Contender Countdown: With the DGA looming who’s the Best Picture frontrunner?

Does it all really come down to Rachel McAdams?
Rachel McAdams in Spotlight.

Is this year’s Oscar race really too close to call? After the nominations were announced last month it appeared as though there were just three real frontrunners left in the race: “Spotlight,” “The Revenant” and “The Big Short.” In the weeks following each film has seemed ready to take the top prize even as their “statistical” flaws begin to rack up.

“The Revenant,” clearly the least likely to win Best Picture, earned 12 Academy Award nominations – more than any other film – including a somewhat surprising Best Supporting Acting nod for Tom Hardy giving it two acting contenders along with expected Best Actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio. In theory, this means it has a tremendous amount of below the line as well as acting branch support (the largest voting branch in The Academy). What “The Revenant” doesn’t have is a key screenplay nomination. The last film to win best picture without one? “Titanic,” and that was one of the biggest locks ever. Moreover, it has not taken a key guild win outside of some of the craft honors and those PGA, DGA or SAG wins generally reflect major industry support and have been historical indicators of Best Picture winners. At this point it looks like Alejandro Inarritu’s epic will take home a number of Oscar statues, but most of them will be of the below-the-line variety. Unless, of course, Inarritu wins the DGA for Best Director on Saturday night and then everything is back on the table (more on that later).

“The Big Short” has almost every historical indicator you need to win Best Picture. It has nominations in every key branch (directing, acting, editing, writing) and took home the top PGA Award. What is most curious, however, is that it lost the SAG Ensemble Award to its biggest rival, “Spotlight.”  This despite the fact you could easily argue Adam McKay’s financial crisis drama features bigger stars and a greater number of prominent former SAG Award winners. Of course “The Big Short” also didn’t win Best Picture from any major critics group, but that’s usually a bonus for an Oscar winner these days anyway.

“Spotlight,” like “Big Short,” has every stamp of branch approval you need to win Best Picture with nominations in all the key categories. “Spotlight” didn’t win the PGA which had many believing it was another “Boyhood” or “Social Network” and therefore can’t pull out an eventual Best Picture win. That narrative was put on hold, as previously noted, when it surprised by winning the SAG Ensemble Award. It also took the LAFCA honor for Best Picture but, again, the major critic groups’ winners don’t always line up with The Academy’s tastes as evidenced by NYFCC champ “Carol” missing out on a nomination.

If you’re looking to really read into the tea leaves the only other major differentiator for “Spotlight” is that it has two acting nominations vs. just one for “The Big Short.” That may not seem that consequential, but the fact Rachel McAdams earned an acting nomination may be telling. Her co-star, Mark Ruffalo, was long seen as a likely nominee and many thought Michael Keaton might earn a nod as well.  Instead, McAdams seemingly came out of nowhere when she earned a SAG nod and then stunned many by duplicating that feat with The Academy. McAdams is very good in “Spotlight,” but she clearly gives the fourth or fifth best performance in the film. Did she crack a somewhat competitive Supporting Actress field because the Actors’ Branch simply loves “Spotlight” that much? Is that indicative of a more passionate following for “Spotlight” in – again – the Academy’s largest branch than you might have believed?  Something to ponder.

Before you dismiss “Spotlight’s” chances for any other reason consider this other nugget. In a newly released video debate with his fellow Penske Media pundit Tom O’Neil, Pete Hammond dished that he’d heard “Big Short” had only won the PGA Award by three votes and the overall totals were very, very close. That may or may not be an exaggeration from Hammond’s source and if the race is that close it’s why this weekend’s DGA honors are crucial to predicting the winner of Oscar’s biggest honor. Update Sat Feb. 6: Word is Hammond is now questioning his source and will be removing this portion of the video as soon as possible.

The DGA Award winner doesn’t always line up to the Best Picture winner, let alone the Oscar winner for Best Director. That being said certainly help guide the conversation or keep the mystery alive. Many, including this pundit, believe George Miller will win for the DGA For “Mad Max: Fury Road” and while WB’s underdog contender could theoretically win Best Picture it’s a major longshot without acting or writing nominations. If Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) or McKay (“The Big Short”) wins you can pretty much assume either of those pictures will take the Academy’s top prize. If Inarritu wins DGA it could be a red herring or indicate “The Revenant” has just as good a chance as the top two contenders. So, it goes without saying there will be a lot of nervous nominees, producers and studio publicists waiting patiently for the final award of the night to be announced on Saturday.

Keeping all this in mind, here’s a rundown of my current Best Picture picks and top choices in a number of other categories. You can find more in this week’s Gurus of Gold.

1. “Spotlight”
It’s been in the driver’s seat for a long time. If you theoretically win Best Picture in phase one it should take it all. Right?

2. “The Big Short”
The last movie to win Best Picture that didn’t open in October or November was “Million Dollar Baby” eleven years ago.

3. “The Revenant”
Will The Academy really give Inarritu back to back Best Picture wins?

4. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
If only WB had pushed Charlize Theron harder for Best Actress it might be a serious player for the top prize.

5. “The Martian”
Do we think Matt Damon would be a bigger player for Best Actor if that well publicized “Project Greenlight” moment hadn’t happened? Probably not, but…

6. “Room”
The biggest underdog in the room. Has every nomination you need but editing. Upset in the making?

7. “Brooklyn”
Searchlight knows their stuff, but could never get enough traction for “Brooklyn” in more below the line categories.  The venerable Oscar player may go home emptied handed for the second time since 2007.

8. “Bridge of Spies”
DreamWorks Studios Disney era wasn’t as grand or profitable as either company hoped, but it did result in three straight Best Picture nominees for Spielberg.

Current Best Actress Pick: Brie Larson, “Room”
Current Best Actor Pick: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Current Best Supporting Actress Pick: Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Current Best Supporting Actor Pick: Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”
Current Best Director Pick: George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Current Best Original Screenplay Pick: “Spotlight”
Current Best Adapted Screenplay Pick: “The Big Short”
Current Best Cinematography Pick: Emmanuel Lubezki, “The Revenant”
Current Best Documentary: “Amy”

Where are you currently landing on Best Picture?  Share your thoughts below.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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