Michael Keaton, Julianne Moore, Richard Linklater, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, J.K. Simmons, Emmanuel Lubezki, Patricia Arquette and Eddie Redmayne are among the many people who should expect to hear their names called when nominations for the 87th annual Academy Awards are announced on Thursday. But there are still a surfeit of contenders on the bubble at the moment. Here are seven who should be anything but underdogs -- aka if the Oscars don't nominate this group, something went terribly wrong.
Ava DuVernay, Best Director for "Selma"
To consider Ava DuVernay a fringe candidate in this category is an outrage, but after the brouhaha over the historical precision of "Selma" and several snubs from prominent guild groups, that's what this Oscar race has become. When the movie screened for press around Thanksgiving, the critical conclave sent up white smoke that pointed to "Selma" having locked up one of the haziest Best Picture races in recent memory. I still think it'll make that shortlist, but it seems like Ava DuVernay, who would become the first black woman nominated for Best Director, will not. To encapsulate the contemporary cultural milieu and make the year's most expertly crafted film, yet still walk away empty-handed, is the year's biggest awards transgression. -- Matthew Jacobs
Damien Chazelle, Best Director for "Whiplash"
For months, a great many awards pundits have put Damien Chazelle inside the box Benh Zeitlin created two years ago. It's a pretty enticing narrative: Both men are young, white and debuted what would become a major awards contender at the Sundance Film Festival (Chazelle with "Whiplash," Zeitlin with "Beasts of the Southern Wild"). Zeitlin ended his magic run with a Best Director nomination; Chazelle should follow suit, but only if he can nudge out someone like Clint Eastwood or Morten Tyldum (both of whom appeared on the Directors Guild shortlist this week). On merit, he should: we'll be talking about "Whiplash" long after the really good "The Imitation Game" and the pretty bad "American Sniper" fade from memory. -- Christopher Rosen
Laura Dern, Best Supporting Actress for "Wild"
Patricia Arquette has been such a shoo-in for "Boyhood" that it seems like we stopped weighing the other four Best Supporting Actress slots long ago. That comes at the expense of Tilda Swinton, Carrie Coon, Melissa McCarthy, Rene Russo and Laura Dern, who, with "Wild," gave one of the year's most accomplished performances. Her screen time is relatively brief, but she has the lofty task of capturing years of backstory using only flashback scenes. She's radiant. If nothing else, the Academy owes Dern a "Wild" nomination to atone for no awards groups paying any attention to her equally moving part in "The Fault in Our Stars." -- MJ
Bradford Young, Best Cinematography for "Selma"
Much like how a nomination for Ava DuVernay should absolutely be a thing that happens on Thursday, so too should some serious recognition for Bradford Young. The year's most discussed cinematographer worked on both "A Most Violent Year" and "Selma," but it's the latter film that should land Young among the five Best Cinematography nominees on Thursday. As with DuVernay, Young was ignored by his relevant guild -- the American Society of Cinematographers -- but it would be an egregious mistake for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to follow suit. Young's work on "Selma" is wildly original and gorgeous without being showy. He stood out as the year's best image maker, and should be rewarded as such. -- CR
Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, Best Original Screenplay for "Love is Strange"
"Love Is Strange" should have factored into the entire race, but it looks like the Independent Spirit Awards may be the only prize to pile on the praise this movie deserves. Its screenplay is probably the sole opportunity for any Oscar attention, and even that seems like a long shot. Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias managed to write a movie that's at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, simple and relentlessly layered. Those same adjectives might apply to, say, "Interstellar," yet look how bloated Jonathan and Christopher Nolan's script was. Sachs and Zacharias wrote a sweet, no-frills movie about growing old, living in New York, being gay, navigating family dynamics, maintaining romance and finding comfort. "Love is Strange" proves it doesn't even take 100 minutes to make the year's most thoughtful movie (see also: "Nightcrawler"). -- MJ
Alexandre Desplat, Best Original Score for "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Alexandre Desplat produced five scores this year, including one for "The Imitation Game" that might land him a seventh Oscar nomination. It would be well deserved -- his score for Morten Tyldum's movie is quite good! -- but nothing on Desplat's 2014 CV compares to "The Grand Budapest Hotel." Desplat's latest collaboration with Wes Anderson, following "Moonrise Kingdom," is a throwback of Eastern European influences that fits the waltz-loving composer like the glove of a dowager. It's an oxymoron of delicate bombast that provides Anderson's most emotional movie to date with a lot of its emotion. For the love of antique tuba parts, please don't leave this one off the nominees list. -- CR
"Selma" for Best Picture
Critics don't matter when it comes to Oscars, but "Selma" has a better Metacritic rating than "Birdman," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Imitation Game," "The Theory of Everything," "Whiplash" and "American Sniper." (Of the major Best Picture contenders, only "Boyhood" rates higher.) At Oscar prognostication site Gold Derby, all 27 experts have "Selma" listed among their Best Picture predictions. Yet after being blanked by the major guilds -- Producers, Screen Actors, Directors -- "Selma" has the look and feel of an outsider. A long shot. A snub. That would be an unforgivable mistake. -- CR