Oscar Watch: Battle of the “B” Movies.

This article was originally published in the February 6, 2015 Daily Messenger.

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood." (IFC Films)

Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood.” (IFC Films)

The 87th annual Academy Awards are right around the corner, and prognosticators are not enjoying themselves. While a couple of categories feel like sure things, many of the key races lack the sense of inevitability that’s typically experienced this time each year.

We just don’t know who’s going to win, for a change. Isn’t it great?

Of these toss-up categories, Best Picture is the most maddening. The eight nominees – Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, American Sniper, Selma, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything – seem to have narrowed comfortably down to two serious contenders. With only days to go, all signs point to the real race being between Boyhood and Birdman. Let’s see if we can narrow it down a little further.

If approachability were the sole criteria, Boyhood would take the Oscar in a heartbeat. Richard Linklater’s film lays out its themes with openness and precision; it’s a simple story, well told. Of course, in reality it’s anything but simple – this, after all, is the movie director Richard Linklater shot over 12 years, revisiting his actors to chronicle the growth of a an ordinary Texas boy (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18.

Michael Keaton in "Birdman." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Michael Keaton in “Birdman.” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

That behind-the-scenes logistical achievement has fueled universal admiration for Boyhood, a masterpiece of filmmaking patience more than artistic vision. On the other hand, if it’s art you’re looking for, Birdman is your candidate. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film is a trippy fusion of celebrity satire and magic realism: It’s the story of a washed-up actor (Michael Keaton) whose past success playing a movie superhero now haunts him. He’s trying for a comeback with a self-financed Broadway play – but his costumed Birdman alter-ego literally floats over his shoulder, attacking his resolve and urging him to take to the skies.

If Boyhood is long-form prose – the epic story of a mundane family – Birdman is free-verse poetry, all right-brained creative expression compared to Linklater’s left-brained methodical precision. Iñárritu even marries his filmmaking style to the material, shooting the movie in what appears to be a long, continuous take; this ramps up the sense of tension by creating the feeling that the characters have nowhere to hide from their own story.

Which approach will resonate with Oscar voters? Well, Birdman is anchored in an unforgettable lead performance by Michael Keaton, with strong support from Edward Norton and Emma Stone. These recognizable faces help to balance the bizarre narrative, and could give Academy members something to root for. But there are already categories in which Keaton and Stone can be recognized: They’re up for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, and could well take home those trophies.

If I were handing out the Oscar, I’d give it to Birdman, my favorite film of last year. But I predict Boyhood will take the top prize, and I’m OK with that. Every single aspect of Linklater’s film is subtle compared to Iñárritu’s bold achievement, but that subtlety masks a passion no less vibrant than that of its winged competitor. Boyhood is about family, but it’s also about filmmaking – the aching commitment that must take place in front of and behind the camera for excellence to flourish. It’s hard to deny the appeal of that idea to Oscar voters.