Telluride seems to be the premiere launching pad for the Oscar winning Best Picture. With very little time for opinions to settle, the earlier films tend to be the ones that stick around and the later breaking ones don’t have enough time to really build themselves as a sure thing. Time is the best critic and if a film like Mad Max: Fury Road and Spotlight can stay fresh and relevant all of these months later there must be more to them than the temporary buzz that afflicts festival goers.
Now that people have started voting, two conflicting consensuses threaten to take the race in wildly different directions. The SAG version – which has diversity in choices like Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton, not to mention Trumbo, The Big Short and Spotlight. On the other side of the room, where critics tend to dwell, is a different story of Best Picture – one that is less diverse. On that side, the consensus is shaped by The Revenant, Room, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian, and yes, Spotlight and The Big Short from the other side of the room.
Since the Critics Choice miss one title from their nominations that the Academy voters pick, like Philomena or The Blind Side or American Sniper – you have to wonder what films are missing from the Critics Choice and whether that will be the case this year. Of course, it could turn out to be a year where they get all of the films up for Oscar, like 2011. Which ten did they choose today?
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
One of those has to go because the Academy cannot pick ten, mathematically speaking. They can only pick nine, or have done since they started their new system, beginning in 2011. One has to go and maybe one will be added. Which films aren’t on their list that were expected to be? Well, Trumbo isn’t there. Neither is Straight Outta Compton, and neither is Inside Out or Beasts of No Nation. An out of left field choice could theoretically be 45 Years or The Hateful Eight. It’s possible.
What we do know is that a consensus is forming and the films listed above, with the possible exception of Sicario, are that consensus one the one side of the room. The SAG ensemble side of the room paints a different picture, obviously. We can’t yet know until the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild announce where that is going. It would seem as though consensus is really strong on the names that keep getting on the Best Director lists:
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
George Miller, Mad Max
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant
Todd Haynes, Carol
There is no question, however, that one film seems to be both the frontrunner and the default choice. When the Los Angeles Film Critics got together to debate Best Picture, they couldn’t agree on any movie. Votes were split up all over the place. In that scenario, Spotlight came out the winner as the most broadly liked overall, and that is probably its ace in the hole heading into the Producers Guild where it could solidify its lead.
If I were to name any film I thought could dethrone Spotlight, I would name Mad Max: Fury Road. Mad Max fits the modern rule of finding Best Picture, which is usually either seen or released before Telluride (No Country for Old Men, The Artist) or seen at Telluride (Birdman, Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire). Mad Max has had much time to percolate and is peaking right now. It accidentally flew under the radar all of this time because no one thought it had any chance of winning any awards. The combination of factors might make it appealing – George Miller’s wildly artistic take on the future, with a strong female lead, a diverse cast and one of the biggest visual spectacles of the year. More importantly, Mad Max is a chance for the industry to stand up for practical visual effects, for the crafts people whose jobs are being replaced by computers. If Mad Max is the winner, like Birdman last year, that sends a message to Hollywood about the kinds of blockbusters the industry would like to see more of.
If the race really is down to Spotlight vs. Mad Max: Fury Road you won’t find two more opposite movies. One is a movie of people shouting and things exploding. It’s visually dynamic, bursting with color, moves at a rapid-fire pace. It is driven by a tough female on the run from people who want to kill her. It is raw and gory – there has never been anything like it. The other is quiet, contemplative, exacting, deliberately subdued with color and performances. Its colors are meant to mimic the newsroom. The journalists are supposed to try to be objective while the story pulls them in. One feels brand new – the other feels traditional. If I know my Oscar voters it seem very likely which direction they’ll head in. On the other hand, didn’t Birdman’s win last year seem a bit odd for those kinds of voters?
But: Mad Max does not have a SAG ensemble nomination, which would put it in Braveheart territory if it were to win. That still makes it a long shot pick, for Best Picture anyway. All roads lead back to Spotlight.
The other movie to keep an eye on right now is Adam McKay’s equally original The Big Short. It breaks the rule of being seen or released before Telluride, but it does have a SAG ensemble nomination – which is big – and is slowly gaining a strong consensus around it. The one major thing it has going for it is the current running through the upcoming election right now, particularly among liberals – the idea that Wall Street is corrupt and has ruined this country. McKay’s film is somewhat different from Michael Lewis’ equally brilliant book. McKay is throwing out an indictment of American culture overall. The downside is that unless you’re willing to forgo understanding exactly what is going on in terms of the credit default swaps you’re going to be lost.
In the end, this race seems to always get back to Spotlight being the winner, even with the things about it that make it seem like it might not:
1) being released from an independent studio, which would be only the 4th time in 88 years of Oscar history.
2) the Los Angeles Film critics choice for Best Picture has rarely gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It happened with The Hurt Locker but before that, you have to go all the way back to 1993
3) It is on the understated side for your usual Best Picture winner – a debatable point and perhaps, like all of the other points, insignificant. In the end, they pick the movie they like best and chances are everyone will agree that they like Spotlight best.
Most of the time we imagine various scenarios taking place when the obvious answer has been there all along. Probably no one, except the extremely bored, will pick any other film than Spotlight to win. Some are more comfortable taking risks in predicting but most play it safe because otherwise you’re stuck with egg on your face when the obvious winner emerges. Thus, expect to see 100% unification on the Spotlight prediction for Best Director. I also expect the consensus to start to form around a split, with George Miller winning for Best Director for Mad Max. When the vote splits like that – which has only happened twice since Oscar expanded Best Picture – director has gone to the more artistically daring (Gravity, Life of Pi) while Picture went to the more somber (12 Years a Slave) or the crowd pleasing frontrunner (Argo).
Since most of the films are out right now, let’s look at the Rotten Tomatoes negative rating test. For the most part, a film with a low negative rating can win Best Picture, while a film with a higher negative rating usually can’t – with a few notable exceptions like Crash and Chicago. It’s more difficult to judge a film on its positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes than its negative because only the negative number indicates divisiveness. For all of everyone’s talk about Birdman being divisive (myself included) its Rotten Tomato negative score indicates it wasn’t, really.
Since Oscar expanded and began using the preferential ballot:
Reviews Counted: 262 / Rotten: 21
12 Years a Slave
The Hurt Locker
Mad Max: Fury Road
Reviews Counted: 234 / Rotten: 21
Straight Outta Compton
Beasts of No Nation
The Big Short
Reviews Counted: 51 /Rotten: 9
Frontrunner heading in: Leonardo DiCaprio – film will have a Best Picture nomination, plus many more. He’s overdue. He’s well liked, but is his work in this film enough to win?
Spoiler: Bryan Cranston – his sudden emergence in the race, his popularity with actors and likability overall makes him a huge threat.
Dark Horse: Johnny Depp – though the film itself isn’t as well liked as it needs to be.
Frontrunner heading in: Brie Larson – the main reason being that Room is doing better overall than the competition.
Spoiler: Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn – she could easily win, and if Brooklyn makes a much bigger showing come nominations time, she could very well be the winner.
Dark Horse: Alicia Vikander for the Danish Girl if put in lead. But I think she will actually be a bigger problem in the supporting category if she gets a double nomination for Danish Girl and Ex Machina.
Frontrunner heading in: There isn’t one – it’s completely wide open but if I had to pick, I’d say Paul Dano
Spoilers: potentially, one of the Spotlight actors if it wins Best Picture, Argo style, taking Pic, Screenplay, Supporting Actor. But which one? Whomever is nominated could win.
Dark Horse:Sylvester Stallone for Creed
Frontrunner heading in: Toss up between Alicia Vikander for Danish Girl, Rooney Mara for Carol
Spoilers: Alicia Vikander for Ex Machina
Dark Horse: Helen Mirren for Trumbo — it’s all happening.
Frontrunner heading in: Tom McCarthy by default because his is in the Best Picture frontrunner
Spoiler: George Miller and his artistic triumph Mad Max: Fury Road
Dark Horse: Adam McKay for The Big Short or Ridley Scott for The Martian
Spoiler: Inside Out
Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short or Carol
Animated: Inside Out
Foreign Language: Son of Saul
Documentary: Amy or Look of Silence
Cinematography: Mad Max: Fury Road or The Revenant
Production Design: Carol or Mad Max Fury Road
Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road or The Big Short
Sound / Sound Editing: probably Mad Max: Fury Road