What started out as a crowded field of contenders at year’s end has narrowed down to a few shoo-ins when the 88th Annual Academy Awards are handed out this evening.
However, the Oscar for Best Picture is still a horse race, with the big, bold adventure “The Revenant” and haunting newsroom thriller “Spotlight” neck-and-neck, while post-apocalyptic wild ride “Mad Max: Fury Road” and tragic socioeconomic comedy ‘The Big Short” are poised for an upset.
Never be sure about frontrunners, though. Surprises have been known to happen. Marketing and momentum can carry a movie across the finish line.
The only safe bet Sunday night is that host Chris Rock’s monologue will be blistering and buzzed about on social media, and we will have something to talk about the morning after, along with the fashions, gaffes and gasps.
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Here are my purely subjective, highly opinionated, instinctual predictions in all 24 categories.
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Spotlight”
Possible Upset: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Dark Horse: “The Big Short”
Eight very distinct films are up for the top prize. There is not a dud in the bunch, although it would have been nice to make room for Pixar’s masterpiece “Inside Out” and either crowd-pleasing “Creed” or “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for a complete 10.
For sheer cinematic innovation, “The Revenant” is a big-screen must-see film. The grandeur of its cinematography, the epic nature of its survival story, and riveting performances appear to give it the Big Mo.
On the other hand, the powerful “Spotlight” is not just the best movie of the year, but the most important work of substance. Carefully constructed and superbly acted by the year’s fiercest ensemble, this gut-wrenching true story resonates on a number of levels.
With its adrenaline-rush action and top-notch technical work, “Mad Max: Fury Road” should nab a slew of achievement Oscars.
“The Big Short” won the Producers Guild, another bellwether, but I think it’s unlikely this time around.
Will Win: Alejandro G. Inarritu “The Revenant”
Should Win: Inarritu
Possible Upset: George Miller “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Dark Horse: Tom McCarthy “Spotlight”
Ingenious Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu (“Birdman”) won the Directors Guild of America, which is a good sign. During the past decade, that winner has merited the Oscar 90 percent of the time.
If he wins, he becomes the third director to achieve two Oscars back-to-back, a feat that hasn’t happened in 65 years. John Ford won for “The Grapes of Wrath” and “How Green Was My Valley” in 1940 and 1941 while Joseph L. Mankiewicz won for “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve” in 1949 and 1950.
His visual artistry and innovation is unsurpassed in cinema today. But it would be a thrill to see 70-year-old Australian director George Miller win for his tour de force “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the fourth installment in his mind-binding futuristic hell franchise.
Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio “The Revenant”
Should Win: Leo
Possible Upset: Matt Damon “The Martian”
Dark Horse: Bryan Cranston “Trumbo”
If he doesn’t win, I don’t know what else he could do to secure a victory. In his fifth acting nomination, the man ate a live fish and a raw bison liver, slept inside the innards of a horse carcass, and was savagely mauled by a bear. He immersed himself into the intense role of Hugh Glass, a 19th century frontier tracker and fur trapper.
A child actor on TV, he earned his first Oscar nomination as Johnny Depp’s mentally disabled brother in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (1993). Labeled a heartthrob after “Romeo + Juliet” and “Titanic” in the ’90s, he eschewed pretty boy roles, and went for parts that would challenge him. His work with Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator,” “The Departed,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) has been smart and revelatory.
I had him pegged as this year’s winner right after I saw the trailer to “The Revenant.” But there are those who think the Academy will not reward him. I think he’s earned this award, and it will be an egregious upset if he doesn’t. It’s time.
Will Win: Brie Larson “Room”
Should Win: Brie Larson “Room”
Possible Upset: Charlotte Rampling “45 Years”
Dark Horse: Saoirse Ronan “Brooklyn”
What Brie Larson accomplished as the captive “Ma” in “Room” is astounding. She did not make a false move as the loving mother raising her son in a garden shed, held by an abductor since she was a teen.
After a harrowing escape, mother and son must adapt to the wide world, facing many challenges. Larson naturally conveys the emotional whirlwind, strong maternal bond with Jack (Jacob Tremblay), and turmoil, adjusting to normal life with astute intimacy.
Charlotte Rampling gives it all in “45 Years,” a subtly nuanced portrait of a wife unraveling in aftermath of her husband’s shocking news. They’re planning their 45th anniversary party, and this development rocks their foundation to its core. She might sway sentimental age-before-ingenue votes, but Larson has been working in the business for 20 years.
In a flawless performance, Saoirse Ronan makes you feel every moment of her journey in “Brooklyn.” She is destined for further recognition.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Will Win: Sylvester Stallone “Creed”
Should Win: Sylvester Stallone “Creed”
Possible Upset: Mark Rylance “Bridge of Spies”
Dark Horse: Mark Ruffalo “Spotlight”
Get ready for the lump-in-your-throat sentimental moment of the night. This won’t be a balm, a career-achievement award — this performance is deserving of this accolade. Stallone convincingly gave us a vulnerable Rocky Balboa, 40 years after he created the iconic character. In “Creed,” he’s raw, real and our Rocky; long may he climb those Philadelphia steps.
Rylance is pitch-perfect as a Russian spy during the Cold War. He’s a fantastic stage actor with Tony Awards on his mantle. He may win an Oscar one day, but it likely won’t be this time.
Ruffalo is overdue, and Tom Hardy was finally recognized — it won’t be the last time. I’m a fan of Christian Bale, but I feel Idris Elba should have been the fifth nominee, for his mesmerizing turn as a savage drug lord in “Beasts of No Nation.”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Will Win: Alicia Vikander “The Danish Girl”
Should Win: Alicia Vikander “The Danish Girl”
Possible Upset: Kate Winslet “Steve Jobs”
Dark Horse: Jennifer Jason Leigh “The Hateful Eight”
Vikander’s role was moved to this category instead of Best Actress, but she is a leading anchor, a strong portrait of a woman losing her husband but standing by her best friend, one and the same. She has had quite a year, excelling in a number of films. She could have made the cut for her layered work as the thinking robot in “Ex Machina.”
Winslet is being lauded for a role where her accent didn’t kick in until midway. I don’t understand the raves. Mara’s part would be a lead in any other year, too, but the performance is too remote, and Leigh is just happy to be at the party as the sole female in Tarantino’s wild bunch.
In other categories:
Best Foreign Film: “Son of Saul,” no contest. An unforgettable look at the Holocaust, told in a singular point of view by Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes.
Best Animated Feature: “Inside Out,” Pixar’s warm, witty, imaginative essay on growing up, is a lock.
Best Documentary Feature: “Amy,” although I’m not a fan of this choppy biography of self-destructive singer Amy Winehouse. I prefer “He Named Me Malala,” which wasn’t even nominated. Nominees “The Look of Silence,” a follow-up to Indonesian genocide story “The Art of Killing,” and “Cartel Land,” a chilling look inside Mexican drug trade, are outstanding alternatives.
Best Original Screenplay: This is where Tom McCarthy will be acknowledged for ‘Spotlight.” He and co-writer Josh Singer smartly got all the details right. Every facet of the pedophile priest scandal in the Boston Archdiocese is explored fearlessly.
Best Adapted Screenplay: “The Martian” should be thrown a bone, for Drew Goddard’s faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestseller brings this gripping NASA drama to life, with nail-biting tension, edge-of-your-seat moments and well-placed humor.
However, “The Big Short” won the Writers Guild award. Adapting Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book about the economic meltdown and mortgage collapse of 2008 was a daunting task, but screenwriters Charles Randolph and Adam McKay (also director) illuminate the why and how well in this scathing social satire. Smart and clever, this might be the one to beat.
Best Cinematography: Cinematic poet Emmanuel Lubezki for ‘The Revenant,” who won for “Gravity” and “Birdman” the past two years. He’ll achieve a record three-peat if he wins, and it’s deserved for stunning, breathtaking work.
Best Editing: Margaret Sixel, wife of the director, edited “Mad Max: Fury Road” with full-throttle intensity. Bravo.
Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell will be the name on the envelope, but whether it’s for “Carol” or “Cinderella” is a toss-up. Her luxurious, tastefully tailored 1950s outfits were sublime in ‘Carol,” the likely winner, but that blue ball gown was an absolute “wow” in “Cinderella.”
Best Original Song: My choice “See You Again,” from “Furious 7,” is not in the mix. Sam Smith’s Bond song from “Spectre,” “Writing’s on the Wall,” could trump the Lady Gaga-Diane Warren collaboration, “Til It Happens to You,” but Lady Gaga is red-hot right now, and eight-time nominee Warren has yet to win. It is in the must-see documentary “The Hunting Ground,” about the alarming number of sexual assaults on college campuses.
Best Original Score: Another big moment will be when Ennio Morricone finally wins an Oscar for “The Hateful Eight.” The maestro has lost five times, but won an honorary statue in 2007. He is responsible for memorable music in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and “The Untouchables,” and came out of retirement at Quentin Tarantino’s urging.
Best Visual Effects: This might be the only opportunity for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Best Production Design: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: “The Revenant”
Best Animated Short: “Sanjay’s Super Team” by Pixar is my sentimental favored one over the inventive but cold World of Tomorrow” by Don Hertzfeldt, although “Prologue” is beautifully rendered and “Bear Story” is sweet.
Best Live Action Short: “Ave Maria” – Jewish settlers crash their car into a convent, where nuns are observing silence, and it’s now Shabbat. It’s funny. A possible winner would be “Shok,” about two friends during the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s.
Best Documentary Short: “Body Team 12” is about the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. A possible contender is “A Girl in the River,” which is about an honor killing in Pakistan.