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Oscars 2016: why The Revenant is favored to win Best Picture

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Javier Zarracina/Vox

There is little rhyme or reason to the Oscars.

Excellent performances, often by people of color, are snubbed. Movies, actors, and actresses who deserve to win get shut out. Movies, actors, and actresses who don't deserve to win end up taking home trophies.

Yet the Oscars still hold a lot of weight and do mean something — whether it's some random person winning an office pool or the box office boost that awards bring.

They still matter.

Which is why, every year, people spend so much time trying to predict which movie will go home with the top prize: the title of Best Picture. So, in the spirit of the Oscars and how they unapologetically don't really make sense, here's a look at the 2016 Best Picture nominees' reviews, award wins, and momentum leading into Sunday's big showdown.

The 2016 Best Picture, according to movie reviews: Spotlight

In late January, New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott wrote an essay about the democratization of cultural criticism, suggesting that the age of one critic's review being strong enough to make or break a piece of art, a restaurant, or an album is over. In the process, he provided a thoughtful explanation for why critics write if that dazzling omnipotence is gone.

"It is an endless conversation, rather than a series of pronouncements," he wrote. "It is the debate that begins when you walk out of the theater or the museum, either with your friends or in the private chat room of your own head. It’s not me telling you what to think; it’s you and me talking."

Indeed, movie reviews are not meant to be arguments as to which movie should win Best Picture; they are the start of conversations, debates, and chats about specific movies. But if you look at reviews of the 2016 Best Picture nominees, a consensus begins to emerge.

When it comes down to which of the eight contenders received the best reviews, Spotlight is on top with a 93 percent rating on the review aggregator website Metacritic. Mad Max: Fury Road ranks second, with 89 percent.

At the bottom of the list are The Martian, with 80 percent, and The Revenant, with 76 percent.

Interestingly, the widely acclaimed Carol, which didn't even garner a Best Picture nod, ranks higher than all eight of the actual nominees, with 95 percent.

The 2016 Best Picture, according to film awards: Spotlight

The Oscars may be the most prestigious film awards handed out each year, but they're certainly not the only film awards. Many different ceremonies are held in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, and some of them are considered indicators of how a particular film will ultimately fare.

After all, as FiveThirtyEight points out in its Oscars prediction guide, a lot of the same people who vote on the awards held prior to the Oscars also vote in the Oscars.

But not all awards are created equal. FiveThirtyEight's model favors guild awards like the Screen Actors Guild Awards, due to overlap in the voter pool. And Variety notes that the BAFTA Awards (handed out by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts) have recently become an Oscars "cheat sheet."

If you look at the Best Picture honors that've already been awarded in 2016, Spotlight leads the pack with the most victories, having won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award and the Critics' Choice Award for Best Picture, the Writers Guild Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

Mad Max: Fury Road won Best Picture from the Chicago Film Critics Association and Best Film of the Year from National Board of Review.

The Revenant won the BAFTA for Best Film, the Directors Guild Award, and the Golden Globe for Best Drama.

The Big Short won the Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and the Producers Guild Award for Outstanding Producer.

The Martian won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical.

What's notable here is the split between critics, who were predominantly in favor of Spotlight and Mad Max, and members of various professional guilds, who generally favored Spotlight, The Revenant, and The Big Short. The latter tend to be the better predictor of Best Picture.

But something strange happened. The major guild awards — producers, screen actors, directors — split this year. Usually there's a consensus. And of those, Variety explains that the Directors Guild holds the most weight, which gives The Revenant a nice bump.

"Historically speaking, the DGA has been the top Oscar barometer," Variety reported. "Only 14 times in 67 years has its awardee not seen his or her movie go on to win best picture, including a number of instances when the guild didn’t correctly predict the Oscar-winning director."

The 2016 Best Picture, according to critics' predictions: The Revenant

Here's where things stop making sense. Based on all the positive reviews and accolades for Spotlight, the film has a solid chance of winning Best Picture, with Mad Max as a strong alternate contender.

So why are many major news outlets and entertainment publications predicting that the Best Picture race will come down to The Revenant versus The Big Short?

It's important to remember here that we're talking about predictions, not arguments. These predictions reflect what people who follow the industry believe will happen, not necessarily what they believe should happen.

And this is where The Revenant's BAFTA Award and its Directors Guild Award comes into play. Those two awards, which come later in the awards season, tend to be pretty good indicators for Oscar wins, and since The Revenant swept both, insiders are now predicting an Oscar win.

Critics (particularly those in Los Angeles and Chicago) and fans don't believe The Revenant deserves to win Best Picture. The same is true for many of the people who've predicted that it will do so. It doesn't seem necessarily fair, nor does it make a whole lot of sense.

But that doesn't matter when it comes to Oscar night.

Even though the award for Best Picture is given out, it's not about positive reviews or what critics think. It's about a certain set of people casting votes. It's not entirely explainable or "fair." But the Oscars never promised it was.