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Oscars: Nominations Are In, But What Will Win?

It feels like a two-way race with one, maybe two dark horse spoilers.

Nominations have finally been revealed for the 88th Academy Awards, and as ever, the best picture category represents a fascinating snapshot of both the industry and the here and now. We may be more than a month away from the ceremony, but seeing as there’s something real to work with, let’s dig in, handicap the race and try to determine who will be holding the best picture Oscar aloft on Feb. 28.

The market seemed bearish at the start for “The Big Short.” But prior to an AFI Fest premiere, Paramount got the ball rolling with industry-only screenings in October. The film went on to be a passionate favorite with the Academy, landing key nominations for director, adapted screenplay and film editing. It’s also a movie that could survive the preferential balloting system, which favors films acceptable to a broad voting pool. Consider this a dark horse.

“Bridge of Spies” had a strong showing on the industry awards circuit, picking up nominations from the art directors, producers, screen actors and writers guilds, as well as the cinematographers, sound mixers and visual-effects artists groups. But while popularity across disciplines is key in an Oscar race, the movie did show some weakness, failing to score a director nomination for Steven Spielberg.

Fox Searchlight won back-to-back best picture Oscars for “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman,” but this year, the distributor seemed to find its footing in the season a bit more slowly. “Brooklyn” ended up surviving the long haul all the way from a Sundance premiere a year ago, picking up supporters along the way for its resonant depiction of the immigrant experience. It’s sure to land a lot of votes, but plenty have been left underwhelmed by its modesty all the same.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” was second only to “The Revenant” in total nominations, netting 10. Such
big tallies can be a harbinger of best picture success, though in recent years, that has proven more of a guideline than a rule. And while George Miller’s opus rallied plenty of zealous sup-
porters, it’s hard to imagine this “Mad” appeal ranging across a spectrum wide enough to claim the big prize. Plus, genre bias is always lurking: Just ask “Gravity.”

“The Martian” came into the race after its Toronto Film Festival premiere as a “maybe” — an entertaining film with enough on its mind to make it a player, but perhaps one in need of a little help. As ever, a number of would-be contenders fell by the wayside, sending Ridley Scott’s film into orbit, with plenty of backing throughout the crafts. Like “The Big Short,” it’s also a film that could perform very well on a preferential ballot. All that said, the exclusion of Scott in the best director category is
one of the year’s biggest puzzlers, and perhaps indicative that some voters aren’t taking it seriously in the prestige space.

The Revenant,” with a trio of Golden Globes in its pocket and an impressive amount of box office coin to jingle, goes into phase two loaded for bear. It scored the highest nominations total, with 12 mentions across the board, and is clearly saddled up to make a strong run. However, no film-maker has won best picture two years in a row. Is the Academy really ready to make Alejandro G. Inarritu the first, or will that be reason to spread the love elsewhere?

Things started to look dire for “Room” down the stretch, as no industry group joined the Screen Actors Guild in recognizing the film, and BAFTA didn’t fall hard for it, either. Well, the Academy did, finding space for it, not just in the best picture category, but for director as well. It’s proof the passion is strong with this one — but can it ultimately be a consensus pick? Doubtful.

Finally, Spotlight came into the new year strong, with far and away the most critics awards for best picture. But things started to look dicey, as early guild and industry acclaim went to others. The film was also shut out at the Golden Globes, while director Tom McCarthy came up short
in BAFTA’s director category. A DGA nomination was just the shot in the arm the film needed, and now, here it sits, with McCarthy getting into the directing category, and the film getting an editing nod many didn’t expect. It’s still a lurking possibility to claim the top prize, even as an underdog.

So what wins? At this point, it feels like a two-way race between “The Revenant” and “Spotlight.” Obviously “The Revenant” has the wind at its back following the Golden Globes, but “Spotlight” came back with intensity, reminding us not to underestimate its staying power.

If any other film is lurking as a spoiler, it’s “The Big Short.” Both that and “Spotlight” detail real-world events, the repercussions of which are still being felt. Few films in the race have such a sense of immediacy. Adam McKay’s housing-bubble comedy conveys, in sobering fiction disguised as satire, the beginnings of a devastating economic crisis, while McCarthy’s humble journalism drama pays homage to an eroded industry by showcasing one of its greatest triumphs. A subtext of both is the importance of an educated populace in the face of institutional power, quite apt in an election year primed to focus on oligarchy.

You can sense that the campaign behind “The Revenant” would like to beef up its profile along these lines, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s dedication of his Golden Globe to indigenous peoples around the world, and thoughts on climate change working their way into the press rhetoric. But the film is also, as noted, a crafts giant sure to be respected throughout the below-the-line categories. That counts for a lot.

“The Martian,” it should be said, also will do well among artisans, but the omission of Scott isn’t a good harbinger. Much of the awards narrative around the sci-fi epic was centered on the director, a four-time Oscar nominee who is seen as overdue for the prize. Yet to be fair, the film does have ties to the zeitgeist, though they’re more philosophical in nature, regarding the importance of science and problem-solving in a progressive community.

A lot can happen between now and the big show. Final ballots don’t go out until nearly a month from today, on Feb. 12. How will the narratives shift in the final stretch?

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