Predictably it was a big morning for Boyhood and Birdman at the SAG nominations, the first really important awards announcement of the season as it comes from an actual guild and not a critics group. Those two films pete_hammond_300x100are very actor-centric and true ensembles so I would imagine they will fight it out for the ultimate Cast award, SAG’s version of Best Picture, while nominees The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything will likely split those sympathetic to British casts. GuildSAG Awards noms are a much better indicator generally of the way Oscar winds are blowing, so the importance of this SAG list can’t be underestimated even though, as usual, these nominees are chosen by lottery by a random 2100 person sample of  SAG’s more than 100,000 -strong overall membership who will vote on the final winners. It should be noted that the discrepancy between SAG and Oscar acting nominees has been widening a bit in the last couple of years with SAG and Oscar agreeing on only 14 out of 20 acting noms in both 2013 and 2012. And with so many late-breaking movies coming out this year, the Academy’s acting branch will have more time to analyze these things and see some "Boyhood" New York Screeningfilms and/or screeners.  That could help some of the snubees on the list, particularly Paramount’s Christmas Day release, Selma which did not have time to send screeners, a fact that probably accounts for the absence of  David Oyelowo (as Martin Luther King Jr.) even though he worked the SAG screening circuit.

Speaking of the Male Actor In A Leading Role category, as we haveMichael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman repeatedly said, it is just way overcrowded so essentially there’s no room at the inn since everyone expected certain noms at SAG, as well as Oscars, for Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton.  Foxcatcher’s Steve Carell is high on most lists as well for his transformative performance.  Actors love it when someone known for comedy goes all dramatic on us.  Jake Gyllenhaal’s chilling turn in Nightcrawler has been coming on strong, and the fact that he lost Jake Gyllenhaal looks scarily thin on the set of his new movie 'Nightcrawler' in Los Angeles30 pounds for it  doesn’t hurt his chances.  He’s a likely Oscar nominee, but Oyelowo, Mr. Turner’s Cannes and New York Film Critics winner Timothy Spall, American Sniper’s Bradley Cooper and Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell are most likely contenders to be fighting for that Oscar slot, but the list goes on and on with Kevin Costner, Miles Teller, Chadwick Boseman, Bill Murray, Oscar Isaac, Robert Downey Jr, Matthew McConaughey — well you get the picture. Tough year but there should be no complaints about the quintet the SAG nominating committee has chosen. The ultimate winner  is hard to call here as this could turn into a real horserace. Redmayne and Keaton probably have the best shots (I also would not count double SAG nominee Cumberbatch out) but it will be interesting to see which distributors pony up the money to send screeners to the entire SAG membership. Those who don’t will be at a disadvantage.

On the Lead Actress side there will be many pundits probably surprised at the inclusion of Jennifer Aniston for The Contenders Presented By Deadlineher transformative  performance in the small indie, Cake which hasn’t even opened yet.  Not me.  I have been touting her heartbreaking performance as a victim of chronic pain since September 8th, the day it premiered in Toronto to a standing ovation. Of course the haters out there always feel a need to comment on this whenever her name is mentioned as an Oscar contender. But, like Carell, Aniston is giving a performance that shows her real range outside of the comedy world for which she’s Still Alicebest known. She’s always been a fine dramatic actress though (witness The Good Girl, Friends With Money, The Breakup) as Cake proves. Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon, Rosamund Pike, and Felicity Jones were locks to begin with and remain so for the Oscars.  It’s the fifth slot that has been open to speculation with contenders including  Hilary Swank in The Homesman, Shailene Woodley in The Fault In Our Stars, critics groups darling Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, Amy Adams in Big Eyes  among the higher profile contenders mentioned in recent weeks. There’s also the wonderful Emily Blunt in Into The Woods but that role is part of a great ensemble and might not seem large enough to break out into the Best Actress race. But I would bet the surge for Aniston will continue tomorrow at the Golden Globes and further cement her chances.  Her trajectory has been reminiscent of Sandra Bullock’s for The Blind Side, an aces performance that eventually stopped detractors in their tracks. Plus she has been tirelessly working the circuit, a real plus.  However it seems to be Moore’s year and her Alzheimer’s victim in Still Alice likely will trump the field at SAG.

Robert-Downey-Jr_-and-Robert-Duvall-in-The-Judge-2014-Movie-Image-2-750x499On the Supporting Male side, the five nominated  –  Robert Duvall,  Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo, J.K. Simmons –  are absolutely no surprise.  Some pundits who unfairly dismissed The Judge right after its Toronto opening night might take issue with Duvall. They shouldn’t. Actors recognize it is one of his finest performances and he has been very active on the SAG screening circuit. He’ll be in the mix at the Oscars. The film played through the roof at its official Academy screening, despite critical naysayers. Simmons, as the maniacal music teacher in Whiplash (a movie evenImage (10) whiplash-miles-teller__140206211231-275x183.jpg for post 677953 Duvall has told me is his favorite so far this year) is the likely winner here. He’s been on a roll all season.

The only real shocker of the morning for me came on the Supporting Female side where expected nominees Patricia Arquette, Keira Knightley, Emma Stone and Meryl Streep did not disappoint. It was the fifth slot where Laura Dern in Wild, Jessica Chastain in Interstellar or A Most Violent Year, Renee Russo in Nightcrawler, Vanessa Redgrave in Foxcatcher, Katherine Waterston in Inherent Vice and Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer might have made the stv_wattscut for a nomination that instead went to St. Vincent’s Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian hooker. To my knowledge no one saw this coming, but in retrospect it makes sense. Watts, known for heavy dramatic roles, completely transformed in the opposite direction of Carell and Aniston by showing impressive comedy chops  and going out of her comfort zone. Actors obviously like that a lot. And the crowd-pleasing St. Vincent is deserving of recognition even though it has been overlooked so far this season.  It should do well tomorrow at the Globes nominations where there is a separate category for comedy. Arquette is the likely winner for a large role that easily could have made the Best Actress list if IFC didn’t make a conscious effort to squeeze it into supporting (on Sunday she actually won the lead actress prize from the LA Critics group).

And finally despite what SAG says, the Outstanding Performance By A Cast award is really their shorthand for Best Picture, not always a true barometer of what is really the best work by an ensemble. As previously noted, Boyhood and Birdman, both strong Best Picture contenders, genuinely deserve to be in this mix as does The Grand Budapest Hotel which also sports a true ensemble working at the top of their game. The nominations458991106 for The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything though are probably more because the SAG nom comm voters liked the movies and swept in their casts.  Both those films are largely defined by their leading Male and Female actors, rather than an ensemble despite having fine performers in supporting roles. Into The Woods is the real miss here, as well as those five guys in a tank in Fury (though it did get a stunt ensemble nod). Paul Thomas Anderson’s actor-centric Inherent Vice might have made the list too, but was probably too quirky for many voters.

Finally it is nice to see the family touch at SAG this year with brother and sister nods for the Gyllenhaals as Maggie is up for her TV movie/mini  The Honorable Woman. Their career paths continue to collide as both are currently on Broadway in different plays.

On to the Golden Globe nominations tomorrow morning where a new set of happy and sad faces will hear their fate.