Long after you have given up and gone to sleep on Sunday night—last year’s Oscars weren’t the longest of all time (that was 2002, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, four hours plus), but this will still go on past the bedtime of most reasonable humans—one of three films will become the 87th film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s going to be Birdman, Boyhood, or American Sniper.
No matter what happens, none of those three films will become the worst film to win Best Picture. (That honor belongs to The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days or, my pick, Crash.) And there’s honor in not winning, of course: The list of great films not to win Best Picture Oscars happens to include every film on the venerated Sight and Sound poll’s list of the 10 greatest movies of all time. But certainly the winner is always the story: This is an election, after all. (An incredibly complicated one at that.)
And you can learn a lot about Hollywood, and the world, from its Oscar winners. Last year’s winner, 12 Years A Slave, was indicative of the Academy’s longtime inability to figure out matters of race. (They obviously figured they solved it with that film, considering there are no black acting or directing nominees this year.) 2013’s winner, Argo, was a self-congratulatory back-pat on how Hollywood can change the world; 2012’s The Artist was another old-time Hollywood love fest, colored with nostalgia for a kinder, simpler time (even if the time was neither kinder nor simpler); 2010’s The King’s Speech was a lighthearted chaser after the heaviness of 2009’s The Hurt Locker.
Every winner is about so much more than just the movie. Sure, sometimes a winner is just a winner: There’s an undeniable and sometimes-wrong tendency to attach meaning and a narrative to the simple counting of votes. But the point is that by the time the voting comes around, the movie itself doesn’t have all that much to do with the outcome.
So let’s take a look at the three films that have a chance to win Best Picture on Sunday, and what they might tell us about Hollywood, our culture, and ourselves.
Why It Might Win: It’s a huge hit, for one. It’s the highest-grossing nominated film by a massive amount. (It has turned out, improbably, to be the biggest hit of Clint Eastwood’s career.) It’s also a big, sweeping American story—actually the fifth movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture with “American” in the title, along with American Hustle, American Graffiti, American Beauty, and An American in Paris—appealing to the older, conservative base of the Academy likely to be off-put by the weirdoes of Birdman and the scruffy edginess of Boyhood. Also: A big hit.
Why It Might Not: It’s more violent and disturbing than the other two possibilities, and definitely more polarizing, at least in a cultural sense: Hating American Sniper has become a certain cause celebre for the most liberal sections of Hollywood. (Which is not, no matter what Rush Limbaugh might tell you, “all of them.”) Certain sections of the film—and the stories told by its protagonist Chris Kyle—have faced scrutiny about their accuracy. (Though American Sniper wasn’t punished nearly as much for this as Selma was.) Perhaps most crucial, Eastwood wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Films can win without their director being nominated—Argo did it just two years ago—but it’s incredibly rare.
What It Would Mean: It would be a big political move, actually, for the Academy to take a movie that leans so conservative and give it the industry’s highest honor. It would also mean that the Oscar planners—always terrified of irrelevance—were trying to appeal to the largest possible audience by honoring the most successful film. It also might just mean they think guns are cool.
Odds: 15-1. It’s possible Sniper pulls off the upset, if just because it made such a late, fast charge … but it might just be too polarizing.
Why It Might Win: It’s a grand, huge Artistic Statement, which the Academy loves, particularly from a director (Alejandro González Iñárritu) they have honored before (Babel) but has fallen on hard times since. It’s technically dazzling in a way its competitors are not, and it also spends an awfully large part of its running time wrestling with how the public sees movie stars and Hollywood … which, you know, is a bit of a point of preoccupation for voters. It is also primarily about actors, who make up the largest voting wing of the Academy.
Why It Might Not Win: It’s fun and daring and wild, but it’s also insufferable at times, an obnoxious show-off showcase without anything particularly insightful or revelatory to say. (And I liked the movie!) Birdman is a gas, but it’s also a preachy one, and its defiantly unsubtle approach has led to more than its fair share of detractors. There’s also a sense that the movie isn’t about anything larger than the neuroses of artists. Though that might not necessarily be an argument against it appealing to ton of Hollywood voters.
What It Would Mean: Hollywood is more concerned with its own issues—of status, of career, of money, of prestige—than matters of the world (Sniper) or matters of family and the heart (Boyhood). The Academy loves honoring a director who just freaking went for it. Movies are envious of Broadway. Everybody loves Emma Stone?
Odds: 2:1. It was clear sailing for Boyhood for a while until Birdman made a crazy late charge, culminating in its win at the Producers Guild awards, often a harbinger for Best Picture. Birdman’s late momentum is the reason this outcome is so in doubt.
Why It Might Win: It’s unquestionably the best reviewed movie of the year. It is also an incredible achievement, filmed over 12 years on the side as director Richard Linklater—beloved in Hollywood even though he famously lives in Austin—made 10 other films. It also reflects well on Hollywood because the film’s studio (IFC Films) kept giving Linklater money every year to chase down this crazy project. It also is, quietly, a document of the last 12 years of American life.
Why It Might Not Win: The primary reason the movie is so great—that it avoids big “movie moments” in favor of an attempt to capture the beauty and heartbreak of actual human existence—can work against it with an audience not willing to give it a chance. There is this strange belief that the movie is somehow only a gimmick, that if you took away its premise, it wouldn’t hold up as a movie. Some people don’t like the main character. It gets hot in Texas.
What It Would Mean: It’d be a rare correct decision, though I’m biased. It would also honor a director Hollywood has admired for two decades, one who has stubbornly gone his own path even while occasionally dabbling in big moneymakers (School of Rock, most notably). It would also note that Linklater has launched the career of dozens of actors, including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, among others), and is the type of iconic, iconoclast artist that only America could produce. It would also make you cry.
Odds: 3:2. Still the favorite … but barely.