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For the first time in years, the Oscar race for Best Actress is more competitive than Best Actor

Many of the Oscar hopefuls this year are about women, a welcome change.

Saoirse Ronan seems like a safe bet to be nominated for Brooklyn. She's just part of the most competitive Oscar Best Actress race in years.
Saoirse Ronan seems like a safe bet to be nominated for Brooklyn. She's just part of the most competitive Oscar Best Actress race in years.
Fox Searchlight
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 time of year, every weekend brings new Oscar hopefuls to the local arthouse or multiplex, as studios release their most prestigious films in the runup to the Academy Awards, which are scheduled for February 28, 2016, and will honor the films of 2015.

The current race, which is heating up with campaign events and major releases, is worth paying attention to for a number of reasons. First, the movies are generally pretty good; minus a few clunkers, there are some genuinely interesting, artful, and entertaining options in the mix.

And second, this is the first time in recent memory when the Best Actress race is far more exciting than the Best Actor race.

There are more than a dozen legitimate contenders for Best Actress

Brie Larson seems like a sure bet for her work as a kidnapped woman in Room.

As Mark Harris wrote at Grantland last year, the Best Actress race is often one of the easiest to predict, starting several months out, because Oscar voters like the actresses they like, and if one or more of those actresses are in an eligible movie, it's a safe bet they'll be nominated.

The same is true in 2015 — sort of. Cate Blanchett in Carol, Brie Larson in Room, and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn seem like strong bets for the first three spots. A fourth seems likely to go to Jennifer Lawrence in Joy. That film hasn't screened yet, but Lawrence is an Academy favorite, and her Joy director was David O. Russell, who previously worked with Lawrence on films that garnered her two of her three Oscar nominations and her win for Silver Linings Playbook. If Joy is even halfway decent, she stands a good chance at a nomination.

Meanwhile, both Larson and Ronan would secure their first-ever nominations in this category, which is even more welcome. (Ronan was nominated in the Supporting Actress race in 2008 for her 2007 film Atonement.)

But when you try to fill that fifth slot, things start to get a little complicated. The smart money is on Charlotte Rampling, as a woman looking back on her decades-long marriage in the tiny indie film 45 Years, but you could also make plausible arguments for Emily Blunt as an FBI agent in the crime thriller Sicario, Lily Tomlin as the title role in Grandma, or Carey Mulligan as a political activist in the period piece Suffragette. (That last one's hopes may have been killed by the film's lackluster reviews and box office, but Mulligan is terrific in it regardless.) I'd love to see Juliette Binoche in the mix for the little-seen (but tremendous) Clouds of Sils Maria, but that seems much less likely.

Then there are the two women who are leads in their films but whose studios have bumped them to supporting in campaigns because of how crowded the Best Actress field is: Rooney Mara as the other half of the two-woman duet that is Carol, and Alicia Vikander as the wife of a historic trans pioneer in The Danish Girl. (Oscar voters can nominate these women as leads if they see fit, but generally follow the wishes of studio campaigns.)

It's been such a competitive year that the sorts of "go ahead and pencil in their names" actresses who tend to earn nominations in their sleep can't even break into most of the serious discussion. Meryl Streep is excellent in Ricki and the Flash, but who's going to remember that (wonderful) summer comedy when voting commences on December 30? (Streep actually was nominated for the summer comedy The Devil Wears Prada in 2006, but that was another year with lackluster competition in this category.)

Julianne Moore is the reigning champ, but Freeheld, in which she played a lesbian police detective fighting to have her pension go to her partner after her death, was a disappointment. Similarly, any time Blanchett does a new film it's a major movie moment, but her ensemble journalism drama Truth was a dud. (There was initially some talk that Blanchett might campaign as supporting for Carol and lead for Truth to wrap up two nominations, but it ceased once people saw Truth.) In previous years, all three women might have coasted to easy nominations. That's not going to happen now.

And that's to say nothing of Charlize Theron, who gave one of the best-reviewed performances of the year in Mad Max: Fury Road, albeit in the sort of genre (action) the Oscars often ignore. It's not implausible to imagine she could be nominated — and it would be one of the best nominations in a long time — but in such a competitive year, it will be far more unlikely.

Finally, there's one last big sign of how competitive the category is this year: It's all but impossible to predict who among these women is going to win. Compare that with the last two years, when Blanchett (for Blue Jasmine) and Moore (for Still Alice) essentially steamrolled their way to the win and were easily predicted as winners long before the nominations were announced.

Compare this with the actors, who are struggling

matt damon martian
Matt Damon is probably going to be nominated for The Martian. Good luck finding other men who will be, though.
20th Century Fox

Most years, this highly competitive scenario plays out in the Best Actor category. There are three or four "locks" and then a bunch of people scrambling to nab the last couple spots. (Check out my predictions from last year's Oscars to see how things shook out.) While the Best Actress category is generally narrowed to five or six contenders early on, the actor race is chaotic and exciting.

This year, the exact opposite is true. Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, Matt Damon in The Martian, and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant (which hasn't screened yet) seem like pretty safe bets (though Fassbender's bad box office might hurt him), but after that, we're looking at a long string of disappointments. The pool is so shallow that Johnny Depp's solid work in the dreary gangster picture Black Mass might sleepwalk its way to a nomination.

What's especially interesting is the fact that this is happening because the prospective Best Picture nominees tend to be about either giant ensembles (Spotlight, for instance) or women (Room and Brooklyn). Hell, even the animated hit Inside Out (which has a Best Picture shot) features three women who are far more prominent characters than any of its men.

As I pointed out last year, the Oscars haven't had a Best Picture winner focused on the story of a sole woman since 2002's Chicago, and the only winner with equal roles for men and women since then was 2004's Million Dollar Baby. This trend reached its nadir in 2014, when even the rejected Best Picture nominees were about men. Movies like Gone Girl or Two Days, One Night couldn't get traction (and were relegated to the Best Actress category and that category only), replaced by the bland, boring likes of The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.

Having great — or even really good — movies primarily about men is wonderful, of course, but the Oscar nominees of the past several years suggest something slightly more nefarious.

The Oscars are dumb, but they indicate Hollywood's aspirations for itself

Carol is so good it pretty much has to be nominated. Right? Right?! (Don't tell me otherwise.)
The Weinstein Company

The obvious discussion point here is that the Oscars rarely recognize the best films of any given year. The academy will occasionally nominate a handful of the best movies out there, but the winner is usually something safe and gloriously middlebrow, the kind of movie you might rent to watch with your extended family over the holidays. By and large, the awards rarely honor challenging, artistic works.

But they still give us an insight into what Hollywood is interested in and what kinds of movies it wants to make. In the 2000s, at the height of the Iraq War, for instance, the Oscars were far more interested in rewarding dark, morally ambiguous pictures than they had been in the past, including a two-year span when they gave both The Departed and No Country for Old Men the top prize. When the financial crisis became the country's top news story, however, the awards quickly pivoted to (mostly) escapism, with feel-good films like The King's Speech and The Artist.

I don't want to read too much into why so many of this year's Oscar hopefuls are about women, other than a simple accident of timing. There were plenty of potential players about men that just fizzled out — including the boxing film Southpaw and the Bryan Cranston–starring biopic Trumbo — while the ones about women have had a much higher batting average. (Outside of Freeheld and Suffragette, they've all been among the best English-language films of the year.)

But it's also good to see so many movies about women in contention anyway. Functionally, it doesn't mean anything, but there's a symbolism to it that can't be denied. It's possible Oscar voters will revert to their old ways and nominate fewer of these films about women than expected. But I'm betting that won't happen. The movies are either undeniably good (Carol) or squarely in the Oscar wheelhouse (Brooklyn). They just happen to be about women.

Everybody knows Hollywood has a gender disparity problem onscreen and especially behind the scenes. Nominating a bunch of movies about women for Academy Awards won't solve that problem in the slightest, but it might suggest — for one night, at least — that somebody somewhere values their stories, too.