You want to know what a wide-open Oscar race looks like? Behold:
Best Picture: “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Carol” and “Spotlight”
Best Director: Ridley Scott, Todd Haynes and George Miller
Best Actor: Matt Damon, Michael Keaton and Michael Fassbender
Best Actress: Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan and Charlotte Rampling
Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Mark Rylance and Michael Shannon
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kristen Stewart and Alicia Vikander
Best Screenplay: “The Martian”/”The Hateful Eight,” “Carol” and “Spotlight”
So says the three highest-profile earlier precursor awards groups — the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, respectively — in each field. Not one instance of overlap in a single category.
I can’t say this for sure, but that feels unprecedented. But whether it is or isn’t (UPDATE: It isn’t. But 1988 was the last time it happened.), it’s certainly indicative of a wide-open race in all of the major categories.
The 2015 film awards race really started revving its engines where it always does, more or less — at the Telluride Film Festival in September. There, in the San Juan Mountains, “Carol” came out to play following a Cannes bow, “Spotlight” and “Black Mass” transitioned from Venice, and “Steve Jobs” and “Room” first unspooled for audiences, all just a half-hour away from where Quentin Tarantino and company filmed “The Hateful Eight” some months prior. The early favorite looked like “Spotlight” for reasons outlined here and elsewhere: it’s a film that could appeal across a wide spectrum and, in a preferential balloting system, pick up the requisite number-two and number-three votes needed to make it a generally agreeable best picture Oscar winner.
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The Toronto Film Festival added “The Martian” to the mix, while New York tacked on “Bridge of Spies” and kept the “Carol” and “Steve Jobs” flames alight. All the while, early year players like “Brooklyn” (a Sundance premiere) and the one-two summer punch of “Inside Out” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” remained lurkers.
AFI Fest added “The Big Short” and “Concussion,” and soon, the big guns many were waiting to see — “The Revenant,” “Joy” and “The Hateful Eight” — finally dropped. Though none felt like the sure-fire best picture winner awards watchers had been anticipating.
Oh, and “Creed” opened, proving that it had room to stick and move, too.
It’s a season that remains all over the map, anyone’s to call, and perhaps the most wide-open since the 2006 race (or beyond). The evenly dispersed critical wealth only embosses that fact, and various Oscar campaigns, you can bet, will see it as a sign and push the pedal to the metal.
As we move further into December, a number of regional critics groups will speak up and perhaps then, more and more, we’ll get a sense of what films and performances truly appeal to a broad base. That can be a significant clue, as it was in 2013 when “Gravity” and “Her” split the L.A. film critics prize, “American Hustle” won over the New Yorkers, yet “12 Years a Slave” won the lion’s share of regional best picture prizes. (It eventually won the best picture Oscar as well.) Perhaps we’re already seeing the beginnings of that Sunday, as the Boston Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Online each named “Spotlight” the year’s best. Who knows?
At the start of things, though, it’s a great unknown. The race is on, and it’s truly anyone’s to win.