It often seems we watch the Oscars as a matter of routine more than anything else, as usually one or two movies seem far more likely to win than the rest. While Beasts of the Southern Wild or Amour might have been the best films nominated in the 2013 awards, everyone knew they didn't stand a chance against Argo. In 2014, it was either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity; in 2015, Birdman or Boyhood.
But the 2016 awards are the first in recent memory without a clear front runner. In fact, you could make an argument for why every single film nominated stands to win, as well as why it stands to lose. So that's exactly what we did. These aren't predictions so much as analyses of each contender's strengths and weaknesses, in terms of both their own artistic merits and the Academy's usual leanings. Tune in to the Academy Awards at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 28, on ABC to find out who'll pull ahead and take home the honors.
The Big Short
What it's about: When a handful of economists discover that banks might be creating a real estate bubble ready to burst, they invest in a "short" against the banks. It's based on the true events of the 2008 financial crisis.
Why it'll win: The Academy Awards strive not only to highlight the best new films in the industry, but also the most important on a cultural level. In that sense, The Big Short's shockingly successful efforts to explain the 2008 recession to the general public in an accessible way may earn it the title alone. The excellent ensemble cast and creative humor make it damn entertaining on top of that.
Why it won't: Because so many of the critics who appreciated the film's social and economic relevance disdained its flashier elements, like the fourth-wall breaking and self-aware celebrity cameos. The Academy has a historical preference for "serious movies," and The Big Short is certainly a lighter, sillier film than its competitor Spotlight, a much more Oscar-friendly historical exposé.
Bridge of Spies
What it's about: The film follows the true story of lawyer James B. Donovan, who represented a captive KGB spy in U.S. court and negotiated a trade with the Soviets for an American soldier in 1960.
Why it'll win: As a based-on-a-true-story historical drama concerning a time still relatively recent in the memory of most of the voters, Bridge of Spies (created by longtime Academy favorites Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg) is by far the biggest "Oscar bait" nominee this year. It hits the same checkboxes that earned the likes of The King's Speech, Argo, and A Beautiful Mind the big award in past years.
Why it won't: For the exact same reason. The film takes about zero risks in execution, and while it's certainly a solid, well-built film, there's little to distinguish it from the rest of its genre. It's hard to imagine anyone really remembering this film five years down the line, let alone it receiving an award deeming it worth remembering for far longer.
What it's about: An Irish immigrant arrives in America and falls in love with a New York native from an Italian family. When she feels the tug of her family and culture, she must choose between her home and her new life.
Why it'll win: This heartwarming, simple story might win simply because it's the least disagreeable film on the list. Its blend of straightforward narrative, naturally sympathetic characters, and brief explorations of setting-specific themes worked like a charm for past winners like Forrest Gump in 1994, Titanic in 1997, and Shakespeare in Love in 1998.
Why it won't: Because the Academy has received tons of flak for giving the award to these films over what many considered to be much more memorable and deserving ones, like The Shawshank Redemption, L.A. Confidential, and Saving Private Ryan. Thus they've changed their strategy in recent years and handed Best Picture to more audacious films, like No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker. So could a film as unadventurous as Brooklyn still earn top honors?
Mad Max: Fury Road
What it's about: In a post-apocalyptic world ruled by a crazed megalomaniac, Max joins Furiosa and rides across the desert to return to her homeland and hopefully restore some order to society.
Why it'll win: As the surprise breakout hit of 2015, Mad Mad: Fury Road might be the most effective film nominated in accomplishing what it attempts to do. The thrilling car combat action, the beautiful and absorbing world, and the breakneck pace make it one of the most distinctive action movies in recent memory. It also beat out every other film by a longshot in terms of critics' best of 2015 lists.
Why it won't: It's rare that a film in any genre other than drama wins Best Picture, and the award almost never goes to an action flick. While there have been exceptions (Platoon in 1986 and Gladiator in 2000), they're few and far between. And not only is Mad Max: Fury Road an action film, but it's an extremely pure one, significantly prioritizing its visual elements over its storytelling. The standards of the Academy simply don't seem to suit what this film does best.
What it's about: A storm hits a group of scientists on Mars, forcing them to accidentally leave astronaut Mark Watney behind. He struggles to survive in this inhospitable environment while NASA scrambles to rescue him.
Why it'll win: The Martian, weirdly enough, might be the most culturally significant film on the list this year, both in terms of box office intake and public appeal. Just about every other nominee is either a small-release indie darling viewed mostly by small audiences, like Brooklyn and Room, or a hyperserious drama designed for this exact ceremony, like Bridge of Spies and Spotlight. The Martian, meanwhile, is funny, exciting, unpretentious, and universally likable. Isn't it reasonable to define "best film of 2015" as "film most people enjoyed in 2015?"
Why it won't: The Best Picture award hasn't gone to a major blockbuster film like this since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King back in 2003. In the rare case where popularity and critical acclaim sync up, a Hollywood hit might hope for a Best Picture nomination at best, but otherwise the Academy generally views such films as too mainstream and not artistic enough for their criteria. The Martian's two-dimensional characters and disinterest in exploring larger themes will likely prevent it from becoming one of the exceptions.
What it's about: A gruesome bear attack leaves fur trapper Hugh Glass crippled and nearly dead. He faces the harsh winter elements while he recovers and hunts down the man who left him behind.
Why it'll win: Because you could justify it as the "best film of the year" in about a dozen different ways. The utterly gorgeous cinematography and environment, the no-holds-barred Leonardo DiCaprio performance that will almost definitely earn him his long-awaited trophy, the visceral emotional intensity of every scene - these qualities earned The Revenant a whopping 12 Oscar nominations this year, more than any other film, and a likely win for Best Picture as well.
Why it won't: This film runs on pain, brutality, and cruelty, which is far from everyone's cup of tea. In fact, The Revenant is the worst-reviewed Best Picture nominee, according to both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It's hard to imagine the Academy universally rallying behind such an unpleasant and divisive film. Not to mention that director Alejandro González Iñárritu last film, Birdman, just won Best Picture last year, and in 88 years the Academy has never given the award to two films by the same director in a row.
What it's about: Joy and her 5-year-old son, Jack, have lived as captives in a tiny room for years. When they escape, they must adapt to the now terrifying world around them.
Why it'll win: Because it's probably the best film nominated. It takes its unique premise and explores its implications to every fascinating end; it features spectacular performances from both Brie Larson and, amazingly, 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay; and for a solid two hours, it delivers one emotional gutpunch after the next, making for a powerful, heartwenching film experience.
Why it won't: Did anybody else actually see this movie? As a big Brie Larson fan from her work in Short Term 12, we made the effort to see this as soon as it came to town. But it doesn't have a ton of name recognition — besides as an Oscar nominee. Could such a tiny blip on the cultural radar actually take home a Best Picture win?
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What it's about: A team of investigators for the Boston Globe work to uncover the pattern of child sexual abuse and corruption within the Boston area Catholic church.
Why it'll win: Spotlight may very well turn out to be one of the most important films of the decade, as any film that spearheads a genre may be: It's the first great "journalism drama," or even "journalism thriller," since All The President's Men 40 years ago. Put aside the tight script and bold performances - this film might win not for doing what it does great, but doing something no one else even attempted to do, and pulling it off at that.
Why it won't: Because it comes across a little, I dunno, heartless? Unlike The Big Short, which went out of its way to develop memorable characters and entertain in its own right, Spotlight prioritizes its social/political focus above all else. The plot mostly concerns procedural investigative tasks, the color palette lingers in muted whites and grays, and the sparse indicators of the characters' personalities seem present mostly out of obligation. That all makes sense with what the film's trying to do, but does Spotlight resonate strongly enough as a work of art to win?