The race may heat up

Oscars 2016

The race may heat up

Welcome to another Oscar season! You know you’ve missed it. Certainly the Carpetbagger — your mostly trusty guide to awards-race shenanigans — was champing to write in the third person again. And, lo, it is upon us, even if only as a glittery distraction from those other campaigns underway stateside.

There was a time earlier this year when the Bagger thought that perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should take a page from the Pulitzer Prize board and not award a best picture Oscar at all. Eleven times, no fiction Pulitzer was doled out, the last in 2012, when none of the nominees — David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams — received a majority of the votes. There was no prize, and people kind of freaked out.

Imagine if the Academy were to do the same. There would be much gnashing, if not smashing, of executive teeth. Maybe a draw or no-win would reverse the madness. The Academy wouldn’t let this happen. Somebody will always win. After the 2014 Directors Guild vote resulted in a tie between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, one statistician put the chances of a tie in the Academy, with its complex preferential voting process, at 0.52 percent. And the Academy said that if it were to come to that, the system would still determine a winner.

This year, there have been no heavyweight front-runners, no Birdman vs. Boyhood or 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity. The acting categories are also largely up for grabs — although The Revenant star Leonardo DiCaprio’s chances are looking increasingly rosy — causing most everyone involved to get a little tipsy over the alluring prospect of “what if?”

“Because it’s perceived as wide open, there’s even more aggressive campaigning,” said one studio executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because that’s what studio execs are wont to do, especially when it comes to the Oscars. “Because the race doesn’t feel locked up, a lot more films on the margins are trying to make the cut.”

Going by critics and bloggers, the top spot has been yielded, almost by default, to Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s investigation into abuses by the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a smaller-budget, deeply satisfying film that can count among its strengths the absence of filmmakerly bombast that the Academy usually loves. Spotlight picked up steam this week with its best picture win at the Gothams, the ceremony that traditionally kicks off awards season. The Bagger would like to note that beyond the merits of Spotlight, it’s easy to see why the film tickled that hard-to-reach sweet spot of writers, journalists in particular: It makes our beleaguered industry look good.

This year is also backloaded: Three big star-studded pictures with dreams of statuette glory — David O Russell’s Joy, Alejandro G Iñárritu’s The Revenant and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight — open on Christmas Day. Based on their pedigrees alone, and long before seeing any of them, Oscar watchistas put them near the top of their lists. Mind you, the same was done last year with Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which made a ton of money at the box office but dropped off forecasters’ lists almost as soon as the credits rolled. Now that this year’s Final Three are being screened, the rankings have shifted: The Revenant is up, Joy is down and The Hateful Eight wobbling.

Meanwhile, more swashbuckling commercial fare has nosed into the race: The National Board of Review chose Mad Max: Fury Road as the year’s best, and there’s growing momentum for Ryan Coogler’s Creed. Add these to the likelihood that The Martian will get a best picture Oscar nomination, and the prospect is raised that the Academy will become more relevant to broader swaths of the country.

There are two other crowd-rousing pictures that, if selected among this year’s nine or 10 best picture finalists, could make the Academy more relevant still: Straight Outta Compton, the ribald blockbuster about the rise of the seminal ‘80s gangsta rappers N.W.A., and The Big Short, the rollicking dramedy, riven with schadenfreude and Ryan Gosling, about the chicanery that led to the 2008 housing meltdown.

Both films hum with urgency and life, and it’s hard to name two other pictures in the Oscar conversation that spotlight America’s deepest issues so entertainingly. One delves into black culture and police violence, the other into the one percenters who plundered the economy, only to get off scot-free and grow ever more rich.

Yet both have Achilles’ heels when it comes to Academy tastes. Compton could be considered, to use a term Idris Elba was saddled with, “too street,” and The Big Short may prove too smart. Compton and Short are also directed by men who aren’t in the “club”: that select group of prestige filmmakers whose work is deemed worthy of Oscar consideration. F Gary Gray (Compton) is perhaps best known for his first feature, the buddy stoner comedy Friday. And The Big Short is directed by Adam McKay, who brought us both Anchorman movies and Talladega Nights. Universal is pushing hard for Straight Outta Compton, and Paramount has hustled to get screeners of The Big Short to industry guilds in time for voting deadlines.

So there you are: A season that started with a whimper might yet end with a bang.

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