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Steve Persall's Oscars predictions include 'Birdman,' Redmayne, Moore (w/video)

Anyone feeling giddy after last year's Academy Awards predictions should take a sobering look at this year's choices.

Last year was a breeze, a two-horse race with 12 Years a Slave and Gravity perfectly complementing each other in the grand scheme of Oscar balloting — historical art versus fantasy spectacle. I correctly picked 20 of 24 categories, a personal record over a lifetime of picking.

This year, the ground's the limit.

Seldom over 23 years of covering the Oscars have choices been so difficult in so many categories. Tea leaves are mulched, signposts twisted in puzzling directions.

Not only do we have the early best picture frontrunner (Boyhood) and late-charging contender (Birdman), but a genuine dark horse in American Sniper, which only the academy seemed to admire during awards season. I'm not going out on a limb for Clint Eastwood's war movie, but its evolution into a cultural phenomenon, op-ed talk piece and likely top-grossing 2014 release shouldn't be underestimated.

Nothing much could surprise me when the envelopes are opened Sunday night at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre.

Unless, of course, these predictions all turn out to be right.

American Sniper

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Persall's pick: Critics established Boyhood as the early frontrunner until Birdman cut a late swath through key guild awards. Neither is the sort of conventional movie to which the academy typically hands its most coveted statuette — except for the fact that Birdman is all about show biz, and Hollywood loves slapping itself on the back. A win makes it three best picture winners about the movies in the past four years, after The Artist and Argo.

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Persall's pick: Richard Linklater's Boyhood endurance or Alejandro G. Inarritu's one-take illusion in Birdman? The answer is crucial since 72 percent of all best picture Oscar winners also claimed this prize. The Directors Guild of America named Inarritu, and only seven times since 1948 has their choice not directed Oscar's best picture. That isn't a trend to pick against.

Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Michael Keaton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Persall's pick: Academy voters need to give something big to The Theory of Everything, so why not for the main reason it's here? Eddie Redmayne's impersonation of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is technically perfect and Oscar-tailored. (But I'd love being wrong and seeing Michael Keaton win.)

Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Persall's pick: Her fifth time at the Oscars is the charm for Julianne Moore, whose portrayal of an early-onset Alzheimer's patient in Still Alice is by turns tragic, hopeful and bracingly warm. A perfect chance to honor one of her generation's finest actors.

Robert Duvall, The Judge

Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Edward Norton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Persall's pick: Every so often a performance leaps off the screen, demanding to be etched on an Oscar before the movie year even ends. That's J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, and it'll be a thrill to see this veteran character actor rewarded.

Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Laura Dern, Wild

Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

Emma Stone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Persall's pick: Boyhood co-star Patricia Arquette walked off with every major preceding prize in this category, so there's no sense in predicting an upset now.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Boyhood

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Nightcrawler

Persall's pick: While real people see themselves in Boyhood, Hollywood types find themselves in the insecure absurdities of Birdman, a key win setting up its late rush of awards.

American Sniper

The Imitation Game

Inherent Vice

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash

Persall's pick: Graham Moore wins for The Imitation Game, a whip-smart adaptation of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. Two academy favorites — World War II and gay rights history — in one true story.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ida

Mr. Turner

Unbroken

Persall's pick: Emmanuel Lubezki will make it two wins in a row, from last year's outer space in Gravity to the inner spaces of a Broadway theater in Birdman.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Inherent Vice

Into the Woods

Maleficent

Mr. Turner

Persall's pick: 1930s finery, aristocratic cloaks and quasi-Nazi uniforms make The Grand Budapest Hotel an off-the-rack choice.

American Sniper

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Whiplash

Persall's pick: Often a dependable clue to the best picture winner. Whatever Boyhood is after 12 years of noodling, it became that in the editing room.

Foxcatcher

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Guardians of the Galaxy

Persall's pick: Steve Carell's fake nose can't beat the magnificent mustaches and Tilda Swinton's aging in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Into the Woods

Mr. Turner

Persall's pick: From its grandiose lobby to the cleverly artificial backdrops, The Grand Budapest Hotel was a constant delight.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

Mr. Turner

The Theory of Everything

Persall's pick: Composer Alexandre Desplat is an eight-time nominee (twice this year) still without an Oscar. That ends tonight, for his urgently elegant music in The Imitation Game.

Everything Is Awesome from The Lego Movie

Glory from Selma

Grateful from Beyond the Lights

I'm Not Gonna Miss You from Glen Campbell … I'll Be Me

Lost Stars from Begin Again

Persall's pick: Much as I love Glen Campbell, the academy must honor the civil rights anthem Glory, which is apparently the only reason Selma was nominated for best picture.

American Sniper

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Interstellar

Unbroken

Persall's pick: Typically a category for blockbusters, the louder, the better. Interstellar fits that description to a T-minus countdown.

American Sniper

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Interstellar

Unbroken

Whiplash

Persall's pick: On the other hand, this category often leans toward musical tones. Just a hunch that voters will be in tempo with Whiplash.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Guardians of the Galaxy

Interstellar

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Persall's pick: After Gravity, the outer space of Interstellar didn't impress. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a better pick, and a nod to mo-cap master Andy Serkis.

Big Hero 6

The Boxtrolls

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Song of the Sea

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Persall's pick: How to Train Your Dragon 2 joins Toy Story 3 as the only sequels to win this Oscar, while Legoland goes dark in silent protest.

Citizenfour

Finding Vivian Maier

Last Days in Vietnam

The Salt of the Earth

Virunga

Persall's pick: Citizenfour is a lock, the real-time unfolding of Edward Snowden's first meeting with journalists to leak classified U.S. government documents.

Ida (Poland)

Leviathan (Russia)

Tangerines (Estonia)

Timbuktu (Mauritania)

Wild Tales (Argentina)

Persall's pick: Poland's entry Ida is a sweeping tale of a novice nun discovering her Jewish roots. Bonus points for also being nominated for a cinematography Oscar.

The Bigger Picture

The Dam Keeper

Feast

Me and My Moulton

A Single Life

Persall's pick: The safe bet is Disney's Feast, a sentimental story of a man, his dog and their food. Not a high-water mark for the Mouse House but good enough.

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1

Joanna

Our Curse

The Reaper (La Parka)

White Earth

Persall's pick: American Sniper may not win anything tonight but veterans get their due here. The 24-hour angels of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 turn postwar emotional and financial hell into hope.

Aya

Boogaloo and Graham

Butter Lamp

Parvaneh

The Phone Call

Persall's pick: One way to make a short stand out is hiring name actors. The Phone Call stars Oscar winner Jim Broadbent and nominee Sally Hawkins, making voters pay more than usual attention.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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