Every year, Oscar bloggers put on a pretty good show in pointing out how, unlike all previous years (which were inevitably forgone conclusions long before the ballots were even tallied), this year is truly a wild, unpredictable free-for-all. Maybe it’s only an affectation that allows them an opportunity to furtively inflate their own sense of accomplishment when they end up nailing at least 85 percent of the eventual nominees. But damned if this isn’t one of those years where you can at least forgive the indulgence.
Every day for the last week has seen some guild slate or another either kill or revive almost every film’s chances at least once, each twist and turn cueing a chorus of “I told you so” from those momentarily proven right. “You see? I told you Carol was too cold and cerebral.” “No way they’re going to be able to restrain themselves from nominating Star Wars: The Force Awakens when it’s slaying box-office records.” “I knew you were all underestimating how much people loved Ex Machina when it was literally the only quality studio film in theaters for a three-month span.”
While it would be an exaggeration to categorize all this sound and fury about something signifying next to nothing “fun,” at the very least the hubbub this Oscar year offers welcome respite from the grinding monotony of the presidential race. Though even there, and most certainly unlike this year’s Best Director prospects, at least the possibility exists that a woman will get a nomination.
Standing at the calm center of the Oscar race storm is Spotlight, which has been the presumed taster’s choice of 2015 since before it even opened, but really cemented its status as the only mortal lock in the category when it started defeating the Film Comment poll-winning Carol among some of the loftiest of critics’ groups. You know we’ve stepped through the looking glass when the group that sidestepped the Boyhood locomotive last year in favor of Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D dog-and-poop show say, with a straight face, that a Tom McCarthy film trumps all this year. Even Spotlight’s precursor performance hasn’t been entirely spotless; some started chewing a fingernail or two when it failed to get nominated for an ACE Eddie Award (unlike Ant-Man), but there’s no one betting against it earning a seat at the Eucharist.
Beyond that, you could at least entertain arguments against nearly every one of the remaining hopefuls. The Big Short was a late-arriver, but its performance in the guild heats has been nothing short of impressive (only cinematographers understandably shrugged their shoulders, as they also did over Spotlight). One of the two most BAFTA-nominated movies, Carol, missed out on the PGA nod, and also the SAG’s speciously “important” best ensemble category. But it’s maintained position as the most viable option for the AMPAS demographic that got The Tree of Life and Amour into the main drag recently.
Unless, of course, that honor goes to Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie absolutely no one knows how seriously to take as a major Oscar contender, but might just earn the highest number of first-place ballot placements. Well, that or Bridge of Spies. Post-War Horse, it’s difficult to determine just where the Academy’s limit for embracing late-Spielberg classicism is, but as Bridge of Spies tied with Carol for the most BAFTA nods, we’re guessing this movie isn’t it.
The sense that there’s anywhere from 15 to 20 movies with legitimate shots at a nomination is making it difficult for some to know whether the sliding scale in this category will tip toward the minimum or the maximum. But until we see evidence to the contrary, and because these changes were implemented by the AMPAS specifically to get more films into best picture and avoid any further embarrassment over their shameful preference for historical dramas over superhero movies, we’re going to keep betting on more, not fewer.
And because the system honors consensus, this year might see a lot more well-received populist entertainments—for sure The Martian, though perhaps not Straight Outta Compton (despite its guild nods from actors, writers, and producers)—and fewer divisively received, slogging wankjobs. (Well, okay, maybe one, given The Revenant’s warm reception at the Golden Globes.)
You’d think it would be more insulting that Ridley Scott is a long-standing frontrunner in the category for delivering a sci-fi movie so comparatively light on its feet that people are marveling at how much if doesn’t feel like a Ridley Scott film. Then again, Thomas McCarthy’s certainly going to get nominated for Spotlight, which doesn’t feel like a movie directed by anyone at all (BAFTA certainly felt that way), so maybe the stakes are just lower all around in this race.
Given the Altman-esque cast of dozens all jockeying for attention in the Best Picture race, Best Director doesn’t feel like it has all that many names on everyone’s lips. One of them, Alejandro González Iñárritu, just took the prize last year and his chest-puffing pomposity has only gotten more pronounced since, but for every person who sees in The Revenant a heroic statement on man’s legacy of inherited violence, there’s another who’d find lukewarm bison liver more palatable than Iñárritu’s warmed-over Terrence Malick-Werner Herzog overtures. That said, if the warm reception he received during last night’s Golden Globes ceremony is any indication, he’s still fooling enough people that a nomination seems inevitable.
The BAFTA nominations confirmed the undeniable groundswell for The Big Short. And though even Thomas McCarthy isn’t intimidated by Adam McKay’s visual sensibilities, McKay’s film delivers its NPR-listener-courting infotainment with the smirk of Nero fiddling away. That leaves George Miller and Todd Haynes dueling for the last spot. Though Miller huffs enough testosterone to dissolve Iñárritu on contact, the likelihood the latter is in play at all suggests voters prefer their toxic masculinity to at least have the courtesy of being insufferably self-important, and not irrepressibly fun. Ergo, we’re betting on there being a lot of disappointed fanboys when the architect behind Imperator Furiosa takes a back seat to Haynes’s Her-Sapphic Park.