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Oscar Watch: 'Spotlight,' 'Big Short' and 'Revenant' may be strongest contenders for best picture Oscar

Once again, it looks to be a three-way race for the best picture Oscar.

"Spotlight" won the Screen Actors Guild Awards' film ensemble honor Saturday night. A week earlier, "The Big Short" took the Producers Guild's best picture prize.

Six days from now, when the Directors Guild of America hands out its awards, Alejandro G. Inarritu is one of the favorites to win for his work on "The Revenant."

The last time three movies divided and conquered the guilds along these lines? Just two years ago when "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity" and "American Hustle" jostled in a wide-open best picture race that came down to the wire before "12 Years" ultimately prevailed when the final envelope was opened.

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Issues of racial diversity have dominated the headlines since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate any people of color for its 20 acting nominations for a second consecutive year. The controversy has partially obscured a tight contest for the academy's top prize, a race that the studio backers of three movies — "The Revenant," "The Big Short" and "Spotlight" — genuinely believe they will win.

The "Spotlight" team found new potency Saturday with its SAG Awards cast honor, even though the movie winning that award has gone on to take the best picture Oscar just 10 of 20 times over the years. That's a coin flip. But it's better than nothing. And if "The Big Short" had parlayed its PGA win with a SAG trophy, right now we'd be writing an obituary for Tom McCarthy's sturdy journalism drama.

As it stands, we're looking at any number of possible outcomes. Here's one: "Mad Max" — also a best picture nominee — will likely win the most Oscars — makeup and hair, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects and, possibly, one for its director, George Miller (let's see how the DGA sorts things Saturday) — with "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" coming away with only screenplay awards.

And "The Revenant," Inarritu's brutal, beautiful frontier western takes best picture, nets cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki an unprecedented third straight Oscar and finally puts Leonardo DiCaprio in the winner's circle for his turn as the movie's long-suffering, bear-battling trapper.

The only problem: The academy has never given back-to-back best picture Oscars to movies from the same director, and Inarritu's "Birdman" won last year. And "The Revenant" didn't earn a screenplay nomination, meaning that it'd be only the second movie in the last half century to win best picture without recognition for its writing.

So ... maybe we should wait for the DGA before any further shuffling of the best picture puzzle pieces. (The other contenders are "The Martian," "Brooklyn," "Room" and "Bridge of Spies.") Besides, Saturday's SAG Awards did offer some useful intel for the four individual acting Oscar races.

Lead actor: Before "The Revenant" even began screening in late November, the drumbeat to crown DiCaprio king of the world was insistent. The academy did have to go through and, you know, formally fill out the field with four other nominees, but no member of that quartet of challengers — Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, Eddie Redmayne — has emerged as much of a threat. And each time DiCaprio has won an award this year — the Golden Globe, the SAG statue — his peers have risen from their seats and cheered. Everyone feels good about this Oscar — even the other nominees.

"It looks, like, oh my God, the torture that all the people involved in that film went through," Cranston told me earlier this month. "But as Inarritu said, 'Pain is temporary. But film is forever.' And there's truth to that."

Lead actress: Unlike DiCaprio, Brie Larson isn't "due." This is her first Oscar nomination. She's 26. But she had a firm grip on the lead actress Oscar from the moment that "Room" premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in early September and audiences witnessed her intense turn as the movie's protective mother. When "Room" secured Oscar nominations for picture and director Lenny Abrahamson, it became clear the movie had more than enough support to secure Larson this Oscar.

Supporting actor: For the last three years, all four SAG Awards acting honorees have gone on to win Oscars. That won't be the case this year as the academy did not nominate SAG's supporting actor victor, "Beasts of No Nation" standout Idris Elba.

Elba's win rated as probably the best case scenario for Sylvester Stallone, the Oscar nominee many pundits see winning this Oscar. If Christian Bale ("The Big Short") or Mark Rylance ("Bridge of Spies") had taken the SAG Awards trophy, they would have enjoyed validation, a moment in the spotlight and a chance to build momentum for their Oscar chances. As it stands, Stallone's compelling comeback story for "Creed" (yo, 39 years between Oscar nominations) remains the category's dominant narrative.

Supporting actress: Alicia Vikander's SAG Awards victory for her turn as artist Gerda Wegener in "The Danish Girl" probably settles the debate as to which lead actress (Vikander or "Carol's" Rooney Mara) will prevail in supporting. Once she's holding the Oscar, no one will remember the category.

Final voting for the Oscars begins Feb. 12, closing on Feb. 23. The Oscars will be held Feb. 28.

glenn.whipp@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 02, 2016, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Oscar for best picture looks like 3-way battle - AFTER THE SAG AWARDS" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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