Oscars 2015: What to watch for

Story highlights

  • The 87th Academy Awards air Sunday night on ABC
  • Host will be Neil Patrick Harris, who has proven himself at the Tonys and Emmys
  • "Birdman," "Boyhood" are front-runners for best picture

(CNN)In honor of the Oscars, this story will be 7,633 words long, padded out with flowery phrases and belabored metaphors, leavened with a surprise adjective or two and summed up by a yawning and expected conclusion.

Just kidding. Well, at least about the number of words. We can't promise anything about the rest.
But that's the thing about the Oscars. So much of what they present (and represent) is predictable: amusement and pageantry, self-importance about the role of movies and occasional stretches of dullness. (Well, there ARE 24 awards to give out.)
    Still, you never know when the show will surprise -- and even entertain.
    This year, for the 87th Academy Awards, the "entertainment" portion will be helped immeasurably by the inclusion of host Neil Patrick Harris, who has proven himself to be an all-star performer with his turns at the Tonys and Emmys.
    And a number of award categories -- including best picture -- are still undecided, unlike recent years when many top winners seemed preordained.
    So grab some popcorn and an Oscar ballot. Here's what you can expect from this year's show.

    The red carpet

    Joan Rivers is gone.
    The comedian and longtime red-carpet maven died last September, and love her or hate her, she always added some zip to the red-carpet procession, from popularizing the question "Who are you wearing?" to calling out faux pas on "Fashion Police."
    This year's red carpet -- coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET -- is less colorful for her loss. Nevertheless, plenty of color (and color commentary) will remain. Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic are hosting on E!, while ABC will trot out Robin Roberts, Lara Spencer and Michael Strahan.
    The weather forecast calls for a partly cloudy day with temperatures in the mid-60s and a 10% chance of rain. Sparkling Oscar weather, in other words.

    The host

    When Neil Patrick Harris hosts your show, you know you're in for a good time.
    His song-and-dance moves at the Tonys -- which he's hosted four times -- have earned raves. And though the 2013 Emmys proved unexpectedly dull, he wasn't blamed.
    So now Doogie Howser is hosting the Oscars. It won't be Harris' first time on the Academy Award stage -- he opened the show in 2010 -- but it's his debut as the show's emcee.
    He's aware of the challenges. Ellen DeGeneres did a good job last year, but all anyone remembers is her selfie. And Hugh Jackman, another ace song-and-dance man, hosted the show in 2009. He got nice reviews. Recall anything else?
    "In many ways, it's lose-lose," Harris told the Los Angeles Times. "There's so much scrutiny. And so much anticipation, and so many (Oscar-viewing) parties where people are hoping that things go wrong. It's not really an audience wanting you to win."

    The presenters

    The 42 people scheduled to hand out awards Sunday range from 80-year-old Shirley MacLaine to 18-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz, from perennial nominee Meryl Streep to newcomer Ansel Elgort.
    Perhaps in an effort to appeal to younger viewers, only five of the presenters are over 50.
    And the academy may be mindful of complaints this year about the all-white slate of acting nominees. More than one-quarter of the scheduled presenters are black, including Oprah Winfrey and perceived best actor snubee David Oyelowo, both from "Selma."
    Yes, reading off lists of nominees can be a little dull. So who's going to bring the funny?
    We're pinning our hopes on Kevin Hart, Jason Bateman and Eddie Murphy.

    The awards

    Count on Oscars for Julianne Moore (best actress, "Still Alice"), J.K. Simmons (best supporting actor, "Whiplash") and Patricia Arquette (best supporting actress, "Boyhood").
    After that things get less predictable. Best actor is a two-way race between sentimental favorite Michael Keaton ("Birdman") and upstart Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Everything").
    And best picture? "Birdman" appears to have a slight edge over "Boyhood," with "The Imitation Game" as a long-shot contender. Some people think "American Sniper's" blockbuster status gives it a chance, but liberal Hollywood may be loath to reward a movie so beloved by right-wing America.
    If you're looking for a full slate of predictions for your Oscars pool, Gold Derby is a pretty good handicapper.

    The speeches

    By now, after the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and other awards shows, we have some idea of what the front-runners might say if they win.
    Based on recent history, Keaton may get teary and thank his handsome son Sean, while Redmayne and Moore might dedicate their awards to people coping with ALS and Alzheimer's, respectively. Arquette might mention her lineage as a descendant of actors, and Simmons may thank "Whiplash" co-star Miles Teller for how he "inspired me every day to want to scream at him and hit him in the face."

    The songs

    In recent years, the academy hasn't really known what to do with the songs. Occasionally they're a highlight -- Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed" and Robin Williams' "Blame Canada" come to mind -- but, more often, they're an excuse for a bathroom break, or not performed at all.
    This year features five songs with intriguing back stories. You've got "Glory," the gospel-tinged Common-John Legend collaboration that's one of just two nominations received by "Selma"; Tegan and Sara's puckish "Everything Is Awesome!", the only nomination for "The Lego Movie"; "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," a wrenching swan song from the Alzheimer's-stricken Glen Campbell; "Grateful," from the overlooked "Beyond the Lights" but written by the anything-but-overlooked Diane Warren; and "Lost Stars," from "Begin Again," which was directed by "Once's" John Carney and performed by Maroon 5's Adam Levine.
    "Glory" will probably win -- it's been justifiably celebrated -- but for once, best song may be one of the strongest categories at the Oscars. (All except for Campbell's song are being performed by the original artists; Tim McGraw will sing "I'm Not Gonna Miss You.") Find other moments to go to the bathroom.
    Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have also promised "several musical sequences" featuring such names as Jennifer Hudson and Lady Gaga, according to the academy's website, and "Let It Go" songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez are writing a number for Neil Patrick Harris.

    The unscripted moments

    Did we mention John Travolta is back?
    A year after he mangled singer Idina Menzel's name as "Adele Nazeem," Travolta has somehow been invited back to redeem himself as a presenter. (Maybe they'll ask him to introduce best live action short film, where Oded Binnun, Hu Wei and Talkhon Hamzavi await.)
    Let's be honest: Many of us watch the Oscars not for the awards but for the high-wire risks of live TV: the fumbled speeches, the wardrobe malfunctions, the chance that someone will do or say something crazy.
    Jack Black, Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey will be speaking live, too. Just saying.