When the trailers for "The Big Short" started rolling out this past summer, my instinct was that with such a strong cast, it was bound to be a letdown. Let's face it – when the best thing director Adam McKay had done previously was "Step Brothers," you tend to temper your expectations. But instead, the film was an absolute home run. The megastars at the top of the bill – Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling – all were excellent, as were the lesser-known supporting players. The movie builds thanks to its humor, but when we reach the end we realize just what a scam the banking industry in the United States was during the sub-prime mortgage collapse, and our humor turns to fury. "The Big Short" won the Producers Guild Award for Best Picture – which for eight straight years has won Best Picture at the Oscars. So this has a very, very legitimate chance to be the night's big winner.
When it comes to a film firing on all cylinders for what makes me love going to the movies, I could make the argument that "The Martian" was my favorite big-screen experience of 2015. That's saying something, given I'm a "Star Wars" geek from way back. "The Martian" had action. It had drama. It had comedy. It had a thrilling finale. It had great performances, particularly from the Oscar-nominated Matt Damon, who had to basically talk to himself for the bulk of his dialogue – and that's no easy task. Ridley Scott was flat out robbed of a Best Director nomination for it, and there's a good likelihood that it will get shut out despite seven nominations. But for my money, in many ways it was the most complete – does that mean best? it might – movie of 2015.
I won't lie. "Mad Max: Fury Road" is the film this year that I, personally, just didn't get the fascination with. All of its themes, yes – I understand them. The performances of Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy are great. The action is intense, the effects are spectacular, and stuff blows up in loud and thrilling ways. The film is basically one giant road chase, and from a production and editing standpoint, it's a work of art. Perhaps I needed a refresher course on the original "Mad Max" films to appreciate "Fury Road" at a level that has many people saying it should win Best Picture. To each his own. Is it worth seeing? Any film that gets nominated for 10 Academy Awards is worth putting on your list. So kudos to director George Miller for that remarkable accomplishment.
“Room” is a lot of things. It’s disturbingly scary. It’s claustrophobic. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s also inspiring and uplifting. Joy was kidnapped when she was 17 and has been held captive in a small room by her captor for seven years. The scumbag visits her regularly to bring food and supplies so she and her son – the product of his regular visits for other things – can survive. Their eventual escape is only half the story. What becomes interesting is how each of them responds to the world outside, particularly the amazing Jacob Tremblay as a boy who has never seen anything of the world but the clouds through a skylight. Brie Larson does a career-defining job as Joy, and she’ll win Best Actress for it.
When director Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks get together, seldom are we let down. That's the case yet again with "Bridge of Spies," the true story of Hanks' James Donovan, a lawyer who is charged with negotiating an exchange of a Soviet spy being held in the States for an American spy being held in Russia during the Cold War. Hanks is excellent, as is the Oscar-nominated Mark Rylance, who plays Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. The film took a little flack for its questionable accuracy compared to history, particularly as the Berlin Wall is concerned. But that's nothing new in historical dramas brought to film. The original script was punched up by Joel and Ethan Coen, and the screenplay is one of six overall nominations.
“Brooklyn” stars Saoirse Ronan (pronounced “SUR-shuh”) in a breakout performance as Eilis (pronounced “AYY-lish”), a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York in 1952. There, she gets a job, falls in love and gets married. But when a death in the family sends her back to Ireland, she’s torn between staying for good, or going back to the States. It’s up for two other awards besides Best Picture – Ronan for Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time, and there’s good reason it made its way onto dozens and dozens of Top 10 lists for 2015.
Only seven times in the history of the Directors Guild of America awards has its winner for Best Director not gone on to win the Oscar. That bodes well for the second straight year for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who won last year for "Birdman" and this year appears poised for a second straight Oscar for "The Revenant." George Miller stands an outside chance of an upset for "Mad Max: Fury Road" if the membership wants to give him a sort of lifetime achievement honor. But more likely "Mad Max" will clean up in the below-the-line categories, leaving Inarritu with two straight director trophies — something done only twice before.
You have to go back 23 years to find Leonardo DiCaprio's first Oscar nomination, a supporting nod for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." He's now on his fourth nomination for Best Actor, and he's had at least another half-dozen roles he didn't get Oscar nominations for that were in the running. He's going to win, finally, for "The Revenant," and it will be well deserved. It was a brutal role, though he didn't have much dialogue – making it even harder, some believe, to play. Last year's winner, Eddie Redmayne ("The Danish Girl"), and early frontrunner Michael Fassbender ("Steve Jobs") are a pretty distant second and third, while Bryan Cranston ("Trumbo") and Matt Damon ("The Martian") are just happy to be there.
We're so used to seeing Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence's names on the nominations list that it's easy to take for granted just how good they were as the title characters in "Carol" and "Joy," respectively. And Charlotte Rampling's performance in "45 Years" was understated and heartbreaking. My favorite of this year's nominees was Saoirse Ronan in "Brooklyn," but Brie Larson was the SAG winner and has dominated the precursors for "Room," and she'll get a deserved trophy on the night.
The screenplay awards this year look to be pretty well locked in after this past weekend's Writers Guild of America awards were announced. The WGA gave its original screenplay honor to "Spotlight" and its adapted script award to "The Big Short." The adapted winner at the PGAs has gone on to win the Oscar eight of the past 10 times, and the original screenplay winner has held sway with the Academy seven of the past 10 Oscars. Likely playing runner-up status are "Inside Out" for Original and "Room" for Adapted, but they're long shots.
Alicia Vikander had a sensational 2015 and could easily have gotten two supporting nods for not only “The Danish Girl,” but for “Ex Machina,” as well. She won the SAG Award for Supporting Actress, which makes her the frontrunner ahead of Rooney Mara in “Carol” and Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs.” Jennifer Jason Leigh was the best part of “The Hateful Eight,” but she’s a longshot here. The tough part about Vikander and Mara’s nominations is that they’re really lead roles, not supporting parts. Will the voters ding them for that, opening things up for Winslet?
The Best Original Song category can be a tough one, but it looks like this year's frontrunner is "Til It Happens to You," which was written by Lady Gaga and Diane Warren, and sung by Gaga, for the documentary "The Hunting Ground." "The Hunting Ground" isn't even up for Documentary Feature, but the allure of Gaga, and the pretty powerful lyrics, may be tough for other nominees to overcome – including "Writings on the Wall," Sam Smith's Golden Globes winner from "Spectre" and "Earned It" by super-popular The Weeknd from "Fifty Shades of Grey." The Globes winner wins the Oscar about half the time, so Smith could spoil Gaga's big night (her song wasn't up for Globe consideration).
This year's Original Score category appears to be a two-man race. The music in "Carol," "Bridge of Spies" and "Sicario" was great (and I'd argue "Sicario" should have been bumped for Alexandre Desplat's score to "The Danish Girl," but last year's winner was snubbed). But this is between the legendary John Williams for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and 87-year-old Ennio Morricone for "The Hateful Eight." Morricone has five previous nominations and no award (though he does have an Honorary Oscar), and this was his return to the great American Western (he scored the classic Clint Eastwood "Man with No Name" trilogy). It'll be hard to resist giving him a prize – and it was fantastic, anyway.
It looks like the Oscar for Documentary Feature is a lock for "Amy," about the life and death of singer Amy Winehouse. It has all the precursor momentum, and it was a box office success, too. The short categories are always tougher to call. Documentary Short could go to the shortest of the lot – "Body Team 12," about the Ebola outbreak (Olivia Wilde was a producer). "Sanjay's Super Team" could take Animated Short. It ran before Pixar's "Inside Out," but Pixar shorts have a history of struggle in the category, so watch for "World of Tomorrow" to upset. Live Action Short could go to Kosovo War heartbreaker "Shok" or Afghanistan war heartbreaker "Day One," though the lighthearted "Ave Maria" is beloved.
The award for Production Design (formerly called Art Direction) will typically go to a period piece – "Shakespeare in Love," "The English Patient," "Lincoln," that type of thing. But it also will go to movies of a more fantastical nature, like "The Grand Budapest Hotel" last year, "Alice in Wonderland" or Avatar. Colin Gibson's sets in "Mad Max: Fury Road" are post-apocalyptic wastelands of desert he found in Namibia, and the insanity of the vehicles sets it apart from the pack. He won the Art Directors Guild award for fantasy film, so "Mad Max" will duke it out with contemporary winner "The Martian" and period winner "The Revenant" here.
It wasn't everyone's cup of tea — mine included — but there's no denying it took something special to cut up "Mad Max: Fury Road" to keep the absolutely frantic pace of all the chases making sense. The editing experts took notice, giving Margaret Sixel, director George Miller's wife, an ACE Eddie award for it. An Eddie winner wins the Oscar nearly 80 percent of the time. "The Big Short" won the Eddie in the comedy/musical category, so it could pull an upset – but don't count on it.
There are some truly great nominees this year for Cinematography, but the big story will be that we could see a new Oscar record. If Emmanuel Lubezki wins for his camera work on "The Revenant," it will be his third straight win. He won for "Gravity" two years ago and "Birdman" last year. No one's done that before. To do it, he'll have to get past Roger Deakins, who shot "Sicario." Deakins has 13 career Cinematography nominations and no awards, and he's been nominated seven times in nine years. He's a legend, and one of these days, he'll get his due. He just may have to wait – again.
Sandy Powell has 12 Oscar nominations for Best Costume and three wins. Two of those nominations are this year, meaning she's up against herself. If she wins for "Cinderella," which has this year's most lavish period costumes – the kind of thing that typically wins here – it will be at the expense of her work for "Carol." Coincidentally, she dressed Cate Blanchett in both movies. The apocalyptic and crazed costumes in "Mad Max: Fury Road" could be a spoiler if Powell's votes are split, though.
The critical love for "Mad Max: Fury Road" — it's second to only "The Revenant" with 10 total nominations – should make it a pretty easy winner in the Makeup and Hairstyling category. "The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared" is a distant third of the three nominees. Only "The Revenant" could play spoiler to "Mad Max" here, and that would be for its hyper-realistic makeup for Leonardo DiCaprio's bear attack injuries.
The sound categories are a doozy this year. Both Sound Editing and Sound Mixing could go to just about any nominee. The likelihood is that one film will take both sound awards. The question is whether Best Picture hopeful "The Revenant" will do it, or "Mad Max: Fury Road." But "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" could do it, too. Its best hope for a prize is in Visual Effects, where it should top "Mad Max."
To kick off 24 days of buildup to this year's Oscars, we'll start out with Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Film. Pixar's "Inside Out" is a virtual lock to win Animated Feature, which would give the studio eight wins in its 10 nominations since the category was created. Trailing way in the distance is the Charlie Kaufman-written "Anomalisa," a remarkably uncomfortable stop-motion masterpiece. Hungary's "Son of Saul" isn't just the best foreign film this year, it's regarded as one of the best, period. The WWII concentration camp drama has cleaned up on the awards circuit and should win the Oscar, too.