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Analysis: The Unpredictable 2015 Oscar Nominations

On Thursday, voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences once again provided several surprises in its announcement of the 87th Oscar nominations, which included mentions for underdogs Marion Cotillard (“Two Days, One Night”) and Laura Dern (“Wild”) while omitting such “shoo-ins” as “The Lego Movie” for best animated film and “Gone Girl” for screenplay.

In a year where eight films will compete for best picture, it was a pair of independent films — one released in March — that walked away with the most nominations as “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” scored nine each.

Runners-up in terms of tallies were eight noms for “The Imitation Game” and six for “American Sniper” and “Boyhood.”

Though nominated for PGA Awards, “Foxcatcher,” “Gone Girl” and “Nightcrawler” all failed to land best picture nominations for the Oscars. David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and “Nightcrawler” had received a lot of attention from the guilds, yet ended up with only one Oscar nomination each: Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) for best actress and Dan Gilroy for original screenplay. And despite landing nominations for two actors, the screenplay and the director, along with a below-the-line nod for makeup/hairstyling, “Foxcatcher” was left off the best picture list.

Other notable factors include the odd case of “Selma,” which was nominated for best picture yet landed only one other nomination, for best song. Once considered a strong contender across the board, Ava DuVernay would have made history as the first black woman nominated for director. While the lack of guild love for “Selma” was often chalked up to the fact that no screeners were sent to voters, this was not the case with Academy voters, who did receive screeners in time.

Of course, the voting bodies are different for categories, which means hefty overall tallies are no longer an indication of the winner. The nomination leader eventually won best picture for 18 out of 20 years, 1984-2003. But when Oscar switched to an earlier date with the 2004 ceremony, that formula mysteriously changed and the nomination leader has only won best-pic four times in 11 years.

Here are other notable developments in various races.

PICTURE
This is the fourth year of variable voting, where the best-pic race could include 5-10 contenders. For the past three years, it was nine films.

All the best-picture contenders are English-language films, despite the Academy’s recent efforts to broaden the international reach of its membership.

The vast majority of nominees were either distributed by a Hollywood major or a studio’s specialty division.

DIRECTOR
The director race has been one of the 2014 Oscar’s most competitive contests, with at least a dozen worthwhile helmers vying for the five slots. A few months ago, it looked like this could be a historic year, with two women directors in the race: Ava DuVernay for “Selma” and Angelina Jolie for “Unbroken.” However, in the end, it was Wes Anderson for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Richard Linklater for “Boyhood,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for “Birdman,” Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher” and Morten Tyldum for “The Imitation Game.”

Miller was the only nominee not nominated by the DGA, which instead chose to recognize Clint Eastwood for “American Sniper.”

The Academy has the reputation of being an insiders’ club, but the director roster challenges that notion. Despite studio connections, all five nominees are iconoclasts, such as the Texas-based Linklater, Mexico’s Inarritu, Norwegian director Tyldum, the singular Wes Anderson and Miller, who along with Inarritu, are the previous directing nominees.

Some folks incorrectly assume the directing and editing categories are key clues to which best-picture contenders were the top vote-getters. When the Academy had only five best-picture slots (1944-2008), the best-picture and director contenders were identical only five times in 65 years. And two years ago, “Argo” won best picture without director Ben Affleck even being nominated. This is good news for “Birdman,” which failed to land an editing nomination — perhaps because the film appears to be done in one shot and it’s difficult to tell where the editing played in.

ACTORS
The best-actor category held the most suspense, with a dozen viable candidates. Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne were considered the only sure things, and all landed bids. Though he failed to land a SAG or Golden Globe nom, Bradley Cooper will return to the Oscars for the third year in a row for his work in “American Sniper.” And Steve Carell fended off competition from the likes of David Oyelowo for “Selma” and SAG/Golden Globe nominee Jake Gyllenhaal for “Nightcrawler” to land the fifth spot. Cooper is the only previous acting nominee in the group.

And for the actress race, many pundits were asking, “Who takes the fifth slot — Amy Adams or Jennifer Aniston?” as there were four actress considered locks with Felicity Jones for “The Theory of Everything,” Julianne Moore for “Still Alice,” Rosamund Pike for “Gone Girl” and Reese Witherspoon for “Wild.” But in the end, it was neither Adams nor Aniston but Marion Cotillard for “Two Days, One Night.” While Cotillard had picked up critics’ prizes along the way, she had been seen by most as off the radar.

The supporting actor category is the only one that has remained consistent throughout the season; all five nominees landed both SAG and Golden Globe noms. These are Robert Duvall for “The Judge,” Ethan Hawke for “Boyhood,” Edward Norton for “Birdman,” Mark Ruffalo for “Foxcatcher” and J.K. Simmons for “Whiplash.”

In supporting actress, four women were considered locks: Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood,” Keira Knightly for “The Imitation Game,” Emma Stone for “Birdman” and Meryl Streep for “Into the Woods.” Laura Dern surprised by besting the likes of Rene Russo (“Nightcrawler”) and Jessica Chastain (“A Most Violent Year”) for the fifth spot.

WRITERS
This year’s screenplay races has an anomaly: The Writers Guild considered Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” an original screenplay, while the Academy writers-branch team deemed it an adaptation. Sony Classics and the filmmakers weren’t notified, but the confusion did not hurt the film.

Left out of adapted screenplay was “Gone Girl,” adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel. The script for the hit film was widely praised, and Flynn landed both Golden Globe and WGA nominations. Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” also failed to make the cut. Instead, Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay for the divisive “Inherent Vice” was nominated, along with expected nominees “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash.”

In original screenplay, Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” received the film’s only nomination. Star Gyllenhaal had been racking up precursor nominations and, after landing several guild noms, including a PGA nod, “Nightcrawler” was considered a strong dark horse candidate in several categories. It will go up against “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “Foxcatcher” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

ANIMATION
There were 20 eligible animated features, representing a cross-section of computer animation, hand-drawn and stop-motion. The big news was the omission of “The Lego Movie,” the Warner Bros. hit that managed a nomination in the original song category only. While “Big Hero 6,” “The Boxtrolls” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” were expected to lands nods, the other two slots went to the more obscure “Song of the Sea” and “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.”

FOREIGN LANGUAGE
A record 83 films were submitted by countries, with the Academy unveiling a shortlist of nine on Dec. 19.

If a foreign-language film played in the U.S. during 2014, it was eligible in other categories. This year, the results were “Ida” from Poland, “Leviathan” from Russia, “Tangeries” from Estonia, “Timbuktu” from Mauritania and “Wild Tales” from Argentina.

DOCUMENTARY
There were 134 feature docus in the running, which on Dec. 2 were narrowed down to 15 finalists. The final nominees were “CitizenFour,” “Finding Vivian Maier,” “The Last Days in Vietnam,” “The Salt of the Earth” and “Virunga.”

Surprise omissions include “Life Itself,” about film critic Roger Ebert, and “The Case Against 8.”

ARTISANS
Several films boosted their nomination tallies via strong showing in Oscar’s 10 below-the-line categories: cinematography, costume design, editing, hair/makeup, music score, music song, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. This includes “Birdman,” with nominations for cinematography, sound mixing and sound editing, and “American Sniper,” which landed mentions for editing, sound mixing and sound editing. But the biggest boost went to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which landed bids for editing, cinematography, score, costume design, production design and makeup/hairstyling.

Three films once considered up for the top prize didn’t walk away empty-handed thanks to boosts from below-the-line noms. “Interstellar” walked away with five this morning, for sound mixing, sound editing, production design, original score and visual effects. “Unbroken” landed three, for cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing. “Mr. Turner” landed bids for costume design, production design and original score.

Most Hollywood artisan guilds have announced results so far; upcoming is the Motion Picture Sound Editors announcement Jan. 17.

SONG
The Acad had announced that 79 songs and 114 scores were eligible.
This category is always intriguing (see separate story). But it takes added interest this year, because of last year, when one of the five tune nominees was later disqualified due to campaign irregularities, “Alone Yet Not Alone” from the film of that title.

While the Common/John Legend tune “Glory” from “Selma” and “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” made the cut, songs from other big name artists did not. These included Lana Del Rey (“Big Eyes”), Patti Smith (“Mercy” from “Noah”) and Pharrell Williams/Gwen Stefani (“Shine” from “Paddington”), who were left off in favor of “Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie,” “Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights” and “Lost Stars” from “Begin Again.”

OVERVIEW
Last year, “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” established themselves in early September as the ones to beat. There has been a lot less certainty this year, with the Venice-Telluride-Toronto trifecta offering films that were possible Oscar nominees, but few sure bets.

Several films scored well in critics voting, starting with the Dec. 1 unveiling of the New York Film Critics prizes, including “Boyhood,” “Birdman” and “The Theory of Everything.” When the Jan. 2 ACE Eddie nominations were revealed Jan. 2, it started a flurry of guild results that added new players to the list, such as “Gone Girl,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Nightcrawler,” “American Sniper” and “The Imitation Game.”

Oscar movies are like a time capsule, reflecting the hopes and concerns of each year. There were three recurring themes in 2014 Oscar nominees: time, reality and survival.

The passage of time was addressed in “Boyhood,” with its unique 12-year shooting schedule; the flashbacks within flashbacks on “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; time travel in “Interstellar”; the distinct-but-linked eras in the biopics “The Imitation Game,” “Wild” and “Unbroken”; and the physical and emotional effects of the passage of time in “The Theory of Everything,” about Stephen Hawking (who wrote “A Brief History of Time”) and his wife Jane.

Reality reared up with the based-on-fact films “American Sniper,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Unbroken” and “Wild.” (In contrast, “Birdman” was one of the films that intentionally blurred fantasy with reality.)

For the 87th awards, there were 6,124 Academy voting members. The largest single branch is actors, with 1,150 (or 18.7%). Members of the 14 branches make nominations in their field, with all members voting for best picture. In the final balloting (Feb. 6-17), everyone votes for everything. There were 323 eligible films from 2014.

Oscar nominations in 13 categories were announced by Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Chris Pine at 5:38 a.m. PT at the Academy’s HQ in BevHills. Before that, for the first time, nominees in all the other categories (11 of them) were unveiled, starting at 5:30 a.m., with Alfonso Cuaron and J.J. Abrams doing the honors.

Awards will be presented Feb. 22 at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland. Neil Patrick Harris will host the rites produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The show will be telecast live around the globe, including on ABC in the U.S.

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