At Sunday night's Golden Globes, the biggest front-runners also are the least likely.
One is "Birdman," starring Michael Keaton as a fondly remembered but somewhat faded Hollywood star, playing a version of himself. The other is Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," which follows an unknown Texas kid (Ellar Coltrane) for more than 10 years as he grows into a man before our eyes. Neither seem like the usual Globe contenders -- they're not glossy biopics or message movies -- yet they're leading the competition. "Birdman" has seven nominations, more than any other movie, while "Boyhood" has five.
Will these two worthy movies win? Given the often unpredictable Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the mysterious group of journalists who bestow the awards, anything is possible. (Remember when "Atonement" won over "Eastern Promises," "Michael Clayton" and "No Country For Old Men"?) And while the Globes are an imperfect predictor of the Oscars, Sunday night's winners will go into the Academy Awards six weeks from now looking that much stronger.
A "Birdman" win seems an easy call, partly because it's nominated for best comedy or musical, a category that allows the Globes to honor overlooked genres. Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" could contend, but "Birdman" already has accolades from many other critics' groups.
The tougher call is "Boyhood," which is up for best dramatic picture, the Globes' equivalent of the best-picture Oscar. "Boyhood" may come across as a small-scale family drama, but its making was a heroic undertaking, filmed for a few days each year with largely the same cast. It's a decade-spanning epic that not even the most epic-minded directors -- Coppola, Kubrick, Welles -- ever achieved. Could the Globes wave that aside?
They certainly could, and that probably would mean a win for "The Imitation Game," which also has five nominations. This compelling film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as British mathematician Alan Turing, whose cryptography work during World War II greatly hastened the Nazis' defeat and helped birth the modern computer. The movie also has contemporary relevance: Turing was later prosecuted for homosexuality, and recently received a posthumous pardon by Queen Elizabeth II. "The Imitation Game" is a conventional biopic that follows the neat formula of its genre -- which may work in its favor.
If Cumberbatch wins for best dramatic actor, he'll head into the Oscars with an almost unstoppable momentum. The same goes for best dramatic actress, where Julianne Moore, giving an impeccable performance as an Alzheimer's victim in "Still Alice," seems the clear front-runner. And at this point, all bets should be on the hardworking character actor J.K. Simmons to win the supporting actor Globe for playing an abusive music teacher in the indie hit "Whiplash."
What all this spells for the Oscars remains to be seen when nominations are announced Thursday. Acting nods for Keaton and Cumberbatch seem likely, but will Eddie Redmayne sneak in for "The Theory of Everything"? Will Jennifer Aniston's surprising nomination for best dramatic actress ("Cake") translate into Oscar gold? As for Steve Carell, his much buzzed-about dramatic role in "Foxcatcher" could get an Oscar nod in the supporting actor category.
Two movies that seemed like awards bait -- Angelina Jolie's World War II drama, "Unbroken," and Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," starring Bradley Cooper as an Iraq War veteran -- aren't in the running at all, though there may be room in the Oscars' best-picture category, which allows 10 nominees. In a different year, "Selma," a well-reviewed drama about the Civil Rights movement that received four Globes nominations, might have fared better.
For now, the only truly safe prediction is that Globes co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will make jokes about tipsy celebrities.
BEFORE THE SHOW
Countdown to the Red Carpet (4 p.m., E!)
1st Look: Live on the Red Carpet (6 p.m., NBC/4)
Live from the Red Carpet (6 p.m., E!)
Golden Globes Arrival Special (7 p.m., NBC/4)
The 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards (8 p.m., NBC/4)
AFTER THE SHOW
E! After Party (11 p.m., E!)