So why is it so incredibly easy these days to predict the acting categories and yet so increasingly precarious to discern what’s going to win the top award? Last year, it seemed strongly in doubt that 12 Years a Slave would take the crown from Gravity until the very last minute. The year before, Ben Affleck’s snub in the best director category made it an iffy-at-best proposition that Argo would buck the odds to take the award it was all but tailor-made to snatch.

And this year is no different. Of all four acting contests, only one is even remotely a contest … and not really much of one at that, as the balance of power over the last few weeks has inevitably shifted. The other three contests? Well, let’s just say nominees like Laura Dern, Keira Knightley, Edward Norton, Robert Duvall, Marion Cotillard, and Felicity Jones will all earn the “good sportsmanship” prize just for bothering to show up at all.

But an Oscar pool is an Oscar pool, and it’s not usually the big, headlining categories that count so much as the little, technical, specialty, “Birdman isn’t nominated here” categories. Those are the categories where making uneducated guesses will throw a big, gold-plated wrench into your plans to win that $7 prize at your Academy Awards party of choice.

Don’t get tripped up. Print out my predictions for all 24 (yes, 24) Oscar categories, including all those under-the-radar but fiercely competitive technical categories. And, just because what does win at the Academy Awards doesn’t always (or, dare I say, usually) deserve to win, I also offer my own opinions on who should really be ascending the podium on Sunday.

(And do not forget to do the research on the short film categories. They are crucial if you’re looking to get a major leg up on your pool competition. Click here to see our predictions for the Oscars’ short film categories.)

(credit: CBS)

Best Picture

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Will Win: At least four of these movies are legitimately in play. The two that are nominated for the most awards overall are Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. The movie that enjoyed the biggest critical push is Boyhood. And the movie that, no matter what you thought of it, tapped the zeitgeist like no other nominee was Clint Eastwood’s surprise blockbuster American Sniper. You could make a case for nearly any of them, but the guild awards point toward Birdman flying above this competitive flock.
Should Win: Is it a masterpiece for the ages? Maybe not. Does it reinvent the wheel? Not really. But no other film in this uneven lineup had a wider scope or a more generous worldview than Richard Linklater’s dozen-year labor of love Boyhood.

(credit: Focus Features)

Best Actor

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Will Win: For most of the year and indeed a good portion of what wags term “Oscar season,” this looked like Michael Keaton’s to lose. But, with a stroke of irony that seemingly falls in line with his film’s meta take on loserdom, it seems like Keaton will end up falling to Eddie Redmayne even as his movie feels likely to usurp Boyhood as the presumed best picture frontrunner. Oscar can be sentimental, but try telling that to Mickey Rourke.
Should Win: Far be it from me to encourage Oscar’s habitual fondness for actors imitating real-life notables, but Eddie Redmayne’s warm performance goes well beyond merely mimicking the mannerisms of Dr. Stephen Hawking. His soul lights up an otherwise mundane film.

(credit: Sony Pictures Classics)

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

Will Win: Unlike with Keaton, whose career has been, well, uneven, Julianne Moore has a decades-long track record of excellence. This is one career-tribute award that’s unquestionably going to happen.
Should Win: And you know why it’s going to happen? Because her performance alone merits the award, in addition to her career. There’s a lot of exceptional work in this field, but Moore is fierce and exacting as she charts the downward trajectory of her Alzheimer’s disease-stricken character.

(credit: Sony Pictures Classics)

Best Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Will Win: Continuing in a long streak of open-and-shut cases in this category (e.g. Javier Bardem, Christoph Waltz, Jared Leto, Christian Bale), there isn’t a scenario in the world that doesn’t see this one going to J.K. Simmons.
Should Win: Simmons is a workhorse pro, and does what he can with a truly one-dimensional character, but Edward Norton’s sly work as a vain, self-promoting, James Franco-esque art celebrity achieves the dazzling meta levels the film itself can’t quite muster.

(credit: IFC Films)

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Will Win: Continuing in a long streak of open-and-shut cases in this category (e.g. Anne Hathaway, Melissa Leo, Mo’Nique, Jennifer Hudson), there isn’t a scenario in the world that doesn’t see this one going to Patricia Arquette.
Should Win: In my perfect world, Laura Dern would already have an award for her shattering performance in Inland Empire, but it’s nice to see her getting recognition. And I’m certainly not going to argue that Arquette’s work isn’t filled with great nuance and detail. But, well, Streep’s Into the Woods performance (destined to be as underrated as her Oscar-winning turn in The Iron Lady is overrated) nails both the comedic and tragic aspects of Sondheim’s musical. C’mon, was I the only one who saw her rendition of “Last Midnight”?

(credit: Fox Searchlight)

Best Director

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Will Win: In the battle of the stunts, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s faux one-take choreography will likely trump Richard Linklater’s 12-year production.
Should Win: The thing about Linklater’s triumph is that it wasn’t just about the duration of the shoot, but the level of clarity and continuity he achieved spanning throughout all those years. (I want to see Wes Anderson win here too someday, but for something closer in spirit to Rushmore.)


Best Original Screenplay

Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Boyhood, Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher, E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy

Will Win: It’s a three-way battle of the best picture contenders that will probably end up breaking Wes Anderson’s way, if only because Oscar very rarely rewards large screenwriting teams like the one behind Birdman. And because many may not feel Boyhood feels plot-driven enough.
Should Win: In contrast, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s plot-within-a-plot-within-a-plot puzzle box structure is impressive no matter how you slice it.


Best Adapted Screenplay

American Sniper, Jason Hall
The Imitation Game, Graham Moore
Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything, Anthony McCarten
Whiplash, Damien Chazelle

Will Win: A genuine toss-up. A number of people presume Oscar will throw The Imitation Game its presumably solitary win, but Oscar generally doesn’t play the “consolation prize” game as often as people like to think. The two films that seem to have an actual heat behind them are American Sniper and Whiplash. The former may be too much a political hot potato, and the latter has filthy dialogue that simply won’t be ignored. Take a chance and bet on Whiplash.
Should Win: Of course, if you want to back a script that reeeeeally takes a chance, you’ll vote for Paul Thomas Anderson’s hilarious, inscrutable, druggy, loopy Inherent Vice.


Best Foreign Film

Ida (Poland)
Leviathan (Russia)
Tangerines (Estonia)
Timbuktu (Mauritania)
Wild Tales (Argentina)

Will Win: Voters have all been sent screeners of all of the nominees here, so it probably depends on how many of them actually watch them all. If they all do, then the energy of Wild Tales could pull off an upset. Otherwise, expect the highest-grossing and most acclaimed film in the lineup to win: Poland’s Ida.
Should Win: With only the exception of Estonia’s Tangerines, any one of these films would be a highly respectable winner, critically speaking. But given current events, the debate over fundamentalism, and director Abderrahmane Sissako’s unflinching eye, Timbuktu ought to be regarded as the movie of the moment.


Best Documentary Feature

Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth

Will Win: This is a category that often zigs when everyone’s predicting a zag, which could spell trouble for Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour. But a favorite is a favorite, so I’ll reluctantly stick with the presumed winner.
Should Win: If there’s a movie that seems ready to serve up that upset this year, it’s Virunga, which at first feels like a lightweight nature portrait but evolves into a fierce, suspenseful, merciless examination of sad socio-political realities.


Best Animated Feature

Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Will Win: The original How to Train Your Dragon was one of the most beloved animated movies of the last decade, but had the bad luck to go up against Toy Story 3. You know how I said Oscar doesn’t usually do consolation prizes? This category will be one of the exceptions.
Should Win: I have no idea what people saw in the second Dragon film, and would endorse any of the other four stealing away its Oscar. But I’ll defer to my cohort Jonathon Sharp, who placed The Tale of Princess Kaguya among his top 10 films of 2014.


Best Cinematography

Birdman, Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Robert Yeoman
Ida, Łukasz Żal & Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner, Dick Pope
Unbroken, Roger Deakins

Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki just ended his long and infuriating series of snubs and losses in this category last year when he finally won for Gravity. Now he’s looking assured for a back-to-back win thanks to Birdman. Let’s hope that there’s still some gas in the tank when it comes time to reward him for some forthcoming Terrence Malick collaboration.
Should Win: Lubeski never turns in substandard work, and he probably deserves to have a dozen Oscars. But I’m in awe of the lush, subtle textures achieved by the guy whose name got very unfortunately mispronounced during the nominations telecast in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.


Best Costume Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel may end up short in the big categories, but when it comes to the categories dealing with “the look,” it’s a force to be reckoned with.
Should Win: I maintain, as ever, that it’s one thing to turn in Oscar-caliber work for period pieces and fantasy films. It’s another skill altogether to nail a look that many in the category are old enough to remember within their own lifetimes. The post-hippie duds of Inherent Vice are simply perfect.


Best Film Editing

American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Will Win: So the joke goes, Oscar voters are sometimes accused of equating “best” with “most.” And this is one of the categories where it’s pretty easy to imagine that theory bearing out. Whiplash is cut to the pulse of a frantic paradiddle, and it’ll undoubtedly steamroll over its competition.
Should Win: That continuity and clarity I mentioned above regarding Boyhood? This is the category where the reward is due.


Best Production Design

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel not winning here would be the only thing more shocking than the realization that Wes Anderson’s fastidiously-designed movies haven’t already won this category three or four times before.
Should Win: If Budapest feels like a perfect little diorama, Mr. Turner encapsulates the sweep and turbulent emotion of an entire museum’s worth of paintings.


Best Music (Score)

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Alexandre Desplat
The Imitation Game, Alexandre Desplat
Interstellar, Hans Zimmer
Mr. Turner, Gary Yershon
The Theory of Everything, Jóhann Jóhannsson

Will Win: Poor Alexandre Desplat will likely lose for the seventh and eighth time this Sunday. Blame vote-splitting or blame Jóhann Jóhannsson for turning in a rather pitch-perfect imitation of an Alexandre Desplat score.
Should Win: I have a long-standing love-hate relationship with Hans Zimmer. Loved his work on Sherlock Holmes, hated his Inception score. Interstellar‘s pipe organs and low-rolling basslines are as responsible as anything for giving Christopher Nolan’s typically ponderous film its lift and scope.


Best Music (Song)

“Everything is Awesome,” The LEGO Movie
“Glory,” Selma
“Grateful,” Beyond the Lights
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Lost Stars,” Begin Again

Will Win: OK, maybe I was truly in error with regard to consolation prizes. The Academy, bruised by accusations of racism and insularity in giving Selma a mere two nominations, are going to make things as right as possible here.
Should Win: Unfortunately, that’s going to shuffle aside a number of songs that play far more integral roles in their respective films, foremost among them “Lost Stars,” which in its various incarnations practically takes on a life all its own during Begin Again.


Best Makeup & Hairstyling

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy

Will Win: Foxcatcher will get boiled down to Carell’s nose, and many will probably see Guardians being just as much a triumph of visual effects, leaving the best picture nominee the favorite, once again.
Should Win: And who am I to argue? Tilda Swinton’s old age makeup was spectacular.


Best Sound Mixing

American Sniper

Will Win: War movies do well here, and so do space epics. But you know what has an even better hit rate? Musicals. Of which, if you ask me, Whiplash qualifies.
Should Win: Birdman‘s visual triumph is so self-evident that I fear many are overlooking what a stunning aural achievement it is, to boot.


Best Sound Editing

American Sniper
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Will Win: If American Sniper is going to pull off a win, this is the most likely category. Note that one of the other recent winners was a similarly controversial war movie: Zero Dark Thirty.
Should Win: Say what you will about Interstellar‘s muffled dialogue (including “Say what?”), but so far as its sound effects are concerned, the film was an eardrum-tickling miracle.


Best Visual Effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

Will Win: Resist the urge to vote for one of the three Marvel movies in competition here. It’s not that they’re likely to split votes, as Guardians seems clearly more beloved than the other two. It’s simply that Oscar doesn’t reward superhero movies. This is Interstellar‘s to lose.
Should Win: I repeat, this is Interstellar‘s to lose. I wasn’t even a fan of the film, but the tidal wave world alone was a showstopper.


Click here to see our predictions for the Oscars’ short film categories.

Eric Henderson

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