By Richard Corliss
February 12, 2015

Three of the four acting contests are sewn up, and the fourth (Best Actress) is reaching mathematical certitude. The Best Director prize looks to be won by a Mexican for the second straight year. But when the Academy Awards air on Feb. 22, on ABC with host Neil Patrick Harris, the Best Picture category will make this one of the cloudiest Oscar races in ages.

The top contenders are trickster endeavors, each filmed in 30-some days: Birdman, which pretends to be a single shot lasting nearly two hours, and Boyhood, which spans 12 years of a Texas lad’s life. Earlier awards from the most influential Hollywood guilds–Producers, Directors and Screen Actors–give Birdman the edge: no film that failed to take at least one of these awards has won Oscar’s top prize since 1996, when Braveheart defeated the guilds’ favorite Apollo 13. Then again, the British Academy (BAFTA) has picked the “correct” film for the past six years. And this time, BAFTA chose Boyhood.

Hovering above these two acclaimed movies is the (red state) elephant on the ballot: American Sniper, which has earned more at the domestic box office than the other seven Best Picture nominees combined. But it won’t win. The Academy voters typically prefer to honor an artistic triumph (12 Years a Slave last year) over a crowd pleaser of distinction (Gravity).

Here, then, are my picks for which films, filmmakers and stars will carry home 8½ lb. of Motion Picture Academy love from the 87th annual awards.

BEST PICTURE

American Sniper

Birdman

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Four of the finalists–American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma and The Theory of Everything–fit the old mold of fact-based stories about heroes conquering adversity. None of these is in serious play for Best Picture. Sorry, Selma.

What the Hollywood elite really loves is movies about acting. Consider that three of the last four Oscar winners–The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo–are tributes to the divine duplicity of performance in a palace, a movie studio or a U.S. embassy. Birdman finely fits these contours and should nose out Boyhood for the biggest Oscar.

BEST DIRECTOR

Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Birdman

Richard Linklater

Boyhood

Bennett Miller

Foxcatcher

Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Morten Tyldum

The Imitation Game

By all awards logic, Foxcatcher, which scored nominations for Director, Screenplay, Actor and Supporting Actor, should also be a finalist for Best Picture. It isn’t, and this chilly true-life tale may end up empty-handed on Oscar night. The Imitation Game, with its gaudy cache of eight nominations, could be similarly stiffed. Scratch Miller and Tyldum.

Anderson’s fantasy of European luxe deserves Oscars galore but won’t get this one, leaving Linklater to duke it out with Iñárritu. Last year Iñárritu’s pal Alfonso Cuarón took Director for Gravity, though his space epic lost Picture to 12 Years a Slave. Degree of difficulty will triumph again. Advantage Birdman.

MAKING OSCAR HISTORY

At 84, Robert Duvall is the oldest Best Supporting Actor nominee ever. (He’s the same age as American Sniper director Clint Eastwood.) If Julianne Moore wins, she’ll be only the second star in her 50s to get Best Actress.

Oscar’s memory is short: if The Grand Budapest Hotel takes the Best Picture prize, it’ll be the first movie released in the first three months of the year to win since The Silence of the Lambs in 1992.

This year, Bradley Cooper became the 10th man to score an acting nomination in three consecutive years. Of the nine who’ve achieved this feat before, only one–Richard Burton–didn’t eventually win an Oscar.

Front runners Boyhood and Birdman have, to date, each grossed under $40 million in the U.S. Either would be only one of two Best Pictures in the past 25 years with such a low box-office take.

BEST ACTOR

Steve Carell

Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper

American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch

The Imitation Game

Michael Keaton

Birdman

Eddie Redmayne

The Theory of Everything

In the race of conjoined-twin movies about tortured Cambridge geniuses, Cumberbatch loses to Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking impersonation. Redmayne and Keaton both do a heck of a lot of acting, with the young Brit taking the SAG and BAFTA prizes. He’s the favorite to win, as Cooper settles for a third consecutive Best Actor nod.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Robert Duvall

The Judge

Ethan Hawke

Boyhood

Edward Norton

Birdman

Mark Ruffalo

Foxcatcher

J.K. Simmons

Whiplash

Simmons, a character-actor lifer most familiar to TV viewers for his Farmers Insurance commercials, has been a lock since the earliest critics’ awards for his turn as the tyrannical teacher in the highly praised, barely seen Whiplash. No reason even to provide aisle seats for the other four nominees, though Norton’s sexy-menacing work merits lavish praise.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo

Birdman

Richard Linklater

Boyhood

E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

Foxcatcher

Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Dan Gilroy

Nightcrawler

We’re looking for spoken words here, eloquent and precise. So discard Foxcatcher–a tone poem of mute male gazes. The scenes in Boyhood seem less written down than lived in and overheard. Birdman is plenty chatty, but the dialogue isn’t as telling or voluble as the labyrinthine camerawork.

Nightcrawler, which deserved more Oscar love than it got, portrays its smiling sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal) through his creepy-smooth patter. But the glittering specimen is The Grand Budapest Hotel. The lines spoken by concierge Ralph Fiennes (robbed of a Best Actor nomination) are every bit as florid and delectable as the movie’s Russian-doll design. This will have to be Anderson’s take-home prize.

BEST ACTRESS

Marion Cotillard

Two Days, One Night

Felicity Jones

The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore

Still Alice

Rosamund Pike

Gone Girl

Reese Witherspoon

Wild

Sadly, Best Actress is nearly an irrelevant category in this year’s Oscar chatter: Cotillard, Pike and Moore are the only nominees from their films. As a professor battling early-onset Alzheimer’s, Moore is subtle, poignant–great, really–and a sure winner. Also, with four previous nominations, she’s long overdue.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Patricia Arquette

Boyhood

Laura Dern

Wild

Keira Knightley

The Imitation Game

Emma Stone

Birdman

Meryl Streep

Into the Woods

The movie could almost be called Momhood, and Arquette, who brought grit and a frazzled eccentricity to the main adult role in Linklater’s family-values drama, should probably be vying for Best Actress. But she has taken nearly every award in this safe slot and is primed to become the 16th actress to win an Oscar for which Meryl Streep was nominated.

THE WEEK

CHRISTINA RETURNS TO THE VOICE

‘THE PRESIDENT’S GOING TO HATE ME! THE NAACP’S GOING TO BE DONE WITH ME!’

PAGE 106

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

SPONSORED FINANCIAL CONTENT

Read More From TIME

EDIT POST