The best picture Oscar remains unsettled, with four films well positioned to claim the academy's top prize. Which movie will prevail? And what other Oscars might these films win? Let's take an early look at the landscape.
"The Big Short"
Should win: Picture, adapted screenplay
Could win: Supporting actor, film editing
Analysis: Adam McKay's scathing dramedy, which follows the Wall Street outsiders who saw the subprime mortgage bubble and forecast the 2008 economic collapse, earned five nominations, the fewest of this group. But the December release might be the most-discussed movie in the bunch, its relevancy and truth-telling giving it a social currency that appeals to academy voters who like their best picture choices to be issue-oriented and contain some larger, deeper meaning.
It's a heavy favorite in the adapted screenplay category for the reason "Big Short" cast member Steve Carell expressed when he first read Michael Lewis' source material. "Loved it," Carell told me. "Had to read it a second time because I wasn't sure I got it all the first go-around, but absolutely loved it. I just couldn't understand how they were going to make a movie out of it." So, points for degree-of-difficulty and brilliant execution.
The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. gave editor Hank Corwin its film editing honor, and the different ways he cut the film to be in rhythm with its characters' personalities is brilliant. The montages and jump cuts are also showy, the kind of work that the academy as a whole often rewards in this category. The supporting actor race is, as always, competitive, but Christian Bale, who does much of his work alone in the movie, could be the contender best positioned to challenge sentimental favorite Sylvester Stallone.
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
Should win: Director, film editing, makeup and hair, production design, sound editing, sound mixing, visual effects
Could win: Cinematography
Analysis: It's hardly surprising that "Mad Max" succeeds so well as a post-apocalyptic action movie. Miller practically invented and defined the genre. But the way Miller uses the movie's astonishing imagery in the service of a story driven by women is radical, even (particularly?) if it goes unstated. At the age of 70, the Australian director, a prince of a human being and well loved within the industry, has made his best movie, and a win for director would fall in line with the academy's recent choices of Ang Lee ("Life of Pi") and Alfonso Cuarón ("Gravity") for dazzling work.
"Mad Max" seems likely to win a few crafts categories, and cinematographer John Seale, whom Miller brought out of retirement to shoot the film, could well stop Emmanuel Lubezki's quest for a third consecutive Oscar.
Should win: Actor, cinematography
Could win: Picture, director, supporting actor, film editing, makeup and hair, production design, sound editing, sound mixing, visual effects
Analysis: Alejandro G. Iñárritu's beautiful, brutal frontier western scored 12 nominations, more than any other film. Leaders of the pack have gone on to win best picture four times in the last decade, but after "Birdman" last year, who are we to doubt the academy's love for all things Iñárritu? There's definitely a suspicion that after giving the Mexican-born filmmaker three Oscars last year as a director, writer and producer, there might be an inclination to go in a different direction. The lack of a screenplay nomination also doesn't bode well. "Titanic" was the last movie to win best picture without a mention for its writing.
But then, both "The Revenant" and "Titanic" feature Leonardo DiCaprio suffering — though in the latter movie, the misery doesn't come until the very end, unless you count having to endure Billy Zane's acting. DiCaprio's first Oscar still seems assured, particularly because there's no clear-cut challenger among the four other nominees.
Emmanuel Lubezki, meanwhile, looks to become the first cinematographer in history to win three consecutive Oscars. The parade of honors would feel like overkill if the work — "Gravity," "Birdman" and now "The Revenant" — wasn't so groundbreaking and varied.
Should win: Original screenplay
Could win: Picture, director
Analysis: Lacking a clear alternative, pundits placed Tom McCarthy's sturdy journalism procedural atop their best picture lists after its Toronto festival premiere and through its parade of critics group honors. However, the flameout of last year's early front-runner, "Boyhood," has given prognosticators pause.