The clock is ticking down and the Oscars are now just a few days away, but for the eight best picture nominees the opening of that envelope cannot come fast enough. Usually at this point we have some kind of clarity, but the usual tea leaves have been sending mixed signals this year. At one point it seemed as if IFC’s little-indie-that-could, Boyhood, was sailing to an inevitable best picture victory. It had virtually dominated the early critics awards and then took top honors for best drama at the Golden Globes and best picture at the Critics Choice Movie Awards.

The King's Speech
The King’s Speech, which starred Colin Firth, center, had a come-from-behind win at the 2010 Oscars.

But as the lesson of 2010 told us, winning critics awards doesn’t always translate into winning Oscars—The Social Network would have had a much better Academy Awards outcome that year if this were true. You’ll recall the film was stopped in its tracks once the industry itself started voting. At the Producers Guild Awards The King’s Speech stunned the room and began a clear run for Oscar’s top prize that resulted in a best pic win and three other trophies. So after Boyhood’s momentum was halted at the PGA Awards with a surprise Birdman win, all bets were off.

Birdman followed up the next night with a big SAG win for its ensemble cast, which sometimes is referred to as the actors union’s best picture prize. The win actually was expected. After all, Birdman is a movie about actors. It had built-in appeal. But there were mixed signals from SAG when members chose The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne as best actor over Birdman’s Michael Keaton, the favorite. It was more proof of the split-vote mentality permeating this year’s race.

Of course the Directors Guild of America Awards (which went to Birdman), Writers Guild of America Awards and the BAFTA Awards ( which heavily favored Boyhood and virtually ignored Birdman) all are important indicators, too. But for some reason it is really hard to get a true consensus of opinion when you actually talk to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, even after all the usual indicative precursor ceremonies have finished handing out their hardware. Similarly, the crafts guilds have been all over the place, continuing to make this confusing year even more, well, confusing. Although the races for lead actress and both supporting acting categories would seem to be locked up for Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette, respectively, the lead actor category remains a real barn burner with Keaton, Redmayne and American Sniper’s Bradley Cooper making the race so close the result is anyone’s ballgame. Neither of the other two nominees—Benedict Cumberbatch of The Imitation Game and Steve Carell of Foxcatcher—are at the top of any pundit’s list, but their supporters could put them over the top (although not likely), if the presumed three frontrunners manage to cancel themselves out. It’s that tight a race.

But where the real suspense lies on Oscar night will be at the end, where I expect a nail-biting finale that won’t be clear until that best picture envelope is actually opened. In most years, at this point, you usually can figure out what is going to happen, or at least narrow it down to one or two possibilities. Last year, at the most, only three films out of the nine nominees had a realistic chance of prevailing: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle. The latter had won big at SAG; Gravity took the DGA but also tied with 12 Years at PGA; Hustle won the best comedy Golden Globe. In the end, the race came down to Gravity versus 12 Years; 12 Years a Slave won, but it wasn’t a sure thing.

This year though, for the first time I can ever recall, I can actually make an argument—a legitimate argument—for each of the eight best picture nominees to win. Although Birdman and Boyhood appear to be in strong positions—with the wild card of the last-minute boxoffice hit American Sniper clouding the picture—there is a scenario that could occur, and build on Oscar night, that indeed could end with any of those eight names being called. And the fact that the Academy has split between the best pic and best director winners in the past two years means added suspense. The Academy uses a preferential voting system designed to provide a so-called consensus winner when it comes to the best picture category; a close vote can result in a dark horse victory. So here, on a film-by-film basis, is how I am predicting victory for each of this year’s best picture nominees. For real.

American Sniper
American SniperClint Eastwood’s war story is unprecedented in an Oscar race. What other movie in recent times has come in so late and exploded onto the scene like this one? That makes it a potential spoiler. It has become controversial in some ways but sometimes that helps. It’s a powerful film that has grabbed audiences of all stripes, and that includes Academy members. It’s had a strong response from voters and even without a corresponding directing nod for Eastwood, it’s the true wild card in this race. Just how much its huge boxoffice will impact its success at the Oscars is unknown.

Path to Victory on Oscar Night: Wins for sound editing, sound mixing and film editing leading to a possible upset for Cooper as best actor. Until now he hasn’t had to go head to head with Keaton and Redmayne in any precursor awards.

Birdman
BirdmanWith lots of guild success at SAG, PGA and DGA—pointing to the industry falling in love with this risky film with showbiz bones—Birdman looks to be flying high and is a leading contender with nine nominations, tied for tops with The Grand Budapest Hotel. That means lots of support across the entire Academy. Its lack of a film editing nod is its only hindrance. No film since 1980 has won best picture without one, but this film might be the exception.

Path to Victory on Oscar Night: Wins for cinematography, original screenplay, Keaton and director could seal it.

Boyhood 
BoyhoodThe “there’s never been another movie like it” factor of this little 12-years-in-the-making indie is a powerful scenario. It’s the most likeable film, but there are still voters out there who resist its premise. But the passionate base for the movie could be strong enough to overcome anything. Of course, it has the critics on its side. And though it hasn’t had much luck with the Guilds, its BAFTA win was a huge deal. They have agreed with the Oscar Best Picture pick the last six years in a row.

Path to Victory on Oscar Night: Wins for supporting actress, film editing, director.

Selma
SelmaIn terms of Academy history a Selma best picture win is nearly unprecedented. With only two nominations (the other for original song, where it is favored), Selma needs more than a dream. No film since Grand Hotel in 1930 has won best picture without any other key nominations. The last film to win with only two Oscars was 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth. But the thing to remember is that those Selma snubs were from individual branches of the Academy, whereas its best pic nom came from all voters. It’s entirely possible, with all the attention around this movie, that the Academy just may want to make history.

Path to Victory on Oscar Night: Win for best song and a Hail Mary pass win for best pic.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest HotelIts early March release date turned out to be a plus. Most voters actually saw it. And the below-the-line branches of the Academy love the old-style craft of the film, while for other voters it has Wes Anderson’s hip vibe. Globes and Critics Choice victories over Birdman in comedy categories were eye-opening, as were the five wins at BAFTA including Best Original Screenplay. The film is a real sleeper here.

Path to Victory on Oscar Night: Wins for production design, costume design, original score and original screenplay.

The Imitation Game
The Imitation GameHarvey Weinstein has one pony in this race and he’s throwing everything in his successful playbook to bring it home. This film is trying to follow the trajectory of The King’s Speech, but the PGA, DGA, SAG and BAFTA shutouts hurt. However, since day one it has been consistently mentioned when I have asked Academy members what movies they like. Could that make up for lost momentum in the end? Could this be another Chariots of Fire, benefitting from severe voting splits?

Path to Victory on Oscar Night: Wins for original score, adapted screenplay and a very longshot upset for best director.

The Theory Of Everything
The Theory of Everything
Voters really seem to like this movie, but most of the attention has centered on Eddie Redmayne, who now has won at BAFTA,  SAG and the Globes and is a real best actor contender. As a movie, though, the film doesn’t appear to have the passion vote that translates into a number one choice on the ballot. But it could garner a majority of number two’s and three’s. That could make it a real surprise contender on the Academy’s preferential ballot, should the vote really be split eight ways from Sunday. Sometimes it pays to be number two.

Path to Victory on Oscar Night: Wins for best score, best adapted screenplay and best actor.

Whiplash
WhiplashThis one is the real sleeper in this race. In talking to Academy voters I cannot think of a film that is more consistently mentioned first when I ask about favorite 2014 movies. There’s a definite passion vote factor at play here, with the only downside being a lack of a directing nom for either Oscar or DGA for Damien Chazelle, who is nominated for writing (albeit in the wrong category thanks to the Academy’s all-too-rigid rules).  Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons is a given, but those addtional wins for Editing and Sound at BAFTA were an eye opener. Whiplash is one to watch as the night unfolds.

Path to Victory on Oscar Night: Wins for supporting actor, film editing, sound and adapted screenplay.

So there you have it. Everyone’s a winner. Good luck on Oscar night, nominees.