"Bridge of Spies"
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
Prime contenders: "Steve Jobs," "The Hateful Eight," "Joy," "Straight Outta Compton," "Trumbo"
Bubbling under: "Beasts of No Nation," "The Danish Girl," "Creed," "Son of Saul," "Youth," "Sicario," "Black Mass"
Analysis: The best way into this year's splintered best picture race is to guess the Oscar nominees for director and move outward from there. Thirty directors have earned nominations since the academy expanded the picture category six years ago. Of those 30, 29 have seen their films nominated too. (The exception happened just last year when the directors' branch nominated Bennett Miller, but the membership at large skipped over "Foxcatcher.")
The director contest involves some guesswork too, but I like the chances of Tom McCarthy ("Spotlight"), Ridley Scott ("The Martian"), Alejandro G. Iñárritu ("The Revenant") and Todd Haynes ("Carol") making it in. That's four. But then the picture becomes muddled. It's tempting to jump on George Miller's fast-moving "Mad Max: Fury Road" bandwagon (and hang on for dear life). Honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and National Board of Review and those Golden Globe nominations will prod the academy to consider a film that doesn't fit the traditional definition of a best picture nominee. And like Scott, Miller is a well-liked veteran filmmaker, respected for his ability to remain vital and relevant. Still … I have my doubts.
But then, I have questions about the strength of every other movie on this list. I know "Bridge of Spies" has many admirers in the academy, but if you're taking a love-o-meter reading, it would register more fondness than unbridled passion. It should show up on many ballots, as will the expert, animated tear-jerker "Inside Out" and early fall festival favorites "Brooklyn" and "Room."
With its SAG Awards ensemble nomination and multiple Golden Globes nods, Adam McKay's dramedy about the 2008 financial debacle, "The Big Short," continues to grow in estimation. Academy members filled the rooms at three private tastemaker screenings before the film's November AFI Fest premiere, with many attendees taking to social media afterward to lavish it with praise. ("Smart, funny, frustrating and full of righteous anger," tweeted "Ant-Man" director Peyton Reed.)
Peter Bogdanovich introduced "The Big Short" at one event, calling it a "movie about something," a designation he said he rarely makes these days. The film's social relevancy, along with its caustic wit and success in producing the righteous anger mentioned by Reed, could put the film atop many voters' ballots.
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, "Spotlight"
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley, "Inside Out"
Matt Charman, Ethan and Joel Coen, "Bridge of Spies"
Quentin Tarantino, "The Hateful Eight"
David O. Russell, "Joy"
Prime contenders: László Nemes and Clara Royer, "Son of Saul"; Amy Schumer, "Trainwreck"; Paolo Sorrentino, "Youth"; Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, "Straight Outta Compton"
Bubbling under: Alex Garland, "Ex Machina"; Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, "Love & Mercy"; Taylor Sheridan, "Sicario"; Abi Morgan, "Suffragette"
Analysis: Tarantino recently told GQ that he wants to win more original screenplay Oscars "than anybody who's ever lived!" He owns two and will likely have a chance for a third this year with "Hateful Eight." He might come up short though against the intricately woven "Spotlight." Six of Pixar's animated films, meanwhile, have been nominated here and "Toy Story 3" landed in the adapted category. The studio has never won, but it has a strong case this year for the inventive, elaborately conceived "Inside Out." A dark horse possibility for a nomination: "Son of Saul." The Holocaust drama, written by Hungarian director Neames and his French co-writer Royer, powerfully recasts the overworked genre, daring the audience to consider the notion of survival through the eyes of one desperate, determined man.
Emma Donoghue, "Room"
Aaron Sorkin, "Steve Jobs"
Phyllis Nagy, "Carol"
Drew Goddard, "The Martian"
Charlie Kaufman, "Anomalisa"
Prime contenders: Nick Hornby, "Brooklyn"; Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, "The Revenant"; Lucinda Coxon, "The Danish Girl"; Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, "The Big Short"; Cary Fukunaga, "Beasts of No Nation"
Bubbling under: John McNamara, "Trumbo"; Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk, "Black Mass"; Andrew Haigh, "45 Years"; Donald Margulies, "The End of the Tour"; Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, "Creed"
Analysis: Donoghue might be the favorite here, even over the celebrated Sorkin, for the way she adapted her book into an acclaimed movie that maintained the novel's unique voice. Sorkin, of course, makes it in — for the work, for the legend, for the Telluride festival-goer who shouted his name in the middle of the screening. Goddard's adaptation of "The Martian" is a thing of beauty, keeping the science clear, the multiple characters interesting and the humor intact. Nagy shepherded Patricia Highsmith's novel to the screen over the course of 15 years, delivering a glorious, immersive romance.
I feel good about that quartet earning nominations. The fifth slot could go to the well-regarded Hornby, who pulled off a movie that he described to The Times as a "'50s weepie … that pulls you in and punches you in the stomach." But I have a hunch that Kaufman, a three-time nominee and winner for writing "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," will return for his stop-motion animated movie "Anomalisa." Its following is small, but passionate.