Oscar Nominations: Now It's a Whole New Race (Analysis)

The Big Short Still 2 - H 2015

It's fun to try to find clues about the Academy Awards race in the SAG and Critics' Choice noms or the results of the AFI and Golden Globe awards or all of the other tea leaves throughout the season, but nothing offers a better indication of how the Academy feels about a crop of movies than the Oscar noms themselves. So what do this year's reveal?

The best picture race is likely between Spotlight and The Big Short, with The Revenant as possible spoiler. True, The Revenant leads the field with 12 noms, and Mad Max: Fury Road is close behind with 10. But the former films — which have six and five noms, respectively — showed up in important categories in which the latter films didn't.

All four are represented in the best director and best film editing races, without which films rarely win best picture. However, Mad Max is not nominated for an acting award, while Spotlight and Revenant each are up for two and The Big Short is up for one (the actors branch is by far the Academy's largest branch); moreover, The Big Short and Spotlight, but not the other two, are nominated for the best ensemble SAG Award, which has proven to be a key indicator for how the Academy behaves — indeed, if any other best pic nominee wins, it will be the first time in 20 years, since 1995's Braveheart, that the prize went to a film that wasn't even nominated for the best ensemble SAG Award. Additionally, The Revenant and Mad Max did not receive screenplay noms, without which only seven films in 87 years, and only one in the last 50, Titanic, has prevailed in the top category.

What chance do any of the other best picture nominees stand? Slim to none.

Room, which has campaigned aggressively thus far, could prove a wild card: It landed only three other noms, but they came in the directing, acting and screenwriting categories, which are obviously major ones.

The Martian, which was snubbed by SAG, probably was critically wounded today by the shocking omission of its director, Ridley Scott. While it still bagged lead actor, adapted screenplay and four below-the-line noms, only four films without a director nom have won best picture.

Similarly, one would have had to regard Bridge of Spies, with its six noms — including acting and screenwriting noms, plus three others in below-the-line categories — as a more serious threat if its director, Steven Spielberg, had landed a nom.

And then there's Brooklyn, which has only two other noms — for acting and screenwriting — but which has, in Fox Searchlight, a distributor that has effectively navigated the Academy before (the last two best picture winners were handled by the company), and which can be expected to play up the timeliness of the film's central subject matter, immigration to America.

As for the other major categories?

Strong sentiment, on top of strong performances, probably will be enough to carry The Revenant's lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Creed's Sylvester Stallone to wins in their respective categories.

DiCaprio is up against The Martian's Matt Damon and The Danish Girl's Eddie Redmayne, who already have statues on their mantelpieces, and Trumbo's Bryan Cranston and Steve Jobs' Michael Fassbender, who probably have to pay their dues a bit more and won't be helped by the otherwise lackluster showing for their films. If Leo starts doing a bit more gabbing and glad-handing — not his favorite things to do — this is his to lose; if he instead opts to sit back and cross his fingers, then the ground could shift beneath him, probably to the benefit of Cranston, an extremely popular guy who is up for his portrayal of a Hollywood hero.

Stallone, though, is less of a sure thing. He's done a lot of schlock over the 39 years since he was last nominated (for the original Rocky), and he's not known as the warmest guy in the world (although he's turned on the charm in recent weeks). Spotlight's Mark Ruffalo is beloved and greatly helped by the absence from this category of any of his other many co-stars who were vying for spots. The Big Short's Christian Bale recently won; Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance, while a legend in theater circles, still is largely unknown in Hollywood; and The Revenant's Tom Hardy wasn't even expected to be nominated — so they seem like longer shots.

The best actress race just got a lot more interesting. Room's Brie Larson, 26, and Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan, 21, were expected to duke it out for the win, but the far-from-assured nomination of Joy's Jennifer Lawrence, 25, might further split the support of people who want to champion a young up-and-comer, to the benefit of the revered veteran Charlotte Rampling, 69, a first-time nominee, for 45 Years. It's hard to imagine Carol's Cate Blanchett returning to the podium for a third time so soon after her second, just two years ago.

Perhaps the toughest-to-predict category is best supporting actress. The edge probably goes to The Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander, in part because she's the talented and gorgeous "It" girl of the season (they tend to do well in this category), and in part because she — like Rooney Mara, nominated for Carol — got away with category fraud (the supporting nominee with the most substantial part usually wins). There's a chance that Rachel McAdams, who is very popular, could prevail on the coattails of Spotlight, as no other nominee in this category hails from a best pic contender. The Hateful Eight's Jennifer Jason Leigh is a widely respected and never-before-nominated vet, but she may be hurt by the divisive nature of her film and the fact that The Weinstein Co. also is pushing Mara in this category. And then there's Steve Jobs' Kate Winslet, a past Oscar winner who won the corresponding Golden Globe less than a week ago, but who didn't have to compete at the Globes against Mara or Vikander (at least for The Danish Girl), who were elevated to the lead actress category there.

The screenplay races seem to favor Spotlight (original) and The Big Short (adapted), not least because both are best picture nominees (also the case for adapted nominees Brooklyn, The Martian and Room and original nominee Bridge of Spies) and their directors — Tom McCarthy and Adam McKay, respectively — are among their nominated screenwriters (also the case for Ex Machina and Inside Out, though those registered far fewer noms).

Animated feature will almost certainly go to Inside Out, which would be the 10th Disney and/or Pixar winner in the 15-year history of the category. Its competition includes two stop-motion animated movies — Anomalisa, which has the muscle of Paramount behind it, and Shaun the Sheep, another well-liked film — but only one film animated in that way ever has won: 2005's Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Forget about the two GKIDS nominees, Boy and the World and When Marnie Was There, if only because the fanfare around them isn't remotely comparable to their competitors'.

The doc and foreign races will again be significantly impacted by the decisions, made in recent years, to open up voting for their winners to the entire Academy, rather than just to those who could prove they had actually watched all of the nominees. The result is that many vote without having seen all of the nominees — or sometimes more than just one or two, which inevitably are those about the most widely appealing or controversial topics. That is a major reason why I think the doc Amy, a doc about the life and music of the famous singer Amy Winehouse, and the Hungarian film Son of Saul, a film about the Holocaust, will prevail; Liz Garbus' music doc What Happened, Miss Simone? (one of two Netflix docs to make the final five) and Deniz Gamze Erguven's feminist Mustang, from France — each of those categories' only female-directed nominees — probably are the biggest threats to the frontrunners.

Best original song will almost certainly go to The Hunting Ground's "Til It Happens to You," which has a much higher profile than any of its competitors thanks to the involvement of Lady Gaga, who made a lot of new friends in the Academy with her magnificent tribute to Julie Andrews on last year's Oscars telecast, and Diane Warren, the legendary songwriter who famously has lost on all seven prior occasions on which she was nominated in the category. (The fact that the doc itself was not nominated only further helps the prospects of its song, which, like the doc, deals with sexual assault, a subject that has touched both of its nominees.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which did not land any major noms, could still do well in the below-the-line categories. It's the favorite for best visual effects, where its competition includes Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant; it's also up against — and might well hold off — those two films for best film editing, best sound editing and best sound mixing; and I wouldn't be at all surprised if John Williams, on his 50th nom, beats The Hateful Eight's Ennio Morricone for best original score.

The Revenant seems like a sure bet for best cinematography, which would mark the third consecutive win for Emmanuel Lubezki (after Gravity and Birdman), which would establish a new record. And Mad Max and The Revenant will duke it out for best makeup and hairstyling, best production design and, perhaps, best costume design — although it's always dangerous to bet against Sandy Powell, who is up for both Carol and Cinderella.