Oscar 2016 predictions: A definitive guide
Oscar season is finally at an end. For months, studios have spent countless hours pushing their biggest and buzziest movies for a shot at collecting some Oscar gold — and on Sunday night, we'll see who campaigned hardest.
But let's get down to the really important part of the Academy Awards: winning your Oscar pool. I've analyzed all 24 categories and come up with my best predictions for how things will go down on Oscar night, along with the current odds on a popular number-crunching website. Consider this your one-stop guide to bragging rights over your friends and coworkers (and maybe a small pile of cash):
In 2009, the Academy expanded the Best Picture field from five nominees to a maximum of 10, in an effort to recognize the populist films that often missed the cut. And while the expanded list has resulted in nominations for films that might not have been considered for Best Picture otherwise — hi there, Mad Max and The Martian! — the race can inevitably be boiled down to a handful of films long before the actual Best Picture trophy is awarded. This year, there are three legitimate contenders: The Revenant, Spotlight, and The Big Short.
You can make a case for all three. The Revenant, which has drawn endless buzz for its unusually difficult wilderness shoot, won the top prize at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. Spotlight — the best-reviewed of the three by far — won the top prize at the Screen Actors' Guild Awards. And The Big Short, which benefits from its extreme topicality, won the top prize at the Producers' Guild Awards.
There's also an important caveat to lay out here: a unique wrinkle in the voting system, that makes this an unusually difficult category to predict. In the Best Picture category — and only in the Best Picture category — the Academy forgoes a simple popular vote in favor of a complicated preferential balloting system, in which each voter ranks the nominees from best to worst. If you're interested, you can read the full breakdown of the process here, but in short: For Best Picture purposes, it's probably better to be a movie a lot of voters liked than a movie some voters loved and some voters hated.
With all that in mind, I'm tipping the Best Picture race toward The Revenant — the most straightforward and financially successful of the three contenders, which has successfully been sold on the narrative that it was really, really hard to make. The Academy clearly loves The Revenant, which topped every other film with 12 nominations — including key top-line categories like Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy).
For decades, the rule of thumb was that Best Picture and Best Director always went to the same movie — but that's not really true anymore. In 2013, 12 Years a Slave took home Best Picture, while Gravity's Alfonso Cuáron won Best Director; the year before, Argo won Best Picture, while Life of Pi's Ang Lee won Best Director (and Argo director Ben Affleck, notoriously, wasn't even nominated).
I suspect that sea change is the reason some pundits are predicting another Best Picture/Best Director split, with The Revenant taking Best Picture while Mad Max: Fury Road takes Best Director. While I'd certainly be happier with that outcome, I just don't see it. George Miller won the Critics' Choice Award, but Iñárritu won the Golden Globe. And though it's been well over 50 years since anyone has won back-to-back Best Director trophies, that didn't stop the DGA — whose voting body overlaps with the Academy — from awarding Iñárritu its top prize for both Birdman and The Revenant. I'm betting on a second Oscar for his mantle as well.
The winner: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (1/33)
The spoiler: n/a
If you've followed the Oscar race at all, you've had it drummed into your head over and over again: The Revenant was really hard to make, and Leonardo DiCaprio had it hardest. He waded through frozen rivers. He slept in animal carcasses. He grew a big dumb beard. The subtext: He really wants that Oscar — and this time, he's going to get it.
It's not for lack of trying. A cursory scroll down Leonardo DiCaprio's roles over the past 15 years reveals nothing but would-be Oscar roles: near-misses like The Wolf of Wall Street, Blood Diamond, and The Aviator alongside also-rans like J. Edgar, Revolutionary Road, and Body of Lies. The Revevant is the closest DiCaprio has ever come, so the question isn't really "Who will win?" It's "Does anyone have even the slightest chance of stealing the trophy away from him?"
In short: No. This is probably the weakest Best Actor category in recent memory. You have two fine but unexceptional glosses on real-life historical figures in Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and Trumbo (Bryan Cranston); Matt Damon's turn as a stranded astronaut in The Martian, which is fun but hardly groundbreaking; and last year's winner, Eddie Redmayne, who was overpraised for The Theory of Everything and does lesser work in The Danish Girl. Even if the Academy hadn't been deluged with the idea that DiCaprio is "due" for an Oscar, his performance is basically the most impressive by default here.
The winner: Brie Larson, Room (1/16)
The spoiler: n/a
With the Golden Globe, the SAG, the BAFTA, and the Critics' Choice awards all under her belt, the Best Actress Oscar basically belongs to Brie Larson, whose magnetic performance in Room has netted her the same kind of long-overdue mainstream buzz that greeted Jennifer Lawrence leading up to her 2012 Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook.
And while we're on the subject: Larson's rivals for the Best Actress trophy include Lawrence (Joy) and Cate Blanchett (Carol) — two actresses who have previously won the top prize, and who seem likely to be passed over this time.
That leaves Saoirse Ronan, whose strong performance in Brooklyn somehow never quite generated the buzz required for an Oscar victory, and 45 Years' Charlotte Rampling — a respected actress with decades of strong performances under her belt, getting her first-ever nomination here. In a different year, that might make Rampling a contender — but her performance in 45 Years, while excellent, was relatively little-seen, and she didn't do herself any favors with her exceedingly tone-deaf response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
Best Supporting Actor
Of the five actors nominated for Best Supporting Actor, three can be eliminated outright. Tom Hardy's performance in The Revenant has been totally overshadowed by the buzz around DiCaprio, and Spotlight's Mark Ruffalo and The Big Short's Christian Bale — while strong — hail from individual casts so stacked that you could practically have picked their nominees out of a hat. Neither man is so much better than his costars that he merits special recognition.
That leaves Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance and Creed's Sylvester Stallone, who won a Golden Globe for his performance last month. After decades of well-regarded stage performances, Rylance's star is on the rise; he'll play the title character in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic The BFG next year. But as Creed itself shows, audiences love a comeback story, and Sylvester Stallone — who hasn't even been nominated for an Oscar since Rocky became such an unlikely breakout hit in 1976 — is probably too irresistible to pass up. Creed manages to breathe new life into a character that had been run into the ground over six sequels, and Stallone, to his credit, also rises to the occasion. It's an impressive enough feat to net Rocky Balboa one last improbable victory.
Best Supporting Actress
2015 has been an enormous breakout year for Alicia Vikander, who got the chance to show her talent and range in an buzzy sci-fi drama (Ex Machina), an underrated summer blockbuster (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and a wannabe Oscar frontrunner (The Danish Girl). And while Vikander should have been nominated for her supporting turn in Ex Machina instead — something that the Golden Globes, for all their flaws, got right this year — her performance is easily the best part of The Danish Girl, making her a comfortable frontrunner for her first-ever Oscar win.
And yet: Man, does the Academy love Kate Winslet. This is her seventh nomination in 20 years, and the last time she was up for an acting Oscar — for her lead role in 2009's tepidly received The Reader — she won, besting tough competition that included Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, and Meryl Streep.
At the Golden Globes, Vikander and Winslet didn't compete head-to-head; Vikander was nominated as Lead Actress, where Winslet was nominated as Supporting Actress. (Vikander lost to Brie Larson; Winslet won.) But Vikander and Winslet did compete in the Supporting Actress category at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Vikander took home the top prize. I'm betting on the same outcome at the Oscars.
Best Original Screenplay
The winner: Spotlight (1/10)
The spoilers: n/a
This category boasts a number of recent Best Picture winners — including Birdman, The King's Speech, and The Hurt Locker. But just as often, it goes to a Best Picture nominee that has no shot at the top prize: recent winners include Her, Midnight in Paris, and Milk.
As usual, this category is more eclectic than your average crop of nominees, with Best Picture nominees Bridge of Spies and Spotlight competing against Ex Machina, Inside Out, and Straight Outta Compton. If Spotlight is shut out of the major categories — as I suspect it will be — then this is the perfect chance for voters to prevent it from going home empty-handed.
Best Adapted Screenplay
The winner: The Big Short (1/10)
The spoiler: n/a
This category operates on the same basic principle as Best Original Screenplay. You have your Best Picture winners collecting trophies on their way to the big prize — a la 12 Years a Slave, Argo, and Slumdog Millionaire — as well as your also-rans getting a little taste of Oscar gold, a la The Imitation Game, The Descendants, and The Social Network.
This year is unusually easy; The Revenant, which was adapted from Michael Punke's novel of the same name, wasn't even nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Of the five films nominated in the category, four are nominated for Best Picture; of the four, the frontrunner is easily The Big Short, which successfully turned Michael Lewis' wonky nonfiction book into a crowd-pleasing narrative film. Like Spotlight, the Academy won't miss the chance to reward a film that came this close to a Best Picture win.
Best Foreign Film
Best Foreign Film is one of the closer races of the season. Of the five nominated films, two equally acclaimed contenders are vying for votes: Hungary's Son of Saul, a grim drama set in an Auschwitz concentration camp, and France's Mustang, which follows a group of spirited young girls growing up in a conservative Turkish village. In the end, I'd give the edge to Son of Saul, which has been riding a wave of positive notices since its buzzy screening at the Cannes Film Festival last year (and bested Mustang at the Golden Globes last month).
Best Documentary Feature
The winner: Amy (2/9)
The spoiler: n/a
As always, Best Documentary Feature boasts one of the all-around strongest groups of nominees — but Asif Kapadia's documentary on the life (and death) of much-mourned singer Amy Winehouse is the clear frontrunner. With $22 million in box-office returns, it's the highest-grossing nominee by a huge margin — a lucrative triumph for documentary filmmaking that also happens to be very, very good.
Best Animated Feature
The winner: Inside Out (1/100)
The spoiler: n/a
No surprises here: Pixar's Inside Out — which ranks among the studio's highest-grossing, most acclaimed movies ever — will take home the Best Animated Film trophy, netting Pixar its eighth win in the 15 years since this category was originally introduced.
Like Best Director, the Best Cinematography category is essentially a two-horse race between The Revenant (frequent nominee Emmanuel Lubezki, who won in this category for 2014's Birdman and 2013's Gravity) and Mad Max: Fury Road (John Seale, who previously won an Oscar for The English Patient, and who came out of retirement just to work on Mad Max).
It's a very close call — but since I'm predicting a big night for The Revenant, the tie goes to the runner, so Lubezki it is. If you think I'm overrating the Academy's love for The Revenant, swing to Seale instead.
Best Film Editing
The winner: Mad Max: Fury Road (1/4)
The spoiler: n/a
As we move into the technical categories, you can expect to see Mad Max start cleaning up. Here, it competes yet again with fellow Best Picture nominees The Revenant, The Big Short, and Spotlight, as well as the year's biggest movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But this is Mad Max's trophy to lose; the film's nonstop breakneck pacing owes a considerable debt to editor Margaret Sixel, who has been working with director (and fellow Aussie) George Miller since his 1997 documentary 40,000 Years of Dreaming.
Best Visual Effects
It might defy your expectations, but Best Visual Effects doesn't necessarily mean most visual effects. Both Mad Max and Star Wars have drawn justified praise for eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects wherever possible, and the Academy seems likely to reward one of them here.
But there's another caveat in play. When a Best Picture nominee makes the Best Visual Effects category, it usually wins; Inception, Hugo, Life of Pi, and Gravity each topped entries in blockbuster franchises like Harry Potter, The Hobbit, and The Avengers. If that pattern holds, Mad Max should top Star Wars here.
Best Production Design
The winner: Mad Max: Fury Road (1/10)
The spoiler: n/a
This is an easy one. Mad Max's strange, immersive, colorful take on the post-apocalypse is unforgettable, and it should easily top this category.
The winner: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight (1/5)
The spoiler: n/a
The Academy may have been lukewarm on Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, but the film does boast one thing everybody can get behind: legendary composer Ennio Morricone. Though the 87-year-old Morricone was given an honorary Academy Award in 2007, he has, somewhat incredibly, never won in competition, despite five previous nominations. You can expect the Academy to correct that oversight on Sunday.
The winner: "Til It Happens to You," by Lady Gaga and Diane Warren, from The Hunting Ground (4/9)
The spoilers: n/a
To start, you can count out obscurities like "Simple Song #3" (from Youth) and "Manta Ray" (from Racing Extiniction); the Academy has already done so by snobbishly cutting the live performances of both songs from the the telecast, leaving only the more famous songs in the show: "Til it Happens to You" (from The Hunting Ground), "Writing's on the Wall" (from Spectre), and "Earned It" (from Fifty Shades of Grey).
And since that choice has already justified my cynicism about the Best Song category, I'm going to assume that the winner will be "Til it Happens to You," which will be performed by cowriter Lady Gaga — the biggest celebrity nominated by far. Keep working toward that EGOT, Gaga!
Best Sound Editing
As one anonymous Oscar voter recently admitted, no one in the Academy knows the difference between sound editing and sound mixing. (For the record: It's not that hard! You can learn it in about three minutes here.) Though these awards sometimes split — last year, Sound Editing went to American Sniper while Sound Mixing went to Whiplash — it's usually a pretty safe bet that they'll go to the same movie.
That brings us back to our favorite head-to-head conflict: Mad Max vs. The Revenant. I went with the loudest one, on the assumption that the average Academy voter will think roughly that hard before checking a box and moving on to the next category. There's a chance it will swing the other way.
Best Sound Mixing
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The winner: Mad Max: Fury Road (1/5)
The spoiler: n/a
Another extremely justified technical win for Mad Max, which boasts some truly original work here.
Best Costume Design
And here's the rare technical category in which Mad Max isn't the frontrunner. The Academy loves period costumes; you need to go all the way back to 1994 to find a winner that isn't set in the past, whether real (a la Titanic or Elizabeth) or fictional (a la the whimsy of The Grand Budapest Hotel or the medieval fantasy of Lord of the Rings).
Mad Max, while strikingly costumed, is set in the future. Instead, I'm betting the Academy will go the traditional route and hand the trophy to the stylish dresses of Cinderella or Carol. And, conveniently enough, the same costumer — Sandy Powell — happens to be nominated for both films.
Best Animated Short
The Best Animated Feature trophy invariably ends up in the hands of a family-friendly crowd-pleaser — but the Best Animated Short category tends to be a little funkier. It's not uncommon for a little-seen crowd-pleaser to win out over one of the big studios; in recent years, animated shorts like "The Lost Thing," "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," and "Mr. Hublot" have topped shorts from Disney and Pixar, despite the P.R. boost those studios receive by playing their animated shorts in front of their animated features.
That's why I'm holding out hope for Don Hertzfeldt's "World of Tomorrow," which — cards on the table — is my personal favorite in the Animated Short category, and which I prefer to most of the movies nominated for Best Picture, too. (You should watch it! It's on Netflix right now!)
That said, Pixar's Sanjay's Super Team is a wonderful animated short: punchy, beautifully executed, and culturally valuable, entertaining while teaching the countless kids who saw it before The Good Dinosaur about Hinduism. It's the frontrunner, and I won't complain if it takes the top prize.
Best Documentary Short
Full disclosure: I haven't seen any of the nominations for Best Documentary Short, so I'm judging based on the general consensus from my fellow prognosticators. Most favor Body Team 2, a documentary about the Red Cross workers in Liberia in the midst of the Ebola outbreak, which won Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival. The consensus backup is Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, which interviews the titular director about the painstaking process behind his own legendary 1985 Holocaust documentary, Shoah.
Best Live Action Short
Like the Best Documentary Shorts, I haven't seen any of the Best Live Action Shorts, so I'm evaluating based on consensus choices. Ave Maria — a short narrative about some nuns living in the West Bank whose lives are interrupted when a family of Israeli settlers ends up stuck outside their convent — is heavily favored. If anything stands a chance of an upset, it's probably Shok, a based-on-a-true-story narrative about two boys living in the midst of the Kosovo war.