State of the Oscar Race: An Underdog Frontrunner and Other Thoughts on a Crazy Season

On the eve of the Hollywood guild nominations, there are more possible outcomes to the awards race than there have been in years

Unbroken, The Imitation Game, Birdman, Boyhood, The Theory of Everything and Selma

With one day to go before the Screen Actors Guild nominations, two days before the Golden Globe nominations and a month before Academy Awards voters chime in, this ought to be a time when the Oscar race is coming into focus.

Instead, it’s a time when the race remains unsettled, a little confusing, maybe exhausting and quite entertaining.

An anecdote: Last Friday afternoon, I was having coffee with “Boyhood” director Richard Linklater when I mentioned that another publication had just posted a story detailing 12 reasons why his film was the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar.

“Before I hear any of their reasons,” he said, “I just have to say, that’s kind of insane. That we would even be in that conversation… I mean, how could we ever be anything but a David to someone’s Goliath?”

Within 48 hours of that conversation, Linklater’s film was named the best film of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Online and the Boston Film Critics Society, to go with earlier victories from the New York Film Critics Circle. And for good measure, the British Independent Film Awards gave “Boyhood” the award for the best international indie.

So yeah, “Boyhood” is the closest thing to a frontrunner we have in this strange Oscar season, where every major contender arrives with big question marks and pundits waiting for the Big One to sweep everything away will have to wait for the Hollywood guilds to start voting for any real sense of clarity.

And yeah, “Boyhood” still feels like an underdog, even thought it ought to be impossible to simultaneously be an underdog and a frontrunner.

But that’s the kind of year this is. The frontrunner doesn’t feel like a frontrunner. (And, to be honest, it’s better for “Boyhood” to be an underdog, as Linklater no doubt knows.) The late-breaking films that might have looked like sure-fire Oscar bait from a distance – “Unbroken,” “American Sniper” – don’t feel quite so sure fire up close. “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything” are Oscar-style movies, but style points may not carry the day this year. “Birdman” dazzled lots of us, but we won’t know if it dazzled industry voters until they actually start voting.

So now we’ve got maybe 15 films battling for somewhere between five and 10 Best Picture slots – everybody’s assuming there will be nine nominees because there have been for the last three years, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see only six or seven.

And we might even have five or six films that could conceivably win it all, a big change from recent years when at this stage the race was already narrowed to “12 Years a Slave” v. “Gravity,” “Argo” v. “Lincoln,” “The King’s Speech” v. “The Social Network,” etc.

From this vantage point, I haven’t found any compelling reasons to move “Boyhood” out of my No. 1 spot, where it’s been ensconced since I started prognosticating back in August. But I keep looking for reasons to do so, because it feels like a critical favorite that won’t necessarily stay on top once the guilds begin voting. (Remember “The Social Network,” which seemed unstoppable until the critics stopped voting and it started losing every guild award to “The King’s Speech?”)

“Selma,” which seems the most formidable of the latecomers, is also in my top two, followed by “Imitation Game,” “Theory of Everything” and “Birdman.”

Also in the mix: “Unbroken,” “Interstellar,” “Whiplash,” “Gone Girl,” “Foxcatcher,” and “American Sniper,” and maybe “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “A Most Violent Year,” whose unexpected National Board of Review win should at least persuade some voters to pick up the screener.

And maybe my blind spot when it comes to most musicals is causing me to underestimate the chances for “Into the Woods”; if nothing else, it’s more entertaining than “Les Miserables,” and that film landed a Best Picture nomination a couple of years ago.

Over the next two weeks, a barrage of critics’ awards may give the mistaken impression that they’re making the race clearer – but they really won’t be, other than influencing those screener choices. And the Golden Globes will be even less meaningful, given the gulf between the 80-odd folks who vote for them and the 6,000 who cast Oscar ballots.

What we really need this year are for the guilds to chime in. The Screen Actors Guild will be the first to do so, on Wednesday, and they’re often pretty reliable when it comes to predicting acting nominations. (Maybe surprisingly so, given that the nominations are made by a group of 2,100 chosen at random out of a guild that numbers more than 100,000.)

The Directors Guild, the Writers Guild and the Producers Guild will be even more valuable, but those groups won’t announce their nominees until next year. So until then, here’s what we’ve got: an underdog sitting on top, more conceivable outcomes than any year in recent memory, and a whole lot of confusion.

It’s kind of fun. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.