Welcome to the tightest Oscar race in years. That fact was made clear this morning when four films put themselves in a position to actually take it all, an unusually high number of movies with a real chance to win Best Picture: The Revenant, The Big Short, Spotlight and yes, wait for it, Mad Max: Fury Road. These are your new co-front-runners, folks, based on the fact they are also nominated for Film Editing, the most important category to also be nominated in if you want to have a prayer at Best Pic. (True, Birdman managed to become the first movie in 34 years to win the top prize without a corresponding editing nomination last year, but I would put an asterisk next to it because that film was sold with the idea that it was a single shot and cut in the camera, so it doesn’t count.)
Two of the four, Spotlight and The Big Short, actually have all the key components most often needed for a shot at the brass ring with key writing, directing and acting nods as well. The Revenant and Mad Max fall more into the epic category and failed to land screenplay nods. It is rare for a movie to take Best Picture without a corresponding nod for its script. In fact, it is so rare that the last film to do it was Titanic in 1997, which managed 14 nominations but not one for James Cameron’s script. Before that, you would have to go back 32 years to 1965’s The Sound Of Music, and before that to 1948’s Hamlet (and that movie already had a pretty good script written by William Shakespeare).
So going by Oscar history, it would appear the two front-runners of the new front-runners are indeed the true-life issue-oriented films in the race, Spotlight and The Big Short. They share the gravitas Oscar voters often love to see in their Best Picture choices, but both of them, with six and five nominations, respectively, fall far behind the leading totals of 12 nominations for The Revenant and 10 nominations (but nothing for acting) for Mad Max: Fury Road. The films with the most nominations usually — though not every single year — are more likely to take Best Pic since it means they have more support throughout the entire Academy, which now participates in voting in all 24 categories.
See what I mean about this being a tight year? Prognosticators may have a tough time calling this one.
One thing is for sure though: With so many films having a real shot, and so many major studios involved for a change, the money should be flowing and the campaigning fierce in the second phase. All of them are in it to win it. And don’t count out upstart indie A24’s Room, which also has key writing, directing and acting nominations to go along with its Best Picture designation. That movie packs a real emotional punch — another key element with traditional appeal to voters. For me, in a morning full of them, perhaps the biggest shocker was the omission of presumed front-runner Ridley Scott for The Martian in the Best Director race. He was just DGA nominated, and I predicted in my DGA story that there would likely be one of those nominees who wouldn’t make the Academy’s cut — but I never dreamed it would be Scott. Room’s Lenny Abrahamson, who had not been a big part of the awards conversation so far, grabbed the Oscar slot instead, a very deserved nomination and clearly an acknowledgement by the Directors Branch of the true difficulty of making a movie largely set in a 10-x-10 room. Make no mistake, today was also a very big day for Room, which had failed to make the DGA, PGA and WGA (where it was ineligible) lists but scored in all those categories with Oscar.
Without the Director and Editing nominations, 20th Century Fox’s other nominee (in addition to Revenant) The Martian would seem to face an uphill battle in the Picture race, as does Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies and Fox Searchlight’s Brooklyn for the same reasons. Spielberg and Scott — both initially thought to be sure things at one time in the Director contest — were not alone among stunning omissions today (I hate the word “snub”; they just didn’t get enough votes). This is one of the rare years where Harvey Weinstein doesn’t have a horse in the Best Picture race and he must be disappointed that neither Carol — and deserving director Todd Haynes — nor The Hateful Eight got in despite a total of nine nominations between them. Interestingly, Haynes’ 2002 film Far From Heaven was similar to Carol in that it was a romantic drama set in the 1950s and also got acting, writing, cinematography and music nominations but, like Carol, ignored in Picture or Director.
I had thought Sicario, Inside Out and certainly Straight Outta Compton would have made the cut based on conversations with Oscar voters who kept bringing up those titles, but noooooooo. And I never would have guessed the Writers Branch would deny Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant work on Steve Jobs, a writer’s movie if ever there was one. I am not however surprised about the lack of a nomination for Johnny Depp or anything for Black Mass. That movie and performance, which had lots of awards buzz when it opened in September, seemed to fall off the radar almost completely in the last few weeks. It couldn’t even manage a make-up and hairstyling nomination even though The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared did (WTF???).
Unlike the Best Picture and Director races where uncertainty reigns, the acting contests look like there are definite front-runners in them with Leonardo DiCaprio, on his sixth try, a sure shot at this point. And congratulations to Andrew Karpen’s Bleecker Street, which pulled off the rare feat of landing a nomination in its first-ever year for the highly acclaimed Bryan Cranston as Best Actor in Trumbo. Room‘s Brie Larson gained further traction for Best Actress following her Golden Globe win last Sunday. I think if there is a challenge in the Actress race it will come from Saoirse Ronan for another Best Picture nominee, Brooklyn. Both were superb and have been splitting awards all season long with yet another worthy nominee, 45 Years’ wonderful Charlotte Rampling, earning her first-ever nomination.
And I have said all along that if Sylvester Stallone got the nomination he would get the win. He’s the one to beat for Creed in Supporting Actor. The 40 years between nominations for playing Rocky Balboa is too good an Oscar story to pass up, and voters likely will fall in line. I was surprised to see Tom Hardy land a nod there. It shows the strength of Revenant, but very sorry 99 Homes’ Michael Shannon missed the cut along with the startlingly great 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay who probably split his votes for Room and should have been campaigned in Lead Actor where he belonged in spite of his age. In Supporting Actress, the Actors Branch bought into their respective distributor’s arguments that Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl and Rooney Mara in Carol are not leads, even if they seem to be. This is the hardest category to call, especially when you throw in the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rachel McAdams and Kate Winslet. Vikander, also prominent in another nominated film Ex Machina, would appear to have the edge, but this one could be a nail-biter.
Netflix spent big to get into the Oscar race with its first narrative film, Beasts Of No Nation, but to no avail as even the intense campaign for Idris Elba fell short. Was the fact that the film debuted day-and-date on the streaming service and in a few theatres that would play it (in a very limited theatrical break) a factor? Netflix’s Ted Sarandos recently assured me they likely won’t try to qualify it for Emmys, where it could be eligible, so this looks to be the end of the awards road for it (although with a couple of SAG noms it might exact some revenge there). Netflix can console themselves with landing once again (after having nominees for 2013 and 2014) in the Documentary Feature race with both What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom, two fine films that likely benefited from the deep pockets of Netflix, something most docus don’t have. Many pundits were predicting Alex Gibney’s HBO Scientology documentary Going Clear would land a nom, but I always thought it would not because it had already won three Emmys and that would be unprecedented for Oscar to follow Emmy’s lead. It is only the other way around where that happens.
Another real shocker was the omission of the emotionally powerful song “See You Again” from Furious 7, a front-runner because of the death of star Paul Walker that didn’t make the list and now paves the way for another powerful song to win, Lady Gaga and Diane Warren’s anthem “Til It Happens To You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground (which failed to get a docu nod despite being shortlisted). Of course, Sam Smith’s Golden Globe-winning James Bond song “Writing’s On The Wall” from Spectre is the best known of this group of tunes, so this could be a contest.
Finally, as we embark on phase 2 of this year’s awards season and try to figure it all out as we head toward February 28 and Oscar Sunday, I love to throw out some potential history in the making: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu could be poised to make Academy history by becoming only the third director to win back-to-back directing Oscars, following John Ford in 1940 for The Grapes Of Wrath and 1941 for How Green Was My Valley, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949 for A Letter To Three Wives and 1950 for All About Eve. This is a very rare feat that has not been done in 65 years, and Gonzalez Iñárritu could even do them one better (since Letter To Three Wives and Grapes Of Wrath were not Best Picture winners) and stand alone as the only one in Oscar history to win back-to-back Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards. And add to that if The Revenant does take Best Pic it would be the third win in a row for New Regency after 12 Years A Slave and Birdman (which were both released by Revenant distributor 20th Century Fox’s specialty label Fox Searchlight). I just love this stuff.