LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - There is no clear front-runner in Oscar's best-picture race: Of eight contenders, four seem like neck-and-neck favorites, while any of the others could pull a Chariots of Fire-style switcheroo. So, as Oscar voting begins Friday and runs to Feb. 17, awards strategists have put campaigns in high gear.
Here are the strengths and vulnerabilities of the eight best-picture nominees.
Strengths: The film appeals to a wide range of viewers, whether they think it's pro-war, anti-war, or simply pro-warrior. And there's one thing that everyone seems to agree on: This is expert filmmaking.
Challenge: Warner Bros. needs to make sure voters ignore all the noise (positive and negative) and concentrate on the craft, storytelling and its themes of PTSD and support for veterans. They should also emphasise that the film is hitting so many nerves because it's well done. And while it's rare for a film to nab best picture when the director isn't nominated, WB proved with "Argo" that it's possible.
Strengths: Its originality, below-the-line innovations, performances, and its filmmakers' high degree of difficulty. It also has a subject matter that will hit home with voters: A person's worth is not measured by career success or the opinion of others.
Challenges: Fox Searchlight should continue to emphasise the script and the fact that self-doubt is not the domain of showbiz, but a universal struggle.
Strengths: The backstory of the 12-year shooting schedule is irresistible. And in a year of global strife, the film's conflicts are gentle and thoughtful, with meditations on life, family and the idea of learning to treasure small moments.
Challenges: It's seen as a "little" film, both a plus and a disadvantage. IFC Films and their team have maintained heat on "Boyhood" since its debut at Sundance 2014. So in the next few weeks they need to keep reminding people why they liked it.
Strengths: In a year of dark and heavy films, this one is a rarity: It's fun. "Budapest" is beautiful to look at and cleverly written, full of serious ideas addressed with a light touch. The film seems to connect with people in a personal way; they don't just admire it, they love it.
Challenges: Fox Searchlight needs to help awards voters overcome their guilt about having fun. The studio should emphasise the film's substance, as Wes Anderson's intricate script offers observations on everything from sex to political repression to the importance of good manners.
Strengths: The film did extremely well in guild votes, which is a testament to its classical style of filmmaking. It's a complex tale (three distinct time periods, multiple story arcs) that is clearly told. And it mixes the personal (Alan Turing's battles both with the government and himself) and the big picture (millions of lives saved, in a little-known key moment in WWII). And, importantly, it sheds light on the legacy of Alan Turing at a time when gay equality is still an issue.
Challenges: The film is just as topical as some other 2014 contenders but has stirred up less debate, which is good/bad news. The Weinstein Co. has been reminding people of the injustices of that era, and should continue to emphasise Turing's oddball heroism, at a time when the world is in desperate need of heroes. And it's worth reminding voters that this rich-looking and ambitious film (52 locations in an eight-week shoot) was done on a modest budget of US$15 million.
Strengths: Incredibly, Paramount's "Selma" is the first bigscreen movie about Martin Luther King; it goes behind the public image to show his life as a human being and as a strategist, and is a reminder of his huge obstacles. It also has positive messages that an individual can make a difference, though it's crucial that people work together.
Challenges: Like "Sniper," the film needs voters to clear their heads of the distracting noise. Par is smartly underplaying parallels with current racial turmoil, since voters are already aware. But the studio needs to combat the perception that the film's chances are slim with only two Oscar noms: Recent Oscar history has broken many old-standing "rules," so anything can happen.
Strengths: The performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are the driving force here, but there are many other virtues to the film. Spanning 25 years, the Focus Features movie earns the audience tears, without being manipulative. And while Stephen Hawking is the more famous half of the pair, Jane is central: She's more than just "the wife," she is one of the strongest women in 2014's films.
Challenges: "Theory" is sometimes seen as an actor's vehicle or a disease-of-the week film. But Focus should remind people that the movie goes beyond that. It shines the spotlight on caregivers and unselfish love -- and it offers a matter-of-fact look at an unconventional household that's almost bohemian yet totally relatable.
Strengths: The film is a character study, with messages about creativity and the need to push oneself. And "Whiplash" has passionate supporters: The people who like it REALLY like it. It's the kind of personal project that a lot of people wanted to make when they first got into the industry.
Challenge: To combat the perception that it's mostly a J.K. Simmons vehicle. The Sony Classics film has five Oscar nominations and while Simmons is the front-runner in the supporting race, the film also could score in screenplay, editing and sound mixing.