'Spotlight's' Oscar Chances: Regional Critics Groups
Courtesy of Open Road

It might appear to be a wide open race, but one movie closed out the year in the driver's seat.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars in 2013. An up-for-grabs year in many categories — among them best picture, particularly between front-running contenders “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” — came into focus thanks to agreement among regional critics organizations.

While the early awards circuit that year had seen the New York film critics favor “American Hustle” for the top award, and the Los Angeles org deadlock on “Gravity” and “Her,” the guilds further muddied the waters down the stretch with “Hustle” winning the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble prize, “Gravity” helmer Alfonso Cuaron taking the directors guild’s prize, and “Gravity” tying “12 Years” for the Producers Guild crown. Consensus seemed to be lacking everywhere you turned.

But on the regional circuit, “12 Years,” the eventual best picture Oscar winner, was racking up win after win. Groups from Boston, Chicago, Florida and Houston, to name but a few, lined up behind Steve McQueen’s slavery drama, just as many had the year before with Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” It was noteworthy, because consensus is crucial when it comes to the best picture Oscar; the Academy’s preferential balloting system favors films that are generally agreeable over “love it/hate it” contenders.

That kind of consensus appears to be developing among regional groups this year for “Spotlight.” Tom McCarthy’s film has claimed best picture honors from 17 critics groups, including those from Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Vancouver, St. Louis and Detroit, to name a handful. A distant second is George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” with eight. Only three other films — “Carol,” “Suffragette” and “Creed” — have claimed best picture honors from critics organizations.

Is the writing on the wall for Open Road’s journalism drama, or is “Spotlight” — a film about a crusading team of journalists — simply a film that inherently appeals to the media? That’s a key question in the midst of this year’s final Oscar balloting phase. Miller, by the way, is far and away the leader when it comes to director wins, having claimed 19 trophies. “Carol” helmer Todd Haynes is far behind with four.

Meanwhile, “The Revenant” star Leonardo DiCaprio has remained in front of “Steve Jobs’ ” Michael Fassbender 11 to six for actor wins, while “Room’s” Brie Larson continues to dominate “Brooklyn’s” Saoirse Ronan in the lead actress arena, 16 to six.

In the supporting ranks, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa encore in “Creed” is ahead of “Bridge of Spies” star Mark Rylance nine to six, while somewhat surprisingly, Alicia Vikander has left all other supporting actress contenders in the dust, with 13 wins. (Surprising because they’ve all come for her “Ex Machina” performance rather than her Oscar-tipped work in “The Danish Girl,” which has received just one win, from the Detroit critics.) “Clouds of Sils Maria’s” Kristen Stewart is next in line with four wins.

And if you’re curious about screenplay totals, “Spotlight” is dominating the original field, while “The Martian” and “Room” remain neck-and-neck in the adapted race.

This is merely data, however. The mantra to keep in mind is “critics don’t vote for Oscars.” Not only that, they find themselves weighing in during an entirely different time frame than Academy members, many of whom likely received their ballot alongside 2016’s first issue of Variety after returning from holiday vacation.

Other clues are on the way, such as the next wave of guild and industry nominations (both the art directors and producers announce today with the costume designers on Thursday and the British academy on Friday). But if you have a mind to predict the 2015 best picture Oscar victor now that the year has officially drawn to a close, “Spotlight” wouldn’t be a bad bet.

Latest Predictions:

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