Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor no contest in Academy Awards

Jennifer Verzuh and Jennifer Verzuh

“Birdman” or “Boyhood?” Linklater or Iñárritu? Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne? And will veteran Julianne Moore finally take home an award? These are the questions film buffs are asking themselves in preparation for the Oscars this Sunday.

Of the eight solid, although not superb, movies nominated for Best Picture, two independent films have been singled out as likely winners: the blazing and creative “Birdman” and the critically acclaimed intimate coming-of-age epic “Boyhood.” Of the two, my pick is “Birdman.” It’s daring, original, beautifully filmed, features the strongest cast of all the nominees, and takes unique risks that deserve to be rewarded. Additionally, Academy voters love films that deal with actors and show business (think recent winners “Argo” and “The Artist.”)

The award for Best Director also seems to be between “Boyhood” and “Birdman.” While I’d like to see Alejandro González Iñárritu win for the immersive and exhilarating style he infuses into “Birdman,” and it’s not out of the question considering he recently won a Director Guild of America Award for his work, it seems likely the honor will go to Richard Linklater. His direction is sensitive, intelligent and reaches almost a new level of surrealism. Most of all though, I think voters will appreciate the dedication involved in taking on this twelve-year project.

The Best Actress race at least has a clear winner: Julianne Moore. Forget DiCaprio, Moore is undoubtedly the most talented actor or actress working today who has yet to win an Oscar. She’s long overdue and her impressive, nuanced and gripping performance as a linguistics professor who’s been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in “Still Alice” is poised to land her an Academy Award at last.

The Best Actor race is looking fairly competitive this year, with strong performances all around from established British and American actors. But it looks like it will either be Redmayne or Keaton. Redmayne for his transformative turn as famed physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, in what his clearly his best role to date that forces him to stretch his emotional and physical abilities. It’s biographical, too, which is always a plus. Keaton, though, gives such a surprising, eccentric and captivating turn in “Birdman” as a washed-up Hollywood actor trying to make a comeback on Broadway that it’s difficult, almost impossible, to see anyone else walking home with the Oscar here. My money’s on Keaton.

The least competitive category of the night will no doubt be Best Supporting Actor. Not necessarily because the other actors nominated aren’t good, but because J.K. Simmons gives such a powerhouse, superb performance that no one can compete. I didn’t even look at who else was nominated before predicting this win. J.K. Simmons has long been an impressive actor known for his character work, but his work in “Whiplash” changes everything. He’s completely reinvented himself here playing an abusive music teacher. It’s terrifying to watch him, but also an absolute pleasure.

Best Supporting Actress on the other hand is a little more open in terms of who may win. The frontrunner is Patricia Arquette for “Boyhood,” but I think there may be an upset. Emma Stone gave an unexpected, but absolutely terrific and fearless performance in “Birdman.” She thrived in her scenes with Keaton, no easy task, and filled the movie with moments of wit and insight. I can’t see how she can top this, and hope she’ll be awarded come awards night.

So far I haven’t predicted awards in any of the major categories for one of the most-nominated films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but that’s about to change. The film is a shoe-in for Best Original Screenplay. It’s witty, funny, creative, and unusual in all the right ways, all characteristics particular to past winners of this award [such as “Her,” “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”].

The 2015 Academy Awards will air Sunday night on ABC.