Plenty of best picture Oscar races have come down to choices between two favored films. This year, though, the awards season marathon has approached the finish line with three movies — "The Big Short," "The Revenant" and "Spotlight" — in position to win the film academy's big prize.
Which will emerge victorious? The answer will make or break a good many Oscar pools. So let's take a look.
The journalism drama "Spotlight" grabbed critics' attention at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and went on to win several critics groups prizes in December. Then "The Big Short" took the Producers Guild honor in January, a big deal because the PGA uses the same preferential voting system as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Then "Spotlight" won the SAG Awards cast prize; shortly after, "The Revenant" took top honors with the Directors Guild and the British film academy.
This splintered set of prizes has created a scenario in which you can make a justified case for any of the three movies winning Sunday, though it's actually easier to rain on their parades than it is to present a definitive reason as to why any will win. "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" will each likely take just one other Oscar. The last best picture winner with just two Oscars? "The Greatest Show on Earth" in 1953. "The Revenant," meanwhile, didn't earn a screenplay nomination (c'mon ... all that grunting was kind of meaningful) and didn't win the Producers Guild award, bad signs for its chances.
What do the contenders have going for them? The well-crafted "Spotlight" recently screened for a Vatican commission on clerical sex abuse. For voters who like to reward movies that make a difference, "Spotlight" provides that opportunity.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu's brutal revenge western "The Revenant" would appear to have momentum on its side, an elusive concept to be sure, but one that seems to have an effect on the psychology behind voting. It's the movie that was winning the prizes at the time academy members were voting. And people like to vote for the winner. Researchers call it the "bandwagon effect." We like to use it as a way of partly explaining why a movie like "The King's Speech" could somehow prevail for best picture.
"The Big Short," like "Spotlight," is an issue-oriented movie, and because its sickening look at Wall Street shenanigans dovetails with many of the populist issues being raised (mostly by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders) on the presidential campaign trail, it feels provocative and relevant. It's a jolting call to be vigilant and not allow the 2008 financial apocalypse to happen again. It's also, of this trio, probably the most entertaining, though Paramount has been careful to avoid the C-word (that's "comedy" ... what were you thinking?) in its marketing, fearing voters regard it as too lightweight.
The X factor here is the academy's preferential voting system, which asks those casting ballots to rank the movies in order. This rewards consensus choices, movies that show up consistently in voters' first, second or third place spots. "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" would seem to be those kinds of films.
So here's my take on which one I think will win the top prize, along with some other key categories. No, you don't need to cut me in on a percentage of your Oscar pool winnings. A simple note of thanks will suffice.
"The Big Short"
"Bridge of Spies"
Will win: Since I've been calling it for "The Big Short" even before its PGA win, I'm going to stubbornly stick with that choice, though I am having a flashback to last year when Iñárritu's "Birdman" swept through the Oscars. It could happen for him again with "The Revenant."
Lenny Abrahamson, "Room"
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, "The Revenant"
Tom McCarthy, "Spotlight"
Adam McKay, "The Big Short"
George Miller, "Mad Max: Fury Road"
Will win: Never bet against the Directors Guild winner. Iñárritu would become the first director to take consecutive Oscars since Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1950 and 1951.
Bryan Cranston, "Trumbo"
Matt Damon, "The Martian"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Revenant"
Michael Fassbender, "Steve Jobs"
Eddie Redmayne, "The Danish Girl"
Will win: DiCaprio. The inevitable Oscar, forecast long before "The Revenant" screened for critics and audiences. I still have a hard time thinking DiCaprio is somehow "due" for this. He has been nominated four previous times and lost to better work on each occasion. But DiCaprio does convey misery and suffering in "The Revenant" with a conviction that gives the movie a smidgen of gravitas. So give him the Oscar. Now we can start to work on getting the criminally overdue Amy Adams one next.
Cate Blanchett, "Carol"
Brie Larson, "Room"
Jennifer Lawrence, "Joy"
Charlotte Rampling, "45 Years"
Saoirse Ronan, "Brooklyn"
Will win: Larson has had a firm grip on this Oscar from the moment "Room" premiered at Telluride and audiences witnessed her intense turn as the movie's protective mother. Ronan, meanwhile, is all of 21. There will be plenty of time for her to take a turn at the podium.
Christian Bale, "The Big Short"
Tom Hardy, "The Revenant"
Mark Ruffalo, "Spotlight"
Mark Rylance, "Bridge of Spies"
Sylvester Stallone, "Creed"
Will win: There's some feeling that Rylance could pull off an upset, pulling in votes from the serious actors brigade. I don't buy it. Stallone's compelling comeback story (yo, 39 years between Oscar nominations) has been one of the season's happier tales.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, "The Hateful Eight"
Rooney Mara, "Carol"
Rachel McAdams, "Spotlight"
Alicia Vikander, "The Danish Girl"
Kate Winslet, "Steve Jobs"
Will win: Vikander. Plenty of people want to see a Kate and Leo reunion, with both of them holding Oscars and DiCaprio offering some kind of variation on the "king of the world" speech. But between "The Danish Girl" and "Ex Machina," Vikander has won the most acclaim. Plus, ingenues usually do quite well in this category.
"The Big Short"
Will win: "The Big Short" takes what could have been a lecture and turns it into an anarchic, bracing broadside against Wall Street malfeasance.
"Bridge of Spies"
"Straight Outta Compton"
Will win: "Spotlight" for its meticulous, understated portrait of journalists bringing to light horrors too long ignored.
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