Every year at the Oscars, hanging over the spectacle and the suspense of the Academy Awards is another drama, one that is just as fraught with tension, if not more so.
This would be the contest for the soul of the movie industry.
In how movie professionals garland their peers on Sunday (Monday morning Singapore time), analysts will see if the big winner is art or commerce, risk-taking or conservative.
This year, could an outsider movie with an unknown child actor finally win the big prizes? Or will Hollywood once more hand the major trophies to a movie with major stars, about a topic it loves dearly - itself?
That is the contest going on in the Best Picture category between the two front runners: Boyhood, a low-budget coming-of-age drama shot over 12 years, and Birdman, a bleak comedy about an ageing movie star looking for redemption on Broadway.
Hollywood's value system will also be put to the test in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories.
Will the industry reward big, showy Illness Acting? Eddie Redmayne plays the motor-neuron diseaseafflicted physicist Stephen Hawking in the biopic The Theory Of Everything, while rival Michael Keaton in Birdman plays the delusional Riggan, an actor who thinks he can fly.
Julianne Moore, meanwhile, has been generating heat as a linguistics professor slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's in Still Alice.
But whether the big winner is Birdman, Boyhood or The Grand Budapest Hotel, this year's crop of contenders is generally of a higher quality compared with those in past years. In 2012, sentiment and intense campaigning pushed the middling but patriotic Argo (2011) into the lead.
War drama American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, is most certainly not of Best Picture quality, but there it is, the Argo of 2015. But unlike the Ben Affleck-directed picture, it is nowhere in the front ranks. Good sense has prevailed for now.
The 87th Annual Academy Awards programmes will be broadcast live in Asia on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Monday from 6am.
Nominees: Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory Of Everything, Whiplash
To win: Birdman
Should win: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel or Interstellar (not nominated)
Birdman, the portrait of an actor struggling with a comeback, made a strong final-lap surge in recent weeks, pushing past previous front runner, the family drama Boyhood. Boyhood was shot in Texas by Richard Linklater, a director who prefers to work outside the Hollywood system.
The contest is a replay of 2012 when, for a while, the micro-budgeted outsider Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2011) looked like it stood a chance. But it lost to the more conventional major-studio project, the thriller Argo.
And as you might expect from narcissism's Ground Zero, the Los Angeles crowd loves movies about its own industry. The French-made The Artist (2010), about a silent-movie star hit hard by talking movies, won in this category in 2011.
Powering Birdman's awards campaign is Fox Searchlight, a studio with deep marketing pockets and a hunger for laurels.
But the movie is also flashy and superficial when compared with Boyhood, which inspires awe in how it portrays the relationship humans have with time.
Time is also a major element in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, an ambitious and beautiful mix of hard science and mushy emotion. Academy voters left it out in the cold other than in the technical categories of design and editing.
Wes Anderson's glorious, light-as-air The Grand Budapest Hotel, a triumph of language, cinematography and acting (from Ralph Fiennes), has earned the writer-director nods in three categories this year, including this one.
But bookmakers say that this will not be Anderson's year. Budapest, a period piece set in a fictional Europe and the director's best work yet, is too comedic in tone - voters like their winners weighty.
American Sniper's weighty tone and huge box office will not sway the Academy's 7,000 voters, however. They nominate war stories (The Hurt Locker, 2008) because the topic has gravitas, but will go for a work with more traditional filmmaking values in the final reckoning. The same thinking goes for race-relations dramas such as Selma. Sniper's pro-war, right-wing message has also not sat well with voters.
The Academy also has a fondness for prestige biopics (mathematician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything). Some years, these pictures win (The King's Speech, 2009). Often, they do not (Philomena, 2012; Milk, 2007).
Whiplash, the coming-of-age story of a music student in thrall of a sadistic teacher, was noticed by Oscar voters because of its big wins at the Sundance Film Festival, but that is as far as it will get.
Its maker, newcomer Damien Chazelle, 30, lacks name recognition. But the opposite is true of one of its stars, J.K. Simmons, 60, a respected character actor who is likely to go home with a Best Supporting Actor win.
Nominees: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory Of Everything), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
To win: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory Of Everything)
Should win: Michael Keaton (Birdman)
This section and the Best Picture category have the closest races. Here, the two front runners show off their Illness Acting, but will the prize go to the fresh-faced Englishman or the American with a career behind him?
British actor Redmayne, 33, is the favourite here after wins in three major actors' races: The Screen Actors Guild Awards, The Golden Globes (Drama) and the Baftas.
But Keaton, three decades older at 63, has not been leaving award shows empty-handed, either. His Birdman won the Cast Performance at the Screen Actors Guild and, like Redmayne, he has an acting Golden Globe, but in the Comedy or Musical category.
Hollywood loves a comeback kid and Keaton fits the bill. The town especially likes men who turn serious after a career built on froth. Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, 2013) won last year riding the wave of this sentiment.
Keaton came to prominence in much-loved comedies (Mr Mom, 1983; Beetlejuice, 1988) before playing Batman twice (Batman, 1989; Batman Returns, 1992) - and, in so doing, helped spark the trend of the superhero blockbuster.
Birdman slyly refers to the actor's own career arc - Keaton is Riggan, a washed-up actor known for superhero parts trying to stage a comeback on Broadway. His mentally fracturing Riggan, tilting at the windmills in his mind, is the dignified cornerstone of a movie that could have slipped into melodrama.
Trailing far behind the two leaders are Cooper, Cumberbatch and Carell, none of whom has delivered performances as showy as Keaton's. None has made much of a dent on the major awards circuit.
Nominees: Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Felicity Jones (The Theory Of Everything), Marion Cotillard (Two Days One Night)
To win: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Should win: Julianne Moore
Moore has four previous nominations, for Boogie Nights (1997), The End Of The Affair (1999), The Hours (2002) and Far From Heaven (2002). Punters believe it is time this respected actress got her due.
Last year was very good to the 54-year-old. She nabbed one Best Actress Golden Globe, for Still Alice (in the Drama category), and her performance as an ageing actress cracking up in a youth-obsessed Tinseltown, in David Cronenberg's Maps To The Stars, earned her a separate Golden Globe nomination in the Comedy or Musical category.
Her sensitive turn as Alice Howland, a linguistics professor losing her faculties to early-onset Alzheimer's, also earned her the Best Actress prizes at the Baftas and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
The other nominees will wilt before the mighty Moore, who incidentally also has the Illness Acting factor in her corner. Witherspoon, Pike, Cotillard and Jones played women whose characters might have been just as noble and struggling against the odds, but it takes a life-threatening disease to show off an actor's range.
Nominees: Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
To win: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Birdman),
Should win: Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, not nominated), Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, not nominated)
The Best Director Oscar eluded Inarritu with the multi-threaded drama Babel (2006) but this year, the Mexican film-maker, 51, will go home with a statuette.
For a time, Linklater, 54, looked to be powering his way to the front, but earlier this month at the Directors Guild Award, an important indicator of Oscar sentiment, he lost to Inarritu.
Boyhood is the best shot he has ever had for a Best Director Oscar. Though adored by fans and critics, his output has been too small-scale and personal (Before Midnight, 2012; Bernie, 2011) or too weird (Waking Life, 2001) to be considered for this section. His is the classic case of the craftsman being so good, the craft becomes invisible.
Chazelle, the writer-director behind the inventive Whiplash, was cruelly denied a spot in this category. The same goes for Gilroy, the maker of thriller-satire Nightcrawler.
Norwegian Tyldum, making his English-language debut with The Imitation Game, is too new to stand a serious chance.
Miller was nominated for the biopic Capote (2005) and his sports drama Moneyball (2011) scored six nominations. Like Linklater, he is seen as a craftsman and a director who works well with his actors, but Foxcatcher, like Boyhood, lacks the risk-taking pyrotechnics and scale that voters like.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Nominees: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, Boyhood, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher
To win: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness, Stefan Zweig)
Should win: Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Budapest is a confection that is a near-perfect blend of every skill in film-making, from editing to music to acting.
But if you are considering words on a page, as this category should, Nightcrawler is the more powerful work.
First-time feature film-maker Gilroy (husband of lead actress Rene Russo, who plays a desperate television news producer) has created an unforgettable character in Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the sociopathic embodiment of everything wrong in media and capitalist society. Bloom's story is tightly plotted and the dialogue drips with menace.
But it looks like Budapest will win here, having nabbed the Writers Guild Of America award for Best Original Screenplay recently and most voters in the guild are also members of the Academy.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nominees: The Imitation Game, Whiplash, The Theory Of Everything, American Sniper, Inherent Vice
To win: The Imitation Game (Andrew Hodges, Graham Moore)
Should win: Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
Another bit of Oscar weirdness here: Whiplash is here and not in Original Screenplay because it was adapted from director Chazelle's own short film of the same title. The reasoning might be a bit fishy, but those are the rules.
Still, it is a far better work on the page than The Imitation Game, which is far more sentimental and less tightly put together as a story than Whiplash.
The Chazelle film is simple, but like a great piece of jazz, it is made up of fascinating variations on a theme. A drums student (played by Miles Teller) and his teacher (J.K. Simmons) face off in a series of tension-filled encounters.
The race was on between The Imitation Game and Whiplash in this section, but that appears to have ended recently after the Alan Turing biopic, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, walked away with a Writers Guild Of America Award in the same category.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominees: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Edward Norton (Birdman), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Robert Duvall (The Judge)
To win: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Should win: J.K. Simmons
The Simmons juggernaut's engine started at the Golden Globes last year and will vroom all the way to the finish line on Monday. The leathery 60-year-old character actor, as volatile music teacher Fletcher, barked, taunted and cursed his way to wins at the Golden Globes, Baftas and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
He has the advantage of a long career, so many voters will know him personally.
But most importantly, the man known mainly for playing shouty editor J. Jonah Jameson in the three Sam Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movies (2002-2007) was cast perfectly as Fletcher.
None of the other contenders here have anything as intense as Fletcher to offer. Their parts were also much smaller and more in keeping with the spirit of a supporting or ensemble role.
Simmons, in contrast, has almost as much screen time as the Whiplash lead, Miles Teller, who plays music student Andrew, the target of his teacher's ire.
Fletcher might not be clinically ill, but as played by Simmons at his bulging-necked best, he comes close enough as to not matter.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominees: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Emma Stone (Birdman), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Meryl Streep (Into The Woods), Laura Dern (Wild)
To win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Should win: Patricia Arquette
To say that Arquette, 46, delivered a supporting actress part is something of a misnomer - in Boyhood, she was as much a lead as Ellar Coltrane, the actor playing the boy at the centre of the film.
Chalk this one up as a case of strategic submission by Boyhood's producer, IFC.
It looks like it will pay off. She has made a clean sweep in her category at the Baftas, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards.
She has never been known as an actress of great talent. She has a face one might recognise from television (CSI: Cyber, Boardwalk Empire, Law & Order, Special Victims Unit) or from any number of horror or comedy flicks (Stigmata, 1999; Little Nicky, 2000), with occasional appearances in serious works that make use of her mix of vulnerability and toughness (the Quentin Tarantino-penned, Tony Scott-directed cult favourite True Romance, 1993).
But as with J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, she is earning later-career recognition. She will win as much for her body of work as for her stoic mum character in Boyhood.
Dern's mother character also stood out in Wild, but like the other actresses here, her part received too little screen time to be a serious contender.