As we head into the last moments of Oscar voting, sentiments toward a favorite still seem divided. Even as the heat of the Bernie Sanders campaign dies down, there can be no dispute about the topic of the Wall Street meltdown and its impact on the economy, on how it reshaped our government, and The Big Short’s urgent call for Americans to pay attention. If The Big Short does anything, it puts an exclamation point on the end of the sentence, “Wake up. WAKE UP!” And yet, you know and I know that it is not in the nature of many citizens to do so.
Still, for my money, if I’m picking Best Picture I’m thinking about that. I’m thinking about that exclamation point and how it might look when we glance back at 2016 from some time in the future. Or future selves might ask, “Did any of us care? Did Hollywood people care?” Maybe some did, but maybe enough of them didn’t. There may be other films in the race that give voters an easier, more clear-cut way to show they care. We all need to know that the people we see onscreen are worthy enough to root for. We have a harder time with complexity, and especially with the dreaded anti-hero. Thus, the genius of telling the story of the Wall Street collapse from the point-of-view of the rats hanging around in the alley will leave some ambivalent about whether or not they’re supposed to care about those characters.
It’s much easier to care about the clear-cut good guys in Spotlight, a film that has no blemishes, no flaws, and hums along with a calm and steady frequency. In fact, Spotlight is your real threat for Best Picture, both because its popularity will cut into The Revenant’s presumed lead, and because its neutrality will block support for a decidedly non-neutral film like The Big Short. You see, with both The Revenant and The Big Short we are forced to have an opinion either way. You have to like it or not like it. Be into its message or be turned off by it. With Spotlight, everyone likes it and no one hates it. Thus, that sizable slice of the Academy could prove to be the anti-Big Short bloc heading into the final vote.
The Revenant, on the other hand, is the type of big movie many Oscar voters often wait for. Iñárritu is their newest grad who made good by batting an epic out-of-the-park home run straight after winning Best Picture and Best Director for a low-budget indie. If there is any resentment towards him it hasn’t shown up yet. With The Revenant he’s made a stark valentine to the modern male, and even still, many women likewise fell madly in love with that incomparable cinematography, the snow, the brutality, the sheer beauty.
Finally, though most seem to have forgotten about it, Mad Max: Fury Road still looms large. Anne Thompson is bravely predicting not a two-fer for Iñárritu but an Oscar for George Miller, whose work is every bit as impressive as Iñárritu’s, and who hasn’t yet won an Oscar for directing. Mad Max could give The Revenant some trouble. Though no one really expects it to win Best Picture, in a year like this, anything is possible.
On the eve of the end of Oscar’s ballot deadline, it seems likely that most have voted already. They already know what they like and they’ve ranked their films accordingly. Maybe they will vote with proven winners in mind, knowing which films already won with the big guilds. Anyone who doesn’t pay attention to, or point out the rarity of this year being the first year that three different films went to three different guilds since the preferential ballot was initiated isn’t paying attention. What that says is this is a very close race and at the moment, Best Picture is too close to call.
It’s possible we might see, for the first time in a very long time, a Best Picture winner that claims no more than two Oscars in total. Spotlight could do that this year, so could The Big Short. It’s also possible we might see the first sweep we’ve seen since the preferential ballot, with one film — The Revenant — grabbing the bulk of the wins as the night wears on. Many are predicting this, and I have to say that in all of the years I’ve been watching the Oscars, I’ve never seen them lavish that many statues on anyone two years a row. Perhaps they might see Birdman as a one-off. Perhaps they see Iñárritu as their messiah leading them through the darkness into a new dawn for cinema.
Either way, if Iñárritu prevails, we would be looking at the sixth straight year a non-American has won Best Director. It makes me continually wonder why the American film industry is unable to keep up. Is it because directors from other countries provide a darker truth about who we are that many voters prefer? Is it that Americans are less inclined — or not as often allowed — to take the same kind of big risks? Only two of this year’s Best Director nominees are American – Adam McKay and Tom McCarthy. It should give American filmmakers some pause, that our homegrown talent isn’t winning the top creative honors as often — not for Best Director, not for the short films. We might have to answer some hard questions about how we live, about the stories we grow up with and the stories we want our artists to tell.
The story we’re about to hear six nights from now is what the film industry thought of the films they chose as best of the year. What they pick will forever represent a snapshot of their tastes and attitudes, destined to become part of their history. The last ten years at the Oscars has already told its own story about these voters. They are, in many ways, overshadowed by the bigger story: that they are too white, too old, too male and too straight to keep up with modern times. Look at what’s happening on Broadway with Hamilton. Look at what’s happening on television — look at where the narrative geniuses are going. Yet here in the Oscar race we’re caught in a time warp, always looking backwards, always lamenting what once was and can never be again. That story tells me a lot of what I need to know about the people who vote on these awards. I wish we could talk, I wish they would listen. I would tell them that I’m sorry it’s all turned out this way, that I know the future is scary, and that I know the problems we all have to confront are intimidating. Sooner or later, though, we all have to let go of what once was, to maybe discover what could be.
The Big Short is the film that should win Best Picture because it furiously exposes one of the greatest modern scams ever perpetrated on a trusting public. Spotlight should win Best Picture because it’s so hard to find a movie everyone can agree on, and making an honest film about very honest people hunting down very bad guys is never a bad thing to reward. The Revenant should win Best Picture because, hot damn, what a wild ride. What bravura filmmaking. Mad Max: Fury Road should win Best Picture because it is unlike any other film made this year — or any other year — and stands out visually, thematically and in every other way possible.
One of them will win and this year’s story will be told. I will be dressed up and sitting in the Dolby Theatre, either watching Iñárritu win big for the second consecutive year, or watching one of the upsets that will then be analyzed for years to come. The Oscars are, you know, the Oscars. The stuff that dreams are made of.