As we enter the new year, the Best Picture race is supposed to be pat and put away. Usually, we know all of the likely nominees by now, and the dark horses are limited to one or two strong contenders.
Well, this year is not that kind of year. More than any recent Best Picture race I can recall, this contest is wide open, and no pundit is in agreement over which films will land those top nominations two weeks from now. Below, I've split the likeliest Best Picture contenders into four groups, from those scant few pictures that feel locked in to the many, many movies that still have a fighting chance.
LOCKED IN FOR A NOMINATION: Spotlight, The Big Short
What are the Best Picture sure-shots, the two films that have practically no chance of being snubbed? The journalism drama Spotlight has been a certainty ever since it started screening in September; we picked it as the Best Picture front-runner back then, and its sterling awards-season run so far has done nothing to dissuade us. The other mighty contender is the financial-crisis comedy The Big Short, which showed surprising firepower with the Screen Actors Guild despite being a late-season release. The Big Short also managed to get a Best Supporting Actor nod with SAG even though most of its cast was competing against one another in that crowded category, a feat that not even Spotlight could pull off. As the only two movies this season to score Best Picture–tier nominations from SAG, the Golden Globes, and the Critics' Choice Awards, Spotlight and The Big Short are sitting pretty.
LIKELY TO BE NOMINATED: The Martian, Carol, The Revenant, Room
I still can’t get over the fact that The Martian was blanked by SAG, scoring no nods for its notable ensemble cast or its lead performance by Matt Damon. While an across-the-board SAG snub doesn’t spell doom for a movie’s Best Picture hopes, it’s important to note that over the last three years, six of the eight films that managed Best Picture nominations without a single SAG nod were late-breaking December releases like Selma and American Sniper that needed extra time to accrue momentum. The Martian, which was a huge, widely screened hit this past fall, doesn’t have that excuse. Still, there’s one precedent that Team Martian is likely clinging to: Life of Pi was an effects-heavy hit snubbed by SAG that still got a Best Picture nomination and even managed a Best Director win — the same trophy that 20th Century Fox (the studio that distributed both Life of Pi and The Martian) is targeting for Martian director Ridley Scott.
Todd Haynes and Alejandro González Iñárritu are two other likely candidates for Best Director, and accordingly, their films Carol and The Revenant are solid Best Picture contenders, too. It helps that both films are likely to make a major impact on the acting races — Carol is tipped to score nods for its lovers Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, while Leonardo DiCaprio will almost certainly win his first Oscar for braving The Revenant’s test of physical endurance — and that’s why another safe pick is the well-reviewed kidnap drama Room. While it hasn’t been a box-office over-performer, the Best Actress talk is starting to coalesce around its lead Brie Larson, ensuring that enough voters will sample Room before the voting period ends.
ON THE BUBBLE: Inside Out, Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies, Trumbo, Beasts of No Nation
Pixar has managed two Best Picture nominees in Up and Toy Story 3, and by any critical measure, Inside Out is their equal. (It’s also Pixar’s second-highest domestic grosser ever, earning a triumphant $356 million.) Still, I don’t detect any sort of awards-season surge for this imaginative movie, which worries me. When I ask voters what they liked, they often leave this film out, and it’s not because they don’t love Inside Out — they just don’t recall it. That’s the plight of Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies, too. These awards-season hopefuls peaked early, and while they’ve had plenty of admirers (Bridge was a favorite of older voters I polled in October), they’re also in danger of being dropped for newer fare.
Two films that do seem to be surging, though, are Trumbo and Beasts of No Nation, which both scored surprise SAG nominations for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. I know a lot of Oscar watchers consider Trumbo to be no more than a glorified TV movie, but voters are really responding to it, and likely nominations for Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren will help push this film to the forefront. I used to wonder whether Beasts of No Nation would prove too brutal for voters to check out, but its availability on Netflix has seemingly ameliorated that issue. (And when fellow contenders The Hateful Eight and The Revenant are just as graphic, what’s the norm anymore?) Still, welcoming a Netflix film into the Best Picture circle would be unprecedented, so let’s see if stuffier Oscar voters will bite.
DARK HORSES: Straight Outta Compton, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Black Mass, Steve Jobs, The Danish Girl, The Hateful Eight, Joy
The Academy expanded its Best Picture field past five nominees in the hopes of recognizing more populist fare, and this year provided no shortage of well-reviewed hit films. But do Straight Outta Compton, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have a real shot at Best Picture? Rap drama Compton got an encouraging SAG nod for its cast but managed no individual nods and was snubbed by both the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards. Fury Road has collected many year-end laurels, but will Oscar voters listen to those critics and really put a balls-out action sequel into contention? I thought Creed would have a better shot since it’s absolutely terrific and capable of making all those male Oscar voters cry, but it couldn’t even score a SAG nod for Sylvester Stallone. And The Force Awakens is a wild card: Is there enough Star Wars–related sentiment in the Academy for this near-remake of the first George Lucas–directed sci-fi adventure?
Two films with Best Actor candidates have lost steam this season but could still squeak in: the Johnny Depp mob movie Black Mass, which performed decently in September and was widely sampled, and Steve Jobs, which famously flopped in October but has still managed key nods for Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at every major awards stop since.
Then there are three notable what-ifs from some of the Academy’s favorite filmmakers, though none of them is assured a place at the Best Picture table this year. First, there’s The Danish Girl. Tom Hooper’s last two films were nominated for Best Picture, and The King’s Speech even won that trophy, but this trans period drama earned no Best Picture nominations from SAG, the Globes, or the Critics’ Choice Awards. Ditto Quentin Tarantino’s talky The Hateful Eight, which screened too late to factor into most of those races but also has a more uncertain awards profile than, say, his late-arriving contender Django Unchained. Finally, there’s Joy. David O. Russell’s last three films were all nominated for Best Picture, but Joy has gotten such wildly mixed reviews that even its Oscar-winning star Jennifer Lawrence is perceived to be on the bubble by some pundits. That's how wild this year's Best Picture category is: Even with contenders like Tarantino, Hooper, and Russell in the game, this thing is still up for grabs.