Every year, I pick my winners among the categories where I've seen the majority of nominees. This year, that makes 16 categories I've made my selections in. These reflect only who I'd vote to give the Oscar to if I could, and not an attempt to predict who will win.
In a surprise move, I'm splitting the Best Picture/Best Director ticket and giving the nod to Alejandro González Iñárritu, because the technical excellence of Birdman is just too great to ignore. It's claimed that the planning needed to pull off the "one shot" approach added two years onto the pre-production timeline, and that investment was well worth it. However, I won't be upset if any of the others (except the sub-par Bennett Miller) take home the trophy.
I normally don't appreciate Eddie Redmayne's presence in the films I watch -- he was the weak link in The Good Shepherd, for example. But he takes this prize for me, as he did a stellar job transforming into Stephen Hawking, just an incredible job mastering the role both physically and emotionally. I'd put this performance just beyond the trio of Cumberbatch, Cooper, and Keaton. Steve Carrell did a solid job in Foxcatcher, but I saw John du Pont as more of a supporting role.
This is a tough category for me because I haven't seen two of the nominated performances (Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night and Julianne Moore for Still Alice), and reports are the Julianne Moore is the front runner for the prize. I'm not surprised, as the three nominees I have seen didn't make me immediately jump to wanting to hand out statues. Still, of the three, I suppose I would have to go with Rosamund Pike for her chilling portrayal for the scariest crazy person we've seen since Hannibal Lecter in Gone Girl.
Best Supporting Actor
This is the easiest call in this year's lineup. J.K. Simmons is the reason to see Whiplash. His ability to instantly transform the persona of music teacher Terrence Fletcher from the malevolence of a Vern Schillinger to the father figure of a Mac Macguff repeatedly throughout the film -- even multiple times in one scene -- is utterly remarkable. The other nominees just don't measure up.
Best Supporting Actress
I'm not sure what it is about the actress categories this year, but I similarly find the list of nominees underwhelming. Patricia Arquette did a bit too much overacting in Boyhood. Keira Knightley played the typical Keira Knightley character in The Imitation Game (seriously, compare her Joan Clarke to her Elizabeths -- Swann and Bennet -- and tell me there's a major difference in how she approached those roles). Emma Stone did very little in Birdman. I suppose it comes down to Laura Dern as Reese Witherspoon's mother in Wild (a very minor part, though well-acted) and Meryl Streep as the witch in Into the Woods. Between those two, I think I'd have to hand the statue to Streep, since her role was so much meatier. However, I won't be upset if Dern takes home the Oscar.
Best Screenplay (Original)
I'll confess to not seeing Nightcrawler, but nothing I hear makes it seem like a serious contender. Instead, my pick would come down to selecting between Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. I'll be happy with either winning, but to narrow it down, I think I'd have to go with The Grand Budapest Hotel for its incredible use of language.
Best Screenplay (Adapted)
I've not seen Inherent Vice, but among the other four, it seems to me a contest between American Sniper and The Imitation Game. In my rankings for Best Picture, I indicated I thought The Imitation Game handled its multiple threads more successfully than American Sniper, so it gets the nod.
Best Animated Film
I wrote up three of the animated feature nominees back in January and have since watched the delightful The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. Still, I think I hold with my prior opinion that this is Big Hero 6's prize to lose.
I've not seen two of the nominees, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here. Of the three I have seen, "Glory" from Selma gets discounted because it's only used over the credits. Both "Everything is Awesome" from The Lego Movie and "Lost Stars" from Begin Again are used within the film, with "Lost Stars" actually driving some of the plot. Still, I think it's hard to vote against "Everything is Awesome", which sticks in the mind way better than just another Maroon 5 sounding track.
This was a great year for Alexandre Desplat, as I think his two nominations were the top two scores of the year. Between the two, I have The Imitation Game beating out The Grand Budapest Hotel because of its remarkable ability to evoke mathematics and machinery through its repeated theme.
Best Production Design
For me, this has to be The Grand Budapest Hotel for making a movie that could easily be captured in sequential frames of fine art. If it doesn't win, I won't be surprised if Into the Woods takes it or Interstellar is rewarded for its unique planetary sets.
I don't see how Birdman loses this given just how technically difficult it was to pull off. But if it does, I hope it loses to The Grand Budapest Hotel with its stunning visuals.
Best Visual Effects
The three superhero movies in this category all did a very solid job, but one that we've come to expect from summer blockbusters. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues to push the boundaries of what can be made to seem real with its very believable ape civilization. However, my Oscar vote would have to go to Interstellar, which not only realistically depicted some interesting alien planets, it also made physics news by providing the first accurate (we think) visualization of a black hole.
Best Short Film (Animated)
This was a great year for the animated short category. The Bigger Picture provided a unique mix of 2d painting and 3d motion capture that was interesting to view. The Dam Keeper was a heartwarming story about bullying and the importance of opening up to people and making friends. A Single Life was imaginative and laugh-out-loud funny. But I think the winner here has to be Disney's Feast, which succeeded in marrying comedy, drama, and 2d animation perfectly.
Best Short Film (Live Action)
This was not as great a year for the live action short category. Boogaloo and Graham was a fun, if not well-acted, yarn about two boys and their chickens in Belfast. Parvaneh told a heartwarming if not terribly profound tale of two girls bridging cultural differences and becoming friends during one night in Switzerland. I think I'd have to give this one to The Phone Call, a sparse British drama about a crisis hotline operator talking with a man who's in the process of committing suicide.