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Oscars 2016: Academy Award nominations predictions for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay

This is the wildest, most chaotic year in recent memory.

Mad Max: Fury Road looks likely to be nominated for Best Picture. What a wild year!
Mad Max: Fury Road looks likely to be nominated for Best Picture. What a wild year!
Warner Bros.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is the first of two articles predicting this year's Oscar nominees. Look for an article predicting the acting nominees later today.

Everything about the 2016 Oscars is chaotic. There are seemingly dozens of legitimate contenders, and you can make a decent argument to include just about any of them among the Best Picture nominees.

But that makes trying to predict those nominees all the more difficult. Even the usual tricks — like looking to the five nominees for the annual Directors Guild Award, because they almost always earn an Oscar Best Picture nod as well — feel a little suspect.

Still, we are not cowards, and we don't shrink from a challenge. Here are our nomination predictions for the wildest Oscar pool in ages.

Best Picture

matt damon martian
The Martian seems safe for a Best Picture nomination.
20th Century Fox

Predicting Best Picture is always difficult, because the number of nominees can range anywhere from five to 10. The Oscar vote-counting process rewards passion, mostly — in that a movie with a very small but very vocal fan base can squeak in if all of those fans vote. However, it can also reward movies with a lot of "I guess I liked that well enough" votes — in that it contains an element of instant runoff voting, where people's second- and third-place votes could end up being counted. (For a full explanation of how the process works, go here.)

Usually the breakdown of this category is such that three quarters of the nominees are films that appeal to the largest possible swath of the Academy, and one-quarter are movies with ardent fans whose votes will not be swayed.

The problem with this year is that there are so many contenders. Paradoxically, that could lead to fewer nominees.

Think about it this way: The movies with small, ardent fan bases can only squeeze in if there are just a couple of movies that fit that description. Dilute the voting pool too much, and things get trickier for films that need every single one of their fans to vote for them in first place. It's easy to see fans of Carol also being fans of Room — and if they don't all vote the same way, both movies could come up empty.

The next thing to consider is what Oscar voters are looking for. Broadly speaking, there are a few different "camps" of Oscar voters, and they each show preference for different things. Mark Harris first introduced me to this idea over at Grantland, and he defined seven types of voters. I think you can condense that down to five. They are:

  • The artistic masterpiece voters: There aren't many of them, but they're out there, and they're typically drawn to massive directorial achievements.
  • The technical masterpiece voters: They tend to back movies with big, big images and lots of design elements — whether those are massive sets or impressive visual effects.
  • The classicist voters: They tend to vote with a "they just don't make 'em like that anymore" vibe. There aren't as many as there used to be, but they're still a sizable faction.
  • The actors: There are more actors among the Academy's 6,291 members than any other group. And they tend to like movies with memorable performances or big, perfectly cast ensembles.
  • The social issues voters: They want their movies to say something about the world today.

I'm predicting nine nominees, but I won't be surprised in the slightest if there are ultimately only five. (For a while I was thinking there would be seven, but didn't have the heart to cut Carol or Room. So you know where my biases lie.)

One particularly interesting thing about this year's contenders is how many different categories they hit. The Revenant, for instance, could potentially win over the artistic crowd, the tech crowd, and the actors (for its strong, central Leonardo DiCaprio performance). Straight Outta Compton has a large, well-chosen ensemble (actors) and talks about racial dynamics in America (social issues). And so on.

My predictions

Since the Oscars expanded to more than five Best Picture nominees in 2009, only one film has failed to earn a Best Picture nod after being nominated for the Directors Guild Award. That was 2011's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a dark crime drama from director David Fincher, whom the guilds (which have much larger voting bodies) have always liked more than the Oscars. The Oscars tend to be more conservative.

Thus, this year's five nominees for the DGA seem pretty like safe bets for the Best Picture race. They are:

  • The Big Short (acting; social issues)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (artistic; technical)
  • The Martian (technical; classicist)
  • The Revenant (artistic; technical; acting)
  • Spotlight (classicist; acting; social issues)

If only these five films are nominated, the Best Picture lineup will be a solid (if not spectacular). But I'm expecting at least two more to get in — though maybe not the four I'm officially predicting.

Here are the four additional films I think will make it:

  • Bridge of Spies seems pretty safe. The Academy tends to love Steven Spielberg movies, and this is a good one. It's very classicist, and it boasts a terrific ensemble of actors, to say nothing of a thoughtful rumination on American ideals.
  • Straight Outta Compton initially left me doubtful, but its track record with awards handed out by industry organizations (like the Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild) has been solid. Plus, it appeals to both actors and social issues voters.
  • Room is no doubt an artistic achievement, with a tremendous duo of performances from Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay at its center. But it's also about a woman held in captivity for years, which is a tough thing to watch a movie about. It's going to need every first-place vote from those who actually checked it out that it can muster.
  • Carol is my favorite movie of the year, and it's no doubt an impressive artistic achievement that makes an implicit statement about important social issues. But it doesn't seem to have ignited much passion among industry voters. Still, there have to be a few hundred people like me in the Academy, right?

Other possible contenders

There are two movies that seem most likely to crash the party. I wouldn't be too surprised to see Brooklyn replace one of the nine films I've listed above (or join the core five as a sixth nominee). It's old-school in its appeal, but it's also had a lot of trouble catching fire with industry organizations. Trumbo, meanwhile, is beloved by actors but seems to have few other industry fans; that's not impossible to overcome, but it will be tough. Beasts of No Nation is a Netflix production — and nobody knows how that will or won't affect its Oscar shot.

Then there's a fleet of blockbusters that seem likely to struggle, especially with Mad Max and The Martian (which made the DGA list) standing in the way. They include Creed, Inside Out, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (If Star Wars misses, this will be the first Oscars where the new highest-grossing movie of all time at the US box office doesn't make the list.)

Next on the list are a bunch of smaller contenders that just never achieved the traction needed to mount a serious challenge, including Ex Machina, The Hateful Eight (though we can never count out Quentin Tarantino entirely), Steve Jobs, and Sicario. All these films have popped up here and there at industry awards, but never with any consistency.

Finally, there's the usual list of failed hopefuls — movies that never took off but will still pull votes here and there. This year, that list includes everything from The Danish Girl to Joy to Suffragette.

Best Director

Todd Haynes directed the luminous Carol, which stars Cate Blanchett.
The Weinstein Company

Outside of the Best Picture race, the other categories are easier to predict. They're limited to five nominees each, and they're decided by a much less complicated voting system involving that particular "branch" of the Academy. (Picture is the only award nominated by everyone in the Academy; other awards are nominated by direct peers — directors nominate directors, writers nominate writers, etc.) Directors are the Academy's most notable iconoclasts, and voters are often tempted by shiny new things. You'll see that reflected below.

My predictions

Iñárritu and Scott are the easy nominees here; they both made hugely popular movies that spoke to their particular artistic skills. I'd love to say the same of Miller, but the fact that he made an action movie will hurt him with some voters (though not nearly enough of them to keep him out of the running.)

After those three, it comes down to which gigantic ensemble movie with wide industry support will be left out of the top five. Adam McKay's direction of The Big Short is far flashier, but the film is his first major Oscar contender. McCarthy, by contrast, has directed other movies that have received assorted nominations over the years, so he's better "known." I think that will carry him.

Finally, if Carol is nominated, it will be nominated because directors in the Academy voted for it. And if directors love it that much, Haynes will pop up here.

Other possible contenders

McKay, of course. But Academy favorites Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) and Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight) have a good shot, too. There's also a world in which Room and/or Brooklyn take off and pull along their directors Lenny Abrahamson and John Crowley, respectively; it's just probably not this world.

Best Original Screenplay

Spotlight is an original screenplay, despite being based on a true story.
Open Road Films

Before we discuss these categories, check out this explainer on Oscar category confusion. It will clarify why Spotlight is an original screenplay while The Big Short is an adapted screenplay, even though they're both based on true stories. (In short, Spotlight is based on a variety of sources, while The Big Short is based on one book in particular. Yes, the distinction is pretty pointless.)

My predictions

Spotlight is the presumptive favorite here. (It lost at the Golden Globes, but to a film that's competing in the Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars.) Inside Out should continue Pixar's good luck in the Oscars' various writing categories. And writers in the Academy love Tarantino and the Coen brothers — the writers of The Hateful Eight and Bridge of Spies, respectively.

The final spot is tricky, but Ex Machina, with its dialogue-driven, three-character story, is exactly the sort of thing the Academy's writers like to embrace.

Other possible contenders

This category is incredibly weak this year — rather unusual. If Hungarian critical favorite Son of Saul has a breakthrough in a category other than Best Foreign Language Film, it will probably be here. There's also the dark, driving crime saga Sicario and the biopic Straight Outta Compton, but it's hard to identify too many more contenders. What would I choose if given a random pick? The goofy, terrific script for the over-the-top comedy Spy.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Christian Bale in The Big Short.
The Big Short seems like a safe bet in this category.

As further evidence of the Oscars' utter strangeness, one of the most original films of the year, Anomalisa, has been judged an adaptation because it's technically "based on" a barely seen play its screenwriter wrote a few years ago.

My predictions

This category is jam-packed. There are two superstar screenwriters here, in Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs) and Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa), and it's rare for screenwriters to become as famous as those two are, so they're probably safe. The Big Short also seems safe. Yeah, McKay (who co-wrote the film with Charles Randolph) is best known for broad comedies, but the task of turning the financial crisis into entertainment was a daunting one, and The Big Short's script did just that.

For the final two slots, let's look to the category's two novelists — Emma Donoghue, who adapted her own book Room, and Nick Hornby, who adapted Brooklyn, which was written by another novelist entirely. The Academy didn't nominate Hornby last year for his adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, and it also cut down Gone Girl, a dark novel adaptation with a female protagonist adapted for the screen by its female author. So Hornby and Donoghue are shakier picks. But I have faith.

Other possible contenders

Many people are expecting The Martian to make an appearance here, but that film feels like exactly the sort of top-heavy tech spectacular the Academy's writers turn up their noses at. The same goes for two other likely Best Picture nominees — both The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road are more directorial achievements than writing ones. And as much as I love Carol, its wonderful script has been largely ignored for reasons I can't fathom. Finally, there's Creed, which has a lovely script but one that seems destined to be overlooked, since it's a sequel and all.

The Oscar nominations are announced at 8:30 am Eastern on Thursday, January 14.

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