Where the 2016 Oscar Race Stands Now
By this time of year we usually know who our Oscars frontrunners are. Last year it was Birdman vs. Boyhood, and before that 12 Years a Slave and Gravity made the tops of award pundits’ ballots. This year’s race is turning out to be the most unpredictable in years. Earlier this fall Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight slid into the frontrunner spot when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. But it’s looking like the praise has reached a plateau now that the Oscar spotlight is beginning to point in other directions. On one hand, it’s a great thing since 2015 has given us such a variety of great filmmaking that slapping labels on films before voting begins is becoming harder and harder. On the other, it makes this race anyone’s best guess.
Aside from new movies from Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Quentin Tarantino – all of which are very good and very Oscar worthy – there are plenty of smaller guys and even genre movies, in contention for the Academy’s attention. A year ago no one would’ve suspected that a rebooted blockbuster, an LGBT romance starring two female leads and the latest installment in the biggest franchise of all time would be talked about come Oscar season. But alas, Mad Max: Fury Road continues to sweep up accolades, Carol is a sure fit for Best Picture and multiple actress nominations and the words “Oscars” and Star Wars are being used in the same sentences, a lot (myself included). This race has taken such a bizarre and unexpected turn that Tom Hooper and David O. Russell films, both Academy-pleasing directors, are being stampeded over by others. But as scattered and unpredictable as it may all look, the recent Golden Globes and SAG Awards nominations can better help us gauge which direction the Oscar race is headed.
Thank god we’re not living in the pre-2009 Oscar days when Best Picture only allowed five nominees. With a year like this, the maximum of 10 isn’t even enough. While the overwhelming praise for Spotlight has quieted down a bit, it’s still trudging on and continues to be the silent frontrunner. McCarthy’s journalism drama has the best chance at entering the race, along with Carol, Fury Road, The Revenant and The Martian. All of those received Globes Best Film nominations in their respective categories, but Spotlight was the only one to get a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble. Looking back at history shows that every Best Picture winner since the SAG Awards began 21 years ago has been nominated for Best Ensemble, with the exception of Braveheart in 1996. At least two, and up to five, of the SAG’s Best Ensemble nominees have gone on to be nominated for Best Picture, (although in 2007 only one nominee, No Country For Old Men, made it to the Oscars). Unless the we get another year as offbeat as ‘96 or ‘07, two other Ensemble nominees will likely get Best Picture nominations. The only thing is, SAG recognized a very mixed bag of films this year.
Their other nominees included Trumbo, largely unfavored by critics, Straight Outta Compton, which seems a long shot in this overcrowded year, Beasts of No Nation, a much bigger long shot for the Academy’s tastes, and The Big Short. Out of all those, Adam McKay’s The Big Short is most likely to get a Best Picture nomination, especially after the Globes gave it a boost with Best Actor in a Comedy noms for Christian Bale and Steve Carell. The second most likely is the N.W.A. biopic, which also made it onto AFI’s Top 10 list.
Another indicator of a Best Picture nom is a film that has a lead actor in the running for a nominations. Carol has Cate Blanchett and maybe Rooney Mara if voters decide she’s a lead. The Revenant has Leonardo DiCaprio, the current Best Actor frontrunner now that he’s been nominated by the HFPA, SAG, and Critics Choice Awards. The Martian has Matt Damon, who will likely make it into the race despite his lack of a SAG nomination. SAG and the Globes, however, did nominate Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, throwing an interesting fork into predictions. It seems doubtful though that Trumbo could have the power to knock Damon and/or The Martian out of the running, especially since the Ridley Scott survival epic has a more emotionally-rousing story to charm Academy voters. But Cranston could still make it in, likely bumping Johnny Depp or Will Smith from the running. Fury Road has Charlize Theron as a Best Actress possibility, and while a nomination may be unlikely, all the awards love for the film this season could make it happen.
Two films with Best Picture potential that didn’t earn Globes Best Film nominations or make it into AFI’s list are The Hateful Eight and Steve Jobs. Both films have a good chance in the Screenplay categories (Original and Adapted, respectively) and acting categories. Jennifer Jason Leigh could get a Supporting Actress nom, as she did with the Globes. For Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet remain strong potentials in the Best Actor and Supporting Actress race. At this point, I’d be most surprised if The Hateful Eight didn’t get into the Best Picture race, Steve Jobs, not so much.
There’s also Joy, which remains on many awards pundits’ Best Picture ballots, and such a guess is very probable since the Academy loves Russell and Jennifer Lawrence. But let’s not give the film too much credit yet. It’s not performing well with critics and currently has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 61 percent (that’s worse than Trumbo’s). I have a feeling the film won’t please voters as much as Russell’s last two films did, and will only end up with a nomination for Lawrence (she is the best and only good part of the film after all). That could leave another spot open for Room, which has a strong chance at earning a Best Picture spot. Besides being a critical favorite, Room’s Brie Larson is in the Best Actress running and the film also won the TIFF People’s Choice Award, a prize that’s gone to three Best Picture winners (and predicted a long streak of nominees).
But the importance of the acting categories brings up a possible issue for Spotlight, since the film’s Best Picture chances might be hurt by its lack of a lead actor. Unlike all the films I named above, Open Road Films isn’t pushing any of the cast as leads. With Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo competition against each other for supporting, there’s a chance they could cancel each other out. Neither actor was nominated by SAG or HFPA, with nominations instead favoring other Oscar potentials Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), Bale and Carell, Michael Shannon (99 Homes), Paul Dano (Love & Marcy) and Jacob Tremblay (Room). Rachel McAdams might be able to get Spotlight a supporting nom, but how over-crowded that category gets all depends on Alicia Vikander and Mara, as I wrote about last week.
With no lead actor carrying Spotlight, the film’s Oscar chances might not be as certain as they at first seemed. Critic Anne Thompson offered one suggestion that could help the film in the latest episode of Indiewire’s Screen Talk podcast, saying Open Road Films should start pushing Keaton as lead and Ruffalo as supporting. That could be one way for the film to gain traction with Oscar voters, but as we already know, the Best Actor race is just as crowded.
So let’s recap: based on the SAG and HFPA noms, that makes Spotlight, Carol, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and The Big Short the strongest bets for Best Picture. Room and The Hateful Eight are the next two I can see making the cut, and maybe Straight Outta Compton. And hey, voters could end up loving Joy after all. But that still leaves off a few others bouncing around Oscar conversations. There’s Inside Out, easily the best Pixar film in years that could put the animation studio back on the Oscars map. John Crowley’s Brooklyn has been a critical favorite as has Saoirse Ronan in the Best Actress race. And there’s one other tiny film you maybe heard of, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As crazy as it may seem, the J.J. Abrams film made AFI’s best films list (although they did push back their announcement to consider it, unlike other groups). Earning a Best Picture nomination wouldn’t be totally unheard of, since the first Star Wars earned one in 1978, along with 9 noms. Speaking of reboots there’s also Ryan Coogler’s Creed, which is bound to only get a supporting nomination for Stallone – though Michael B. Jordan gave one of the year’s most undervalued performances and it could sneak its way into the Best Picture ring.
Two of the big films this year that are bound to get shut out for the top prize are Bridge of Spies and The Danish Girl. Spielberg’s might make it into Best Director for the Cold War film, though that’s already crowded with Scott, McCarthy, Alejandro Iñarritu, George Miller, Todd Haynes and perhaps McKay. If I had to guess, Bridge of Spies will likely only walk away with a supporting actor nomination for Mark Rylance and some technical noms. The Danish Girl’s best chances at nominations (and possible wins) are for Eddie Redmayne, who still poses the biggest competition to DiCaprio, and Vikander, whose category fate is up the the Oscar gods (aka voters). Another movie that was on early lists that keeps losing steam is Black Mass. If anyone was going to give Depp some love, it was the Globes. The Academy recognizing him would be a surprise at this point.
As you can see, this year’s Oscar race is more of a wild card than ever before. Based on the SAG nominations, Spotlight remains the frontrunner, but it isn't getting the unanimous praise some expected. We'll have a better idea of where the Oscar race stands once the SAG, PGA and DGA announce their winners in the coming months. Even so, whatever the 6,261 Academy voters end up choosing when nominations are announced on January 14, and winners on February 28, it will be a bit of a surprise for everyone.