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The Contenders 

A look at this year's Oscar field

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Even if the Academy decided not to utilize its maximum number of Best Picture nominees, this year's Oscars features one of the strongest fields in recent memory. There could easily be some upsets come Sunday, but here's how we think things will shape up.

BEST PICTURE

Frontrunner: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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The real winner in this year's Best Picture nominees is, perhaps, the drummer. Though serving drastically different though not entirely disparate purposes in nominated films Whiplash and Birdman, the pulsing march of creativity present in each is music to the Academy's ears. Birdman takes the lead, however, thanks to the frenetic rhythm of star Michael Keaton and the meticulously avant-garde jazz of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Not a moment is wasted in Birdman's 119 minutes, which helps evoke the dizzying pace of an artist's vitriolic internal dialogue. Though the film's ending is a source of contention for its few detractors, the Academy is not prone to shying away from such divisiveness — just ask the Coen Brothers, who took home Best Picture in 2008 for the equally divisive No Country for Old Men. (TRACE WILLIAM COWEN)

Also nominated: American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

BEST DIRECTOR

Frontrunner: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

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Should Linklater win this simply because Boyhood was perhaps the most audacious piece of filmmaking in recent memory? Or should he take the prize because Boyhood is a brilliant piece of storytelling? Take your pick, but Linklater, a director who has been doing things his own way since debuting with Slackers, then Dazed and Confused, gave us a very real and blemished look at growing up with this beast of a movie that was shot over 12 years. Sure, he could have trimmed a half-hour in editing, but what remains is a remarkably relatable story that allows its audience to grow along with the characters. The stylistic pyrotechnics of Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel and Iñárritu's Birdman are notable, but ambition gives this to Linklater. (MIKE BOOKEY)

Also nominated: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman; Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher; Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel; Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

BEST ACTRESS

Frontrunner: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

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In Still Alice, Julianne Moore plays a linguistics professor who can't quite find the right words for things and gets lost on her morning runs. Early-onset Alzheimer's is the diagnosis. This is the sort of dramatic role the Academy eats for breakfast, but in the hands of Moore, Dr. Alice Howland deteriorates before our eyes in subtle sadness. There are no big freak-outs or melodramatic speeches about how life is unfair. Moore has already cleaned up this award season, taking home a Golden Globe and a BAFTA (the British Oscars). Other female performances were nuanced and fearless (especially Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl), but Moore, who's been nominated four times without winning, will take this. (LAURA JOHNSON)

Also nominated: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night; Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything; Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl; Reese Witherspoon, Wild

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Frontrunner: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

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Meryl Streep's inclusion in this year's nominees for Best Supporting Actress is baffling, especially when compared with Patricia Arquette's career-defining performance as the mother in Richard Linklater's sure-to-be-studied-in-film-school-forever Boyhood. Arquette's nuanced performance as a mother coming to the terms with the inevitability of time and age is tastefully subtle, effortlessly empathetic, and — above all else — real. Laura Dern (Wild) and Emma Stone (Birdman) proved more than worthy of their respective nominations, but the roads to public and critical hype surrounding Arquette's ode to motherhood will likely merge, forming a direct path to an Oscar. (TWC)

Also nominated: Laura Dern, Wild; Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game; Emma Stone, Birdman; Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

BEST ACTOR

Frontrunner: Michael Keaton, Birdman

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Under Alejandro González Iñárritu's brilliantly jazz-like direction, Keaton was able to tap into virtually every chapter of his storied career in Birdman without leaning on misguided nostalgia. Viewers betting on Eddie Redmayne's physical feat of a performance in The Theory of Everything are counting on the Academy's longtime love affair with British actors, which is valid. However, Keaton's cinematic exploration of the artist's ego, though not a comeback in the traditional sense, certainly qualifies as a late-career resurgence — a narrative the Academy loves to encourage. (TWC)

Also nominated: Steve Carell, Foxcatcher; Bradley Cooper, American Sniper; Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game; Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Frontrunner: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

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It's sweet that the other nominees for Best Supporting Actor will attend this Sunday's ceremony, but there is no possibility that anyone other than J.K. Simmons will win. In Whiplash, a horror film masquerading as a drama, all of the kindness of his character from Juno or the insurance commercials is gone. Instead, Simmons plays a conservatory jazz band instructor who gets his kicks out of terrorizing his students. He throws things at them, screams in their face and calls them every sort of racial, sexual and religious slur imaginable and unimaginable. Simmons' performance is so batshit crazy you want to punch him and scream at him and talk about the injustice of it all. (LJ)

Also nominated: Robert Duvall, The Judge; Ethan Hawke, Boyhood; Edward Norton, Birdman; Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

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