper Chase and Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman, performances that won this trophy years ago — he has won every major precursor award. And though he's up against bigger names who also are overdue (Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo), it's his turn. WILL WIN: J.K. SIMMONS (WHIPLASH)


As in the best actress category, I was not lost in admiration for any of these performances. But who brought the most zing and unpredictability to the film in which she appeared? Emma Stone. I have little doubt she'll play more complex roles than this, but every scene of Birdman that she's in has a little something extra. SHOULD WIN: EMMA STONE (BIRDMAN)

Everyone loves a feel-good story, and Patricia Arquette certainly is one. A sexy star in her youth, she had fewer opportunities as she reached middle age — but unlike contemporaries, she had an ace in the hole: a project she began working on in 2002 that features her best work yet. She has swept the walk-up awards and stands as the prohibitive favorite. WILL WIN: PATRICIA ARQUETTE (BOYHOOD)

See more Oscars: 20 Best Actress Winners of Past Years (Photos)


Whiplash has the best screenplay in this category, but the script doesn't properly belong — though Academy rules dictated its inclusion here, rather than in original screenplay. What to do? Give it to Whiplash anyway because it's the best of the bunch; the others are good but flawed in ways that prevent their films from being even better. SHOULD WIN: WHIPLASH

The WGA Award and USC Scripter went to The Imitation Game, the BAFTA Award to The Theory of Everything and moviegoers voted for American Sniper. But I'm going with Whiplash because its 30-year-old screenwriter, Damien Chazelle, also directed it, and that's true of only one other nominee (Paul Thomas Anderson, for the divisive Inherent Vice) and is something voters like. WILL WIN: WHIPLASH


These screenplays really feel like originals: eccentric, individualistic. If one were to read any of them cold, doubts about their viability as films would be understandable. But they played beautifully onscreen. For its sheer originality, frisky humor and sophistication, I'm going with The Grand Budapest Hotel. SHOULD WIN: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Foxcatcher and Nightcrawler are too dark to win, and Boyhood strikes many as less a script than an improvisation, which leaves this between Golden Globe winner Birdman and BAFTA winner The Grand Budapest Hotel. The latter is quirky in just the way this category tends to reward. WILL WIN: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL


Has anyone outside of the animation branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seen all five films nominated for this award? Has anyone else seen more than one or two of them? I have not, and what I saw I didn't like, so I politely abstain from endorsing any nominee in this category. SHOULD WIN: ABSTAIN

The Lego Movie is (outrageously) out of the running, so it's between two other big-budget CG-animated films: Golden Globe/Annie winner How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6, the Visual Effects Society winner. It's a tossup: Disney's Frozen won in 2014, but this would be DreamWorks Animation's first win since 2006, and voters might boost the embattled studio. WILL WIN: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

See more Oscars: 3 Degrees of Meryl Streep (Photos)


It's hard to find a negative thing to say about any of these documentaries, a first-class collection. That opens the discussion to such nonartistic factors as social significance, personal daring and journalistic timeliness. Aesthetically I prefer The Salt of the Earth, but there can be no question the documentary "of the moment" is Citizenfour. SHOULD WIN: CITIZENFOUR

Muckrakers have a long history of success here, and Citizenfour subject Edward Snowden and director Laura Poitras are the embodiment of the word. One can't write off Virunga or Last Days in Vietnam — voters also have rewarded docs about animals and the Vietnam War — but this portrait of Edward Snowden has won every precursor not claimed by the Academy-snubbed Life Itself. WILL WIN: CITIZENFOUR


Leviathan is the year's best film, period. Ida and Wild Tales aren't far behind, and Timbuktu and Tangerines are nothing to sneeze at. If Leviathan, critical of the Russian regime, were to win, Putin critics would view it as a sanctioned middle finger — while his supporters could cite it as proof that in the new Russia, all points of view are permitted. SHOULD WIN: LEVIATHAN

It would be hard to design a movie more suited to the Academy's taste than Pawel Pawlikowski's BAFTA-winning black-and-white Holocaust-connected drama Ida, which could become the first Polish film ever to win this prize. But don't count out Argentina's hilarious Wild Tales or Russia's ballsy Leviathan, both of which boast substantial bases of support. WILL WIN: IDA

See more Oscars: 10 Times the Academy Awards Shouted "Surprise!" (Photos)

And Feinberg predicts the rest...


Though some will realize that a vote for Unbroken is a vote for the long-overdue Roger Deakins, while others will be drawn to Ida's black-and-white palette, expect Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki to win this prize for the second year in a row — he won for Gravity last year — for creating the appearance that Birdman was lensed in one continuous shot, a la sequences of Touch of Evil and The Player. WILL WIN: BIRDMAN


There are many great options in this category — the work of three-time winner Colleen Atwood and three-time nominee Anna B. Sheppard were the best parts of Into the Woods and Maleficent, respectively — but this award will go to Milena Canonero, who already has three, for her kitschy costuming of Budapest. (She has already won the BAFTA and Critics' Choice prizes and will probably win one from the Costume Designers Guild on Feb. 17.) WILL WIN: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL


While BAFTA winner Whiplash was rhythmically edited to feel like the music at its center, Sniper was cut in a way to build maximal tension, and both American Cinema Editors Award comedy winner Budapest and Imitation Game have very little fat on their bones, it seems likely that this honor will go to ACE Award drama winner Sandra Adair, Richard Linklater's cutter of more than 25 years, who faced and met the most obvious editing challenge: making footage from 12 different years flow seamlessly together. WILL WIN: BOYHOOD


Some voters may have been lured to Foxcatcher by Steve Carell's enhanced schnoz or Guardians of the Galaxy by this rare opportunity to support a popular film. But, more often than not, this is a coattail category, which bodes well for the team behind Budapest — which recently won two top prizes at the Make-up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards, and one-half of which's team won in this category just three years ago for The Iron Lady — not least for making Tilda Swinton completely unrecognizable. WILL WIN: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL


Many found Hans Zimmer's score for Interstellar to be overly assertive and failed to watch Mr. Turner at all. So this is a nail-biter between Golden Globe winner Theory and BAFTA winner Budapest, with The Imitation Game possibly playing the role of a spoiler. (Budapest and Imitation Game were both composed by perennial bridesmaid Alexandre Desplat.) People just seem to remember Theory's traditional, sweeping tracks by Johann Johannsson more than they do the other scores. WILL WIN: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING


Diane Warren could win for the first time on her seventh nom, for "Grateful," but few saw Beyond the Lights and her name doesn't appear on the ballot (only the song and the film in which it is featured do). "Lost Stars" is the most commercially successful of the nominees, but that's not a reliable predictor of a win (ask Warren). "Everything Is Awesome" is a catchy and cute tune from an animated film, like last year's "Happy," but just like "Happy" it annoys a lot of people, too. Most are putting their chips on "Glory," anticipating an attempt to disprove the notion that the Academy has a problem with Selma and give it something, and they may be right — but my sense is that voters don't think that way. Instead, I suspect they'll go with the familiar name, Glen Campbell, an icon of their own era, alongside "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," and back him. WILL WIN: "I'M NOT GONNA MISS YOU" (GLEN CAMPBELL: I'LL BE ME)


The designers branch rightly nominated fine production work from Interstellar, Into the Woods and Mr. Turner, but those movies were treated as toxic by much of the rest of the Academy, so I wouldn't bet on any of them surpassing either Imitation Game or, more likely, Budapest, a big winner at the Art Directors Guild Awards and the first Wes Anderson movie ever even nominated in this category. Since this Anderson film, like all before it, features such eccentric and distinct production design, it gets the edge. WILL WIN: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL


The vast majority of voters have no idea what sound editing really entails. That means that Birdman could win on coattail votes — but the prize usually goes to a big, loud blockbuster that a lot of people like but won't be able to justify recognizing much elsewhere, which is why I think American Sniper will take this one. WILL WIN: AMERICAN SNIPER


Again, most voters have no idea how to evaluate this category, and therefore consider other criteria, such as being loud (why effects-driven movies often win here) and/or featuring a lot of music (why musicals often win here). While Birdman could overcome this and win on coattails, I think it's between BAFTA winner Whiplash and Sniper, with the edge going to the bigger film (and hit). WILL WIN: AMERICAN SNIPER


This is yet another category that is overwhelmingly decided by people who have no idea what they're talking about. That's why it has always gone to the best pic nominee in the group when there is one. In a year like this, when one is not, it could go to the nominee that is most popular overall (Guardians) or that revolves around VFX the most (the Visual Effects Society's pick, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). But I think that BAFTA winner Interstellar, the closest thing to a straight drama in the field, will eek it out. WILL WIN: INTERSTELLAR


A Single Life is witty but slight. Me and My Moulton is cute but austere, and The Bigger Picture is creative but dark. Feast, a charming pic about a dog, is the most traditionally animated (it comes via Disney) and was seen by the most people (it ran before Big Hero 6), which is why many are picking it. But my gut is that the prize will go to another pic featuring anthropomorphic animals, The Dam Keeper, which was made by Pixar alums, deals with bullying, has the longest runtime and, in my view, the most substance. WILL WIN: THE DAM KEEPER


This is a field filled with bleak stories. White Earth and The Reaper are a bit slow and meandering. Our Curse is oppressively sad. The two longest and meatiest are Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, via HBO, and Joanna, which is in Polish (both about 40 minutes). The former is about the heroes at a call center who try to dissuade suicidal vets from taking their own lives. The latter is about a dying mother's last days with her young son. It's a coin-toss, but I think more people will emotionally connect with Joanna and Joanna. WILL WIN: JOANNA


Butter Lamp is too weird for most. Israel's Aya is the longest, and it starts to feel that way. The Phone Call features Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins and Oscar winner Jim Broadbent's voice, but doesn't really go anywhere. Boogaloo and Graham could take it — it's intermittently funny and features cute kids. But my guess is that Parvaneh, a Student Academy Award winner, has the most appealing balance of quality filmmaking, appealing characters and social relevance. WILL WIN: PARVANEH

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg