The 87th Academy Awards: A definitive guide to winning your Oscar pool

Looking for an edge over your friends and coworkers? Here are our best guesses in all 24 categories.

After months of campaigning and schmoozing — as well as the occasional movie screening — the Academy Awards are nearly upon us. As Hollywood's biggest stars gear up for the industry's biggest night, thousands of Americans are fighting for another, equally distinguished honor: the top prize in an Oscar pool.

Oscar prognosticating is an inexact science, but it's not a shot in the dark, either; everything from the history of the Academy to the winners of other awards can be used to help inform your choices. Below, I've tackled every category, made my best guesses, and explained how I arrived at them. Take a look, then tune in on Sunday to see how I did — and find out whether you get to lord a victory of your own over friends and colleagues for a year. Good luck!

Best Picture

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The winner: Birdman

The spoiler: Boyhood

The year's biggest race is also one of the closest. For months, Boyhood was the presumptive frontrunner, with also-rans like Selma and The Imitation Game fading as the Academy Awards drew closer and closer. But Birdman surprised analysts by snagging the top prize from all three major Hollywood guilds (Producer's Guild, Director's Guild, and Screen Actor's Guild). Those awards are seen as the most reliable predictors for the Academy Awards, since their voting bodies overlap with the Academy. It's been nearly 20 years since a film won all three of those awards without also winning Best Picture, and Birdman — a flashy, navel-gazing movie about the inner workings of a Hollywood actor — is exactly the kind of movie the Academy tends to reward. If you don't want to deviate from the statistical probabilities, you should absolutely bet on Birdman.

So why would anyone bet on Boyhood? The movie's backers are citing a combination of categorical analysis and good old-fashioned "feel." On a basic level, there's simply no precedent for Boyhood, which — as you've undoubtedly heard several dozen times this Oscar season — took 12 years to film. It's no surprise that Birdman's star-studded ensemble cast earned the top SAG award, or even that Alejandro Iñárritu's tricky direction earned the top DGA award — but Boyhood is the type of all-around cinematic feat that the Academy, as a whole, might deem worthy of its top prize.

Also, consider this: the Best Picture category is decided by something called "preferential voting," in which each voter ranks the nominated movies from best to worst, with a commensurate number of points awarded to each. Boyhood fans argue that Birdman, a more polarizing movie, will receive as many last-place votes as first-place, while Boyhood will benefit from a lot of second- and third-place rankings.

If you find those arguments convincing, go with Boyhood. I don't, so I'm betting on Birdman.

Best Director

The winner: Alejandro Iñárritu, Birdman

The spoiler: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Another tight race between the two movies vying for the Academy's top prize. For decades, it was common wisdom that the same movie would win Best Director and Best Picture, but that old saw has been thwarted twice in a row: last year, when Gravity's Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director opposite 12 Years a Slave's Best Picture, and two years ago, when Life of Pi's Ang Lee won Best Director opposite Argo's Best Picture. (Argo director Ben Affleck wasn't even nominated.)

A third split is still very much a possibility; from a directorial perspective, Boyhood is a feat of unsurpassed coordination and patience. But in light of Birdman's DGA win, I'm betting on the Academy going with Alejandro Iñárritu, whose decision to shoot Birdman as if it were a single, nearly unbroken take makes it a flashier and more obvious choice for the prize.

Best Actor

The winner: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

The spoiler: Michael Keaton, Birdman

How much does the Academy love Birdman? A massive swell of support for the movie is the only thing that could derail Redmayne's chances for Best Actor at the Oscars. Keaton has been roundly praised for his self-aware performance in Birdman, but Redmayne's channeling of Stephen Hawking for The Theory of Everything — which Hawking described as virtually indistinguishable from his actual self — is a safe bet for the award.

Best Actress

The winner: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

The spoiler: n/a

You won't find a safer bet on Oscar night. Julianne Moore is an absolute lock for Best Actress for Still Alice, playing a professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

Best Supporting Actor

The winner: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

The spoiler: Edward Norton, Birdman

J.K. Simmons' turn as a pitiless music instructor in Whiplash is exactly the kind of supporting performance the Academy tends to award: intense, unforgettable, and hailing from a longtime character actor who finally got a major role with some bite. As in the Best Actor race, an unlikely (but theoretically possible) spoiler would come as part of a groundswell of support for Birdman, with Edward Norton's caustic, self-aware take on a pretentious actor stealing the prize from Simmons.

Best Supporting Actress

The winner: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

The spoiler: n/a

Another lock, Best Supporting Actress is the one major award Boyhood is all but guaranteed to win on Oscar night. Patricia Arquette's complex take on the joys and pains of motherhood is one of Boyhood's most distinctive and praised elements, and she's sailed away with every acting trophy this awards season, including the Golden Globe, the Critics' Choice, and the SAG.

Best Original Screenplay

The winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The spoiler: Birdman

In recent years, Best Original Screenplay has morphed into a way to honor the year's funkiest Best Picture nominee without giving it the top prize; the past few winners were Her, Django Unchained, and Midnight in Paris, none of which had a chance at Best Picture or Best Director. Expect Wes Anderson's layered, carefully calibrated screenplay for The Grand Budapest Hotel to take the top prize, with the usual caveats about a possible Birdman surge.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The winner: The Imitation Game

The spoiler: Whiplash

A relatively tight race between two very different films: one a classically made, classically told British historical drama, and the other a dark, modern drama set in contemporary America. By any rational standard, Whiplash shouldn't be in this category at all; it was "adapted" from a short film, directed by Damien Chazelle, that was merely a proof-of-concept scene designed to attract financial backers.

However incorrectly, being designated an Adapted Screenplay helps Whiplash's chances; it would have virtually no shot in the more competitive Best Original Screenplay category. That said, I'm still betting on The Imitation Game's nuanced adaptation of the real-life story of Alan Turing to come out on top.

Best Foreign Film

The winner: Ida

The spoilers: Leviathan or Wild Tales

One of the evening's true toss-ups, the Best Foreign Film category is a difficult call between three highly acclaimed films. Poland's Ida is a gripping historical drama about the rippling aftereffects of World War II; Russia's Leviathan is a contemporary political riff on the biblical story of Job; Argentina's Wild Tales is a blackly comic anthology film about how quickly social niceties can collapse. I'd give a very slight edge to Ida, but it's entirely possible that Leviathan or Wild Tales takes the Best Foreign Film trophy.

Best Documentary Feature

The winner: Citizenfour

The spoiler: n/a

No surprises here. Laura Poitras' universally acclaimed Edward Snowden documentary is everything the Academy loves: contemporary, political, and very, very good.

Best Animated Film

The winner: How to Train Your Dragon 2

The spoiler: Big Hero 6

The surprise omission of The LEGO Movie, which many critics (including me) had pegged as the likely winner, has thrown the entire Best Animated Film category into disarray. Though it disappointed at the box office this summer, it's hard to see any of the category's other nominees overtaking the highly acclaimed How to Train Your Dragon sequel. If any film does, it will probably be the similarly pitched Big Hero 6 over arthouse contenders like Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

Best Cinematography

The winner: Birdman

The spoiler: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Apart from the very remote possibility of a dark horse win for Robert Yeoman's work in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Emmanuel Lubezki — who won last year for Gravity — has all but clinched his second consecutive Oscar for the single-take trickery of Birdman.

Best Film Editing

The winner: Boyhood

The spoiler: n/a

Boyhood's unique 12-year shoot presented a considerable challenge: how do you pare down so much footage, much of it relatively plotless and disconnected, into a coherent narrative? The fact that the film holds together is an impressive feat, making it the odds-on favorite for the Film Editing Oscar.

Best Visual Effects

The winner: Interstellar

The spoiler: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or Guardians of the Galaxy

Under normal circumstances, Interstellar's heart-pounding sci-fi visuals would be the obvious choice in the category — but the dearth of other nominations might signal that the Academy has no great love for Christopher Nolan's latest. Worse, the win for the relatively similar visual effects in last year's Gravity could deter voters it would otherwise have won.

My money is still on Interstellar, but it's a close call. If Interstellar is out, that leaves Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy to battle for the prize.

Best Production Design

The winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The spoiler: n/a

The meticulous puzzle-box aesthetic of The Grand Budapest Hotel is a textbook example of how terrific production design can elevate an entire film both visually and thematically. It's a sure bet for the Best Production Design Oscar.

Best Score

The winner: The Theory of Everything

The spoiler: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Perennial Oscar loser Alexandre Desplat is competing against himself in the category, with his scores for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game going head to head — but if anything, his double slots are likely to cancel each other out. Jóhann Jóhannsson's score for The Theory of Everything, which took home the Golden Globe in January, is likely to take home the Academy's top prize.

Best Song

The winner: "Glory," from Selma

The spoiler: n/a

There's no "Skyfall"- or "Let It Go"-sized hit in competition at this year's ceremony, but the victor is just as predictable. "Glory," the song co-written and performed by John Legend and Common for Selma, is poised to earn the film its sole Oscar win, over The LEGO Movie's earworm "Everything is Awesome."

Best Sound Editing

The winner: American Sniper

The spoiler: Interstellar

Often awarded hand-in-hand with the Sound Mixing category — if only because many Academy voters don't really understand the difference between the two — American Sniper is the likeliest pick in the Sound Editing category, from a voting group that has a history of awarding war movies in the sound categories.

Best Sound Mixing

The winner: American Sniper

The spoiler: Whiplash

The nominees here are nearly identical to the list of nominees in the Sound Editing category, with Whiplash replacing The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. American Sniper is still the safest bet, but there's a real chance the Academy will award the music-based Whiplash, which is clearly widely admired.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

The winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The spoiler: Guardians of the Galaxy

Foxcatcher featured an impressively transformative makeup job on Steve Carell, but it's a bit of a one-trick pony, which means that the race is likely down to the other two nominees. Guardians of the Galaxy features some otherworldly makeup and costuming, but the film's two most memorable characters were crafted using CGI. I suspect The Grand Budapest Hotel's fanciful approach to makeup and hairstyling will eke out a victory.

Best Costume Design

The winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The spoiler: Into the Woods or Maleficent

The Grand Budapest Hotel's candy-colored period costumes are among its most instantly recognizable elements, and the Academy's obvious affection for the film is likely to clinch another win. If The Grand Budapest Hotel loses, it will be in favor of something more overtly fantastical: the fairy-tale stylings of Into the Woods or the regal design of Angelina Jolie's outfits in Maleficent.

Best Animated Short

The winner: Feast

The spoiler: The Dam Keeper

The Best Animated Short category is often unfairly reduced to "Disney/Pixar vs. everything else" — but this year, that's probably correct. Disney's Feast, which follows an adorable dog (and which screened before Big Hero 6), is easily the biggest and splashiest of the contenders, and it's probably the safest bet. If a spoiler is going to emerge, I'd put my money on the gorgeous and highly acclaimed The Dam Keeper, which draws on more than 8,000 still paintings for its 18-minute narrative.

Best Documentary Short

The winner: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

The spoiler: Joanna

The Best Documentary Short category tends to be pretty grim, and this year is no exception. Crisis Hotline, which aired on HBO last year, goes behind the scenes at a crisis hotline center created to serve troubled veterans returning from the war. Joanna, the likeliest spoiler, is no less tragic, following a woman with terminal cancer through her final days.

Best Live Action Short

Full disclosure: I haven't seen a single nominee in the Best Live Action Short category yet, so I'm winging it based on my knowledge of the Academy's tastes and what I've heard from my fellow critics. Most prognosticators are favoring The Phone Call, which tells the story of a crisis hotline worker (Sally Hawkins) and a man who takes an overdose of pills (Jim Broadbent). It's possible that the inclusion of a real-life story about a crisis hotline in the Best Documentary Short category will hurt The Phone Call's chances, but nevertheless, that's what I'll be checking in my personal Oscar pool.

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Scott Meslow

Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for He has written about film and television at publications including The Atlantic, POLITICO Magazine, and Vulture.