As of this second, we are 122 days away from the 2015 Academy Awards, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris as Billy Crystal growls angrily in the corner and everyone tries real hard not to make a Renee Zellweger joke. That's a ludicrously long time from now, but there won't be a single moment between now and then in the world of movies that's not specifically focused on that date. In fact, you can make a strong argument it's been going on for a couple of months now. Almost every release, every interview, every TV appearance—it's all about that silly date 122 days from now.

The Academy Awards are dumb, of course, but they're the right kind of dumb: Stabs at quality work in the name of personal prestige and ego sometimes, as it turns out, end up actually creating quality work. The Academy Award horse race becomes such a major part of the cultural conversation that it inspires people to check out movies they otherwise never would dream of looking at; last year, even non-movie nerds watched a two-hour black-and-white movie about an old Midwesterner, and another one about an elderly British woman trying to find her son with the help of a BBC reporter, and yet another about Joaquin Phoenix wearing pants up to his neck. None of that happens without the Oscars. Don't think of this process as rampant egotists desperately seeking even more validation, though of course they're primarily that; think of them as a checklist of items to explore that you otherwise might not. After all: A lot of these movies are actually good.

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Thus: Here, in mid-October, let's take an early look at the five major categories and their favorites so far. Interestingly, most of these movies, even though some won't be released for two months, have already screened for many studios and critics. So even though the Oscars are so far away, in many ways, the evidence is already in.

We're going to go with the 15 contenders in Best Picture, and five everywhere else. Again: Think of this as an early checklist. (Like everyone foolishly paying attention to this stuff so early, GoldDerby.com is an invaluable resource.)

Best Picture

1. Boyhood

2. Birdman

3. The Imitation Game

4. Foxcatcher

5. The Theory of Everything

6. Unbroken

7. American Sniper

8. Interstellar

9. Selma

10. Gone Girl

11. The Grand Budapest Hotel

12. Into the Woods

13. Whiplash

14. Still Alice

15. Big Eyes

For my money, Boyhood is the clubhouse favorite to win the whole thing this year. It's ambitious, it's sprawling, it's unlikely anything anyone's really tried before and, more than anything, it's universally beloved. Working against it is the fact that it's sort of made outside the Hollywood system by a stubbornly independent director, and also that it steadfastly avoids the sort of Big Emotional Moments that usually win Best Picture nods. But right now, the reception is too rapturous to ignore, and it looks like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are going to be enthusiastic campaigners, which counts. (They'll even talk to our Tim Grierson!)

The only movies on this list critics haven't seen—officially, anyway—are Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, Selma (with David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in a movie produced by Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey), and Angelina Jolie's Unbroken. (Interstellar hasn't been officially screened yet, but positive word is leaking out from private screenings.) Right now the hot movie is Birdman, but these things ebb and flow.

BEST ACTOR

1. Michael Keaton, Birdman

2. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

3. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

4. David Oyelowo, Selma

5. Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

6. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

7. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

8. Jack O'Connell, Unbroken

9. Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice

10. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel

People are excited about Carell in Foxcatcher, but that reeks of an Albert Brooks- or Bill Murray-type snub. Keaton is the early favorite, but if there's anyone to watch out for here, it's Cooper, who gained weight and, presumably, gravitas to play the tortured former sniper Chris Kyle. (I mean, check out the poster. That screams Eastwood, and Oscar.) If that movie catches on, Cooper could leap to the top. By the way, Phoenix appears to be the only thing from Inherent Vice that seems to have much hope, with the possible exception of Josh Brolin: By all accounts, the movie's a little too shaggy-dog to be a serious Oscar contender.

BEST ACTRESS

1. Julianne Moore, Still Alice

2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

3. Reese Witherspoon, Wild

4. Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

5. Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

6. Amy Adams, Big Eyes

7. Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars

8. Marion Cotilliard, Two Days One Night

9. Emily Blunt, Into the Woods

10. Anne Hathaway, Interstellar

This is as close to a lock as we have, really: Moore's performance as a woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's is generally considered the movie that's going to win her an Oscar she's long overdue for. It's difficult to see anyone challenging her, really.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

1. Edward Norton, Birdman

2. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

3. Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

4. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

5. Tom Wilkinson, Selma

6. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice

7. Robert Duvall, The Judge

8. Albert Brooks, A Most Violent Year

9. Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes

10. Neil Patrick Harris, Gone Girl

Strange category this year: Simmons gives the most heralded performance, but Norton in Birdman feels like a comeback. And if Foxcatcher gets some momentum, Ruffalo is due as well. It's actually sort of thin, which is why I felt like throwing the host in there at the end.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

1. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

2. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

3. Emma Stone, Birdman

4. Jessica Chastain, Interstellar

5. Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

6. Vanessa Redgrave, Foxcatcher

7. Laura Dern, Wild

8. Carmen Ejogo, Selma

9. Sienna Miller, American Sniper

10. Kim Dickens, Gone Girl

If Boyhood has a best bet, it's probably Arquette here, who gives the movie's bravest, sturdiest performance. Knightley and Stone are right on her heels, and, of course, Meryl Streep has to be in this category, because otherwise we'd all be lost and confused.

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Also, "Everything Is Awesome" from The Lego Movie will be nominated and performed at the Oscars, so start putting together your dream performer list on that one. If they have any time after the Robin Williams tribute, they'll fit it in.


Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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