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Battle of the B-movies may open up Oscar race

Tom Long
The Detroit News

If "Birdman," a film about a movie star seeking redemption, wins the Oscar for best picture Sunday night, it will be the third time in four years the statue has gone to a film at least partly about Hollywood, following "The Artist" in 2012 and "Argo" in 2013.

Yes, that's right, Hollywood, you are the center of the universe.

Luckily, "Birdman" isn't the only horse in this race, although it does seem to be leading by a nose. The big battle Sunday appears to be between it and "Boyhood" (battle of the B-movies!).

"Boyhood," writer-director Richard Linklater's indie film shot over 12 years, was the clear winner among critics groups this awards season. It also won the Golden Globe for best drama and recently captured the BAFTA (British Oscar) for best picture.

But over the past two months, "Birdman" has picked up the top awards from the directors and producers guilds, as well as the ensemble cast award from the Screen Actors Gild. If you win over the producers, directors and actors, you've won a big chunk of Academy voters.

There is, on the other hand, a completely feasible scenario in which "Birdman" and "Boyhood" cancel each other out and one of the six other nominees emerges from the ashes. The picture that could benefit most from such a collision might well be Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," which became a box office sensation and controversy magnet when it opened wide in January.

You can bet the folks at ABC, the network broadcasting the Oscars, have been salivating over that possibility. The popularity of "Sniper" — which is on track to earn $340 million domestically, making it the biggest movie released in 2014 — is sure to draw viewers to the awards show, something neither "Birdman" (which has earned only $36.5 million) nor "Boyhood" ($25 million) are likely to do.

In truth, though, it's hard to rule any of the eight nominees out of this race, and a darker horse than "Sniper" may well win the day. Let's break down the contenders:

"Whiplash" —For: A spunky, well-acted, extremely likable indie about a battling music student and teacher from breakthrough director Damien Chazelle. Against: It's only earned $10 million and feels small.

"Selma" —For: Wonderfully made, historically and culturally important, inspiring film about Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for voter rights. Against: Only two nominations overall, potential backlash over supposed inaccuracies, a black historical drama won last year.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" —For: Beautifully designed and acted screwball comedy about a lavish hotel and its kooky employees, best director nominee Wes Anderson. Against: Comedies almost never win Oscars and there's little of substance in the film.

"The Imitation Game" —For: Hollywood loves British prestige films ("The King's Speech"), true story of a closeted genius/hero, impeccably made, best director nominee Morten Tyldum. Against: Downer ending, lacking a certain fire.

"The Theory of Everything" —For: Another British prestige film, another genius (although this one — Stephen Hawking — is alive), little-known story, breakthrough for actors Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Against: A bit soppy at times, vaguely downer ending.

"American Sniper" —For: The Academy loves Eastwood, story of American heroism in battle, elegantly made, hugely popular, confrontational. Against: Charges of inaccuracy, of right-wing perspective, perhaps too popular to be taken seriously.

"Boyhood" —For: Groundbreaking portrait of family in America, shot over 12 years, concerned more with texture than story, well-respected writer-director nominee Richard Linklater. Against: Takes its time, may have peaked too early with critics, low box office.

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" —For: Crackerjack acting ensemble, mesmerizing, inventive cinematography, the return of Michael Keaton, writer-director nominee Alejandro G. Inarritu. Against: Clumsy, pretentious title, underwhelming box office, a movie about movies and showbiz, and what the heck is up with that ending?

The old saw about best picture and director going hand in hand doesn't really stand up in the age of more than five best picture nominees. Last year, Alfonso Cuaron won director for "Gravity," while "12 Years a Slave" won best picture; the year before "Argo" was best picture even though Ang Lee took best director for "Life of Pi." This year, Bennett Miller is up for best director for "Foxcatcher," which didn't get a best picture nomination, and Clint Eastwood didn't get a director nomination for "American Sniper." So the categories have definitely drifted apart.

Still, if "Boyhood" or "Birdman" win, look for their respective directors to win, as well.

TLong@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

The 87th Academy Awards

Hosted by Neil Patrick Harris

7 p.m. Sunday

ABC

Enter our Oscar contest to win a SmartTV

The Detroit News will give a 40-inch Sony LED SmartTV to some lucky — OK, skilled and knowledgeable — reader who can predict this year's Oscar winners in the top eight categories.

Entering the contest is easy. Write down your picks for best picture, director, actress, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, original screenplay and adapted screenplay and email them — along with your name, address and phone number — to contest@detnews.com by 5 p.m. today.

Winners will be drawn on Feb. 23 and announced in Arts & Style on Feb. 24.

In case of a tie, the winner will be arbitrarily drawn out of a hat; otherwise, whoever gets the most correct answers will eventually be able to watch films by this year's Oscar winners on a SmartTV in the comfort of their own living room.

My picks

Way back in November, I was stupid enough to make some early Oscar picks. Now it's February and I'm stupid enough to stick with all six of those picks.

I do realize that at least three of these are shaky, but then this is a shaky year for Oscar. What it comes down to is the belief that even Hollywood isn't so self-obsessed that it would give three best picture Oscars in four years to movies involving Hollywood. And the belief that old blood will win over new in the best acting race.

Still, I'll concede things could well go another way. My best guesses:

Best picture: "Boyhood"

But could be: "Birdman"

Best director: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"

But could be: Alejandro G. Inarritu, "Birdman"

Best actress: Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"

But could be: Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl"

Best actor: Michael Keaton, "Birdman"

But could be: Eddie Redmayne, "The Theory of Everything"

Best supporting actress: Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood"

But could be: Emma Stone, "Birdman"

Best supporting actor: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"

But could be: Robert Duvall, "The Judge"