The big Oscar question this year (besides #OscarsSoWhite, which host Chris Rock will tackle on Oscar night) is whether the two big studio vehicles, "The Revenant" (Fox) and "Mad Max: Fury Road" (Warner Bros.) will dominate the Oscar wins. Also hugely popular are two small talking heads movies with more emotional weight and gravitas, "Spotlight" and "The Big Short." In a hotly contested race with split Guild decisions, anything can happen. That's how "Chariots of Fire" and "Driving Miss Daisy" won Oscars — amid a crowded field with no clear frontrunner.
Open Road supported "Spotlight," which peaked early, while Paramount and Fox ran superb campaigns for late-breaking "The Big Short" and "The Revenant," respectively. The Oscar strategists behind "The Martian" (Fox) and "Mad Max: Fury Road" (WB) needed to elevate the films above their status as mainstream popcorn fare.
Here are my fearless picks. May you win your office pool!
Winner: "The Revenant"
Pro: Building momentum from a strong surge at the box office, violent frontier epic "The Revenant" (Fox/New Regency, December 25), directed by last year's Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Birdman") pits Leonardo DiCaprio against a mauling bear and freezing elements. The Academy admires the Mexican filmmaker's artistic drive and his commitment to pulling off this stunning achievement under harrowing physical conditions. "The Revenant" boasts artistic weight, filmmaking bravura and scale, the most nominations (12) and support from the actors (Leonardo DiCaprio won SAG, Globes and BFCA Drama, and BAFTA), directors (BAFTA, Globes and the DGA), cinematographers (Emmanuel Lubezki won BAFTA, BFCA and ACE) and sound editors and mixers.
Con: The Revenant" failed to win the PGA (probably because the producers recognized a shoot from hell), which went to "The Big Short," or the SAG Ensemble (it wasn't nominated and "Spotlight" won), and did not land a Screenplay nomination. With the preferential ballot, "Spotlight" or "The Big Short" could take the win.
A fall festival hit, writer-director Tom McCarthy's Boston drama "Spotlight" (Open Road, November 6) masterfully dramatizes how the Boston Globe painstakingly exposed serially predatory Catholic priests. The film's muted dramatics and authentic reporting of what really happened make it a talking heads indie, not unlike last year's "Boyhood."
Comedy writer-director Adam McKay's brainy Michael Lewis adaptation "The Big Short" (Paramount, December 11) starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell, a late entry in the awards derby, quickly moved to the front of the pack. Sure enough, the political comedy boasted enough gravitas to land five Oscar nominations.
Both "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" should easily win their respective screenplay categories, but it's hard to imagine these small-scale movies amassing Best Picture wins with only one or two other Oscar trophies as well.
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Revenant")
Pro: After five acting nomination, the popular Los Angeles movie star, who has been losing at the Oscars since he was a teenager ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape?") is long overdue. Also, he suffered for his art. (Freezing water! Animal carcass! Raw bison liver!)
Con: There is none. No one else has a chance. It's Leo's time.
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Winner: Sylvester Stallone ("Creed")
Pro: You can't deny the narrative of a 69-year-old man coming back in the same role, 40 years after he didn't win for playing the character he created, "Rocky," which won three Oscars including Best Picture. Sly gets standing ovations wherever he goes and worked the awards circuit like a pro.
Con: "Creed" didn't make the SAG cut because it came out late, and many didn't see the "Rocky" sequel. Master thespian and BAFTA winner Mark Rylance could surprise on Oscar night for his ace performance in "Bridge of Spies." And if "The Revenant" sweeps, it could carry Tom Hardy, who had an amazing year with "Legend" and "Mad Max."
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Winner: Brie Larson ("Room")
Pro: She's got the winning momentum (Drama Globe and BFCA, SAG, BAFTA) for playing the female character with the most degree of difficulty: a depressed, angry, and abused kidnap victim imprisoned in a one-room shack, trying to raise her five-year-old son with love. "Room," which won the audience award at Toronto, was popular enough to score Best Picture, Director and Screenplay nods, so this should be the Oscar it gets.
Con: There is none.
Winner: Alicia Vikander ("The Danish Girl")
Pro: The 27-year-old Swedish actress with the plummy British accent is a star. It's her year, as she also nabbed rave reviews for "Testament of Youth" and "Ex Machina," as well as her performance — arguably lead — for "The Danish Girl." During award season, while she was nominated for both "Ex Machina" and "The Danish Girl," she won for the latter in the supporting category at BFCA and SAG.
Con: Except for "Spotlight" cast member Rachel McAdams, none of the supporting actress contenders star in Best Picture nominated movies. But McAdams lacks a big scene, and Globes and BAFTA winner Kate Winslet ("Steve Jobs") has already won an Oscar ("The Reader").
Best animated feature film of the year
Winner: "Inside Out"
Pro: Oscar perennial Pete Docter ("Up") and his Pixar team delivered an amazing, Oscar-nominated original screenplay as well as a moving and visually stunning portrait of what goes on inside the mind of a young girl on the verge of adolescence. Only the Pixar brain trust could have pulled off an animated feature that changes the way we view the workings of the human mind.
Con: There is none.
Achievement in cinematography
Winner: "The Revenant" (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Pro: In a year of astounding cinematography, "The Revenant" production was focused on giving Lubezki the best possible opportunities to catch nature's beauty at the end of every shooting day, no holds barred. The results are incontestable.
Con: None. He will win his third Oscar in a row, after "Gravity" and "Birdman." After 13 nominations, "Sicario" cinematographer Roger Deakins will have to wait a little longer for his long overdue recognition.
Achievement in costume design
Winner: "Mad Max: Fury Road" (Jenny Beavan)
Pro: The BAFTA winner has been nominated ten times and won back in 1987 for "A Room with a View." In this case she helped George Miller bring an epic landscape to life, teeming with vivid, detailed characters.
Con: Beavan's Brit rival Sandy Powell (12 nominations and 3 wins) could split the vote between "Carol" and "Cinderella." The award usually goes to the biggest, most lavish costumes, and while bodice-ripper "Cinderella" could score, Best Picture nominee "Fury Road" has more scale and scope.
Achievement in directing
Winner: George Miller ("Mad Max: Fury Road")
Pro: Launched at Cannes, Miller's fourth "Mad Max" action adventure "Fury Road" (Warner Bros., May 15) was praised by critics — who included it in year-end ten-best lists and awards — and is so well-made that it rose above the fray despite its genre pedigree. Academy voters, who gave "Fury Road" 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, should reward Miller the way they did such large-scale past triumphs as Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity." It's about recognizing the nuts and bolts of the craft of fashioning cinema spectacle that makes your eyes pop.
Con: "Fury Road" has been collecting guild awards and should be rewarded Oscar night with several tech wins, but the dialogue-light genre movie yielded no WGA or SAG nods. While Charlize Theron nailed the physicality and authority of powerful Imperator Furiosa, her lack of dialogue counted against her as well as Tom Hardy in the title role. "The Big Short" took the PGA, and BAFTA-winner Iñárritu took the DGA for the second year running, and is the favorite to win this category. But Oscar wins two years in a row are rare; it's happened only twice (John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz). Unless there's a "Revenant" sweep.
Best documentary feature
Winner: "Amy" (Asif Kapadia)
Pro: With the entire Academy voting via screeners, the most popular and high-profile movie should win: British documentarian Asif Kapadia's devastating portrait of Amy Winehouse, like his "Senna," a feat of editing archive footage into an immersive narrative that takes us inside the tragic singer's point-of-view.
Con: "The Look of Silence," the sequel to Indonesia-set "The Act of Killing," is as undeniably brilliant and impactful as the first Oscar-nominated film, and Joshua Oppenheimer is due. But the movie is tough to take, and some voters don't watch all the screeners.
Winner: "The Big Short"
Pro: Writer-director Adam McKay took Lewis's complex business story and crafted relatable, not necessarily likable characters in a Wall Street misadventure that explained, clearly and entertainingly, what happened in the 2008 recession. The PGA win is an indicator of widespread support; Oscar voters may reward this innovative editing feat.
Con: "Mad Max: Fury Road," edited by George Miller's wife Margaret Sixel, defines what editing can do on an action spectacle, modulating intense noise with quiet serenity. This close race could go either way.
Best foreign language film of the year
Winner: "Son of Saul" (Hungary)
Pro: Since winning the jury prize at Cannes, this movie has been touted as one of the year's best, as two feature film rookies, Hungarian László Nemes and poet-turned-actor Géza Röhrig, turned a serious gaze on the Holocaust in a way we've never seen before.
Con: Some mainstream Academy voters find "Son of Saul" a tough slog. A film from another rookie, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the more populist feminist Turkish drama "Mustang," submitted by France, is a crowdpleaser that could steal the win.
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
Winner: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
Pro: Again, scale and scope win the day, from Charlize Theron's battle smear to that whacked out guitar player.
Con: "The Revenant" did put DiCaprio through serious torture. If there's a sweep...
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
Winner: "Til It Happens To You" from "The Hunting Ground" (Diane Warren and Lady Gaga)
Pro: Lady Gaga teamed with Oscar perennial, songwriter Diane Warren (8 nominations, no wins), for this heartfelt song for the campus rape expose "The Hunting Ground." Lady Gaga has been everywhere, from the Globes ("American Horror Story") to the Grammys (David Bowie tribute).
Con: She may be overexposed. (Did DiCaprio's viral Globes smirk as she obliviously brushed by his chair hurt her?) But Academy members loved her Oscar show cover of "The Sound of Music." While The Weeknd could represent a non-white win for "Earned It," it's hard to imagine Oscar voters ticking the "Fifty Shades of Grey" box on their ballot. And how many of this notoriously older white group know who The Weeknd is? This misbegotten category, more than any other influenced by campaigning, usually goes to the biggest pop star.
Achievement in production design
Winner: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
Pro: Miller and his team built an entire universe out of their imaginations, vast, detailed, and beautiful.
Con: This one could go to popular space spectacular "The Martian."
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
Winner: "The Hateful Eight" (Ennio Morricone)
Pro: The Italian maestro is expected to win the Oscar for his first western score in 40 years. Nominated five times ("Bugsy," "Days of Heaven," "The Mission," "The Untouchables," and "Malena"), BAFTA-, Golden Globe- and Critics Choice-winner Morricone is expected to add another Oscar to his collection — he won an honorary Oscar in 2007 — even though he's going up against an even older lauded maestro: John Williams, returning with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
Con: Actually first-time Oscar nominee Carter Burwell may be Morricone's competition, for "Carol," which scored six nominations, and voters may want it to win something.
Winner: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph ("The Big Short")
Pro: This one is a lock for the WGA winner.
Con: Emma Donoghue ("Room") could provide the upset for adapting her own bestselling novel.
Winner: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer ("Spotlight")
Pro: This one is a lock for the WGA winner and may prove to be its only win.
Con: Given that "Inside Out" will take animated, it probably won't win its deserved writing award.
Achievement in sound editing
Winner: "The Revenant"
Pro: Think the bear mauling scene.
Con: It could easily go to the massive inventive noisy soundscapes of "Mad Max: Fury Road"
Achievement in sound mixing
Winner: "The Revenant"
Pro: The mix on "The Revenant" was astonishingly sophisticated.
Con: So was "Mad Max: Fury Road."
Winner: “World of Tomorrow" (Don Hertzfeldt, director, Bitter Films)
Pro: This whimsical look at the future from the point-of-view of a young girl meeting her later self is magical.
Con: Pixar hasn't won this category in 16 years and Sanjay Patel's delightful “Sanjay’s Super Team" could be the one to change its luck.
Best documentary short subject
Pro: Anyone who watches this HBO doc — about a young Pakistani woman who survives her father and uncle shooting her in the face and dumping her in a river because she dared to run away and marry the man she loved — without being enraged is made of stone. In Pakistan it is accepted practice to kill women to preserve one's respect and honor. The police are stymied by a "forgiveness" loophole that allows the community (men) to persuade victims to set free their attackers. But the film, Obaid-Chinoy told me, has caused legislators to close that legal loophole. Within the next ten days there will be no more "forgiveness" in Pakistan.
Con: All the films in this category are more than worthy. Also in the hunt are “Body Team 12” (David Darg and Bryn Mooser), about the selfless people who suit up to collect Ebola victims, and “Chau, Beyond the Lines” (Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck), a portrait of a young man crippled by Agent Orange birth defects who paints with his mouth. And then there's the Holocaust factor: “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” (Adam Benzine) explores the rare determination of the French filmmaker who dedicated decades of his life to making the extraordinary documentary "Shoah." And "Last Day of Freedom" is amazing too, an animated document of a loving man recalling the sad story of how his mentally ill veteran brother ended up on death row. Hard to call.
Pro: This well-shot, timely, serious Kosovo ethnic conflict drama stands out from the pack. It will break your heart.
Con: If there were a challenger it might be the Middle East Jews vs. nuns comedy "Ave Maria."
Winner: "Stars Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens"
Pro: This could be the one win for the hugely popular "Star Wars" reboot.
Con: The competition is fierce, from Ridley Scott's space opera "The Martian" to the physical stunts on "Mad Max: Fury Road" to the CG bear-mauling in "The Revenant."