Donald Clarke: My Oscars predictions

Birdman for best picture, Julianne Moore for best actress. Let’s see if we get them all right again

And the Oscar goes to: winners envelopes ready for awards night. Photograph: Jerod Harris/Getty

And the Oscar goes to: winners envelopes ready for awards night. Photograph: Jerod Harris/Getty

 

It wasn’t always this way. But predicting the Oscars is now a little like anticipating the results of a presidential election. We already know the winners in most constituencies. What remains of interest is the behaviour of a few volatile voters in a few swing states. Ponder this. Last year 100 per cent of this writer’s predictions proved correct. Either The Irish Times is infallible or this game is getting a lot easier.

Once again a few of the races are over already. At 1/50 with the bookies, Julianne Moore looks to be the most unstoppable best-actress candidate since Helen Mirren won for The Queen, in 2006. Playing a woman with Alzheimer’s disease in the moving Still Alice, Moore satisfies the taste of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for staged suffering, and on her fifth nomination an Oscar is seen as long overdue. JK Simmons, who plays a sadistic music teacher in Whiplash, will saunter to the best-supporting-actor award. Patricia Arquette, the warm soul of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, has the best-supporting-actress statuette in the bag.

Blame articles such as this for the inevitability of those races. Also point fingers at the ever-expanding awards-season jamboree. The obsessive coverage of satellite races – critics’ circles, then professional guilds – on 100 dedicated blogs slowly strips away significant doubt in many high-profile competitions.

And yet. In recent years the fate of the most important Oscar has remained uncertain until the last moment. Few would have been enormously surprised if Gravity had snuck past 12 Years a Slave in 2014.

As last autumn loomed it seemed as if, despite not looking much like a typical awards picture, Boyhood would be close to unbeatable. Yes, it was released outside Oscar season, in the distant summer. True, the decision to film one adolescent over 12 years pushed it into terrifyingly unconventional territory. But what was going to pass it out? Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman looked weirder still (by the academy’s conservative standards). There wasn’t much passion behind the two traditional period pieces, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a civil-rights drama, might be a contender, but the distributors had been slow in getting the picture before opinion formers.

The starting gun sounded with the Venice and Toronto film festivals, at the beginning of September. Sure enough, Birdman got strong reviews, but nobody much reckoned it would appeal to the Oscar greybeards. No other contender shook the consensus. Boyhood went on to win virtually every critics’-circle award as the year wound to a close. Linklater’s film took the best-drama award at the Golden Globes, while Birdman lost best comedy or musical to the perceived outsider The Grand Budapest Hotel. The rest of you could go home. Boyhood had the ermine.

Rise of Boyhood

It looks very different now. A theatrical tale that seems to have appealed to creatives, Iñárritu’s playful Birdman went on to win with all three of the major professional bodies: the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. Only one film, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (which ultimately lost to Braveheart), has taken all of those prizes and failed to grab the big one. Then, a day after the DGA, Boyhood rallied with a win at the Baftas. About 10 per cent of the American academy vote at the British equivalent. Don’t count out Boyhood just yet.

A decent race is also afoot in the best-actor category. With Birdman in the ascendancy, Michael Keaton, compelling as an actor seeking a Broadway comeback, should be a sure thing, but Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Stephen Hawking finds an actor yet again tackling a visible infirmity. The young Englishman looks to have the slightest of edges, but, should Birdman win best picture, Keaton could come along for the ride.

The other big story of the Oscar penumbra was the rise of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, the true story of a jingoistic US marksman, and the decline of Selma. Currently the third-most- successful film at the US box office released in 2014, the Eastwood drama received six nominations; the civil-rights story nabbed just two. What was that you said about typical Hollywood liberals? Neither film has a hope of winning best picture, but, what with there not being a single actor of colour among the nominees, an uncomfortable fug still hangs over Sunday’s ceremony. Neil Patrick Harris, the reliably fabulous host, will know that, should he fail to refer to the controversies in his comic monologue, somebody else may well address them in less obliging fashion. Keep an ear open.

The two main Irish contenders have mountains to climb. Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea always seemed like a contender for a nomination in the best-animated-feature category. The shortlist is selected by the animation branch, who are more likely to catch lower-budgeted pictures. Now the electorate expands to the entire academy, and it may be a struggle for the Irish film to get past big beasts such as How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero Six. In the best-live-action-short category, Michael Lennox’s delightful Boogaloo and Graham has a slightly better chance of overhauling that race’s favourite, Mat Kirkby’s touching The Phone Call.

Almost nobody is foolish enough to believe that these awards are any worthwhile measure of the year’s best films. Boyhood would be a worthy winner, but such releases as Under the Skin, Mr Turner, The Babadook and Ida were never in the running. Look back, however, and you’ll agree that the nominees are much more interesting than they were decades ago. In 1990 such unlovely films as Awakenings, Ghost and The Godfather Part III made the final corral. Raise a tentative glass to the nude gold man. Things could be worse. They once were.

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