88th Academy Awards approach

While Best Picture is still unclear, many other categories are settled — and Leo will finally win his Oscar

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The 88th Academy Awards are rapidly approaching, and this year's races are contentious.

After a tumultuous and controversial awards season, the 88th Academy Awards will take place this coming weekend. The main story has been the lack of diversity among nominees, and hopefully the issue of representation in the movie industry won’t be swept under the rug with the passing of Oscar season.

While the acting categories were locked up early on, Best Picture remains very unclear. The Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild all gave their top prize to different movies. These awards usually provide some degree of consensus before the Oscars, but this is only the fourth year they’ve ever split in the decision, another confused year being the 2014 PGA tie between eventual Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.” As a result, the prediction for Best Picture this year is much less definite than last year, when “Birdman” cleaned up the guilds and went into Oscar night as a clear frontrunner.

Based on these predictions, “The Revenant” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” will be the big winners with five wins apiece. While there should be no other multi-winners, “Room,” “Creed,” “The Danish Girl,” “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” “Inside Out,” “The Hateful Eight” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” should walk away with one award each.

Best Picture

Will Win: “The Revenant” — Arnon Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mary Parent and Keith Redmon

Dark Horse: “The Big Short” — Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt

Should Win: “Room” — Ed Guiney or “Mad Max: Fury Road” — George Miller and Doug Mitchell

This is the hardest Best Picture race to call in years. Many of the nominees could plausibly win, but only “The Revenant,” “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” have any guild wins under their belts. “The Revenant” is the most likely winner, as per previous predictions. It would be the first time two consecutive Best Picture winners came from the same director. “The Revenant” has both Directors Guild of America and BAFTA wins, while all other contenders only have the seal of approval from one major industry group. More importantly, it has the clearer path to the win. It is favored in several other key categories, and movies almost never win Best Picture without other top wins. “12 Years a Slave” and “Argo” recently won with just three Oscars, but no movie has won with only two for decades. Both “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” would need to come from behind in other categories or break precedent to win Best Picture.

While “The Revenant” isn’t about much more than one man’s quest for revenge, it is one of the ultimate examples of an auteur tackling a simple but logistically challenging story in an uncompromising way and reaping enormous success. While “The Big Short” and “Spotlight” have the advantage of presenting sociopolitical issues, they just don’t compete enough in other categories. It could happen for “The Big Short” if it captures Best Editing. “Spotlight” looks like it will join “The Social Network” and “Boyhood” as former frontrunners winning big with the critics but falling short on Oscar night. When judging this category, the best piece of storytelling should be rewarded, and this year the distinction unquestionably goes to “Room.” It isn’t an important big-issues movie, nor does it come from a major studio, but it was the most affecting of the nominees, combining horrifying circumstances and hope in powerful and touching ways. At the same time, a win for “Mad Max: Fury Road” would be just lovely as it is brilliantly executed, surprisingly substantive and the total antithesis of “Oscar bait.”

Best Directing

Will Win: Alejandro G. Iñárritu — “The Revenant”

Dark Horse: George Miller — “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Should Win: George Miller

The Directors Guild of America Award is a near-perfect predictor of who will win this Oscar, and with his second win in a row, Iñárritu looks poised to be the first back-to-back Oscar winner in over 50 years. Many thought having won last year would put him at a disadvantage, but it’s never smart to bet against the DGA. He made “Birdman” and immediately followed it up with “The Revenant” a year later, which is nothing short of stunning. In recent years, this category has rewarded audacious achievements and “The Revenant” fits the bill. However, this would be the best category to honor “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Under a year after its release, it is already considered one of the greatest action movies ever. This is testament to the vision and execution of director George Miller for making one of the craziest, most over-the-top movies in years with a surprising amount of substance. But like Iñárritu, Miller already has an Oscar — Best Animated Feature for “Happy Feet,” oddly enough. On another note, considering the controversy over diversity in top categories, a win for Iñárritu would mean four years in a row of non-white winners, past winners including Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón and Iñárritu. Despite gender diversity issues among Best Director nominees, the category has been a surprising source of diverse winners in the past few years.

Best Actor

Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio — “The Revenant” as Hugh Glass

Dark Horse: Bryan Cranston — “Trumbo” as Dalton Trumbo

Should Win: Michael Fassbender — “Steve Jobs” as Steve Jobs

Leonardo DiCaprio has swept the board with wins at the Screen Actors Guild, BAFTAs and Golden Globes. It’s close to a sure thing that Leo will finally win his Oscar. While “The Revenant” doesn’t showcase all of Dicaprio’s talents — his best is still “The Aviator” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” — the performance is still worthy due to its sheer intensity and challenge. Hopefully, Leo won’t disappear after winning, since he consistently headlines and brings an audience to marvelous movies. The “it’s his year” narrative has dominated the race and made his win an almost preordained conclusion, which cannot be discounted.

While the chance of an upset is practically zero, the most likely candidate is Bryan Cranston. He has multiple Emmys and a Tony under his belt and delivers excellent work in the otherwise by-the-books “Trumbo.” While DiCaprio is certainly deserving this year, part of the sentiment is due to the sheer quality of his career. If only this year’s work is evaluated on its own merits, the most compelling nominated performance is Michael Fassbender’s deep, chaotic and layered Steve Jobs. He owned the dialogue-heavy movie, and he fully embodied the popular perception of Jobs as a troubled genius. In an ideal world where actors don’t have to wait their turn for an Oscar, Leo would have already won and Fassbender would hopefully be recognized this year.

Best Actress

Will Win: Brie Larson — “Room” as Joy “Ma” Newsome

Dark Horse: Saoirse Ronan — “Brooklyn” as Eilis Lacey

Should Win: Brie Larson

Like DiCaprio, Larson has swept the precursor awards and should win for her emotionally powerful performance in “Room.” Like all of Larson’s best performances, it is spectacularly deep, layered and moving. She brings an entirely unique and captivating humanity to every role, and her performance in “Room” is no different. The closest second is Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn.” Her performance anchors the movie and gives it so much of its charm and delight. While this year may not be her turn, hopefully Ronan gets her due soon.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Sylvester Stallone — “Creed” as Rocky Balboa

Dark Horse: Mark Rylance — “Bridge of Spies” as Rudolf Abel

Should Win: Sylvester Stallone

While he missed out on many early precursors — likely due to the late breaking Oscar prospects of “Creed” — Sylvester Stallone should win his first Oscar for playing the character who made him a star. This is no mere career achievement award — his performance as an aging and resigned Rocky in “Creed” gives the movie its soul and gives Stallone some very powerful scenes. The controversial, and still baffling, absence of SAG winner Idris Elba certainly clears the way for Stallone. Mark Rylance is the only nominee who was nominated by all major precursors, even if he only won at the BAFTAs. If anyone upsets Stallone, it would be Rylance for his charming Soviet spy. While Tom Hardy could be an x-factor, the former BAFTA Rising Star winner couldn’t get a nomination with the body, which suggests his Oscar nomination may be more in line with Jonah Hill’s for “The Wolf of Wall Street” — where the surprise of the nomination itself is the reward.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Alicia Vikander — “The Danish Girl” as Gerda Wegener

Dark Horse: Kate Winslet — “Steve Jobs” as Joanna Hoffman

Should Win: Alicia Vikander

While there are complaints of “category fraud,” Alicia Vikander should cap off her star-making year with an Oscar for her performance in “The Danish Girl.” While her role is without a doubt the lead in “The Danish Girl,” her character is not the subject. Regardless, she elevates every scene with a feeling of life and spontaneity many other parts of the movie lack. She may get an unfair advantage with lots of screen time, but the performance is deserving. Kate Winslet is very strong competition with a Golden Globe and BAFTA in her trophy closet for her great performance as Steve Jobs’ voice of reason. However, she did not beat Vikander for her role in “The Danish Girl” — in those races, Vikander was nominated for “Ex Machina.” This is the acting category ripest for an upset.

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: “Spotlight” — Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer

Dark Horse: “Inside Out” — Josh Cooley, Ronnie del Carmen, Pete Docter and Meg LeFauve

Should Win: “Inside Out”

One-time Best Picture frontrunner “Spotlight” should take home its big win of the night in this category, unless it surprises by taking Best Picture. It’s the best journalistic drama since “All the President’s Men,” and this impact comes straight from the page where another investigative story explodes to an international scandal. On the other end of the spectrum, “Inside Out” put personalities to human emotions, and the result was one of the most touching and creative stories of the year.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: “The Big Short” — Adam McKay and Charles Randolph

Dark Horse: “Room” — Emma Donoghue

Should Win: “The Martian” — Drew Goddard

“The Big Short” should be honored for taking a story about the origins of the 2007-2009 financial crisis ripe with dense financial concepts and turning it into a funny and insightful multi-narrative. It must have been no easy task. Considering the surprisingly strong showing for “Room,” love for the movies overflowing from the Best Actress category would likely be reflected here. While “The Martian” looks like it will be shut out, it’s wonderful screenplay deserves notice for deftly balancing high stakes, humor, a massively rich ensemble and a focus on the science.

Best Animated Feature Film

Will Win: “Inside Out” — Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera

Dark Horse: “Anomalisa” — Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson and Rosa Tran

Should Win: “Inside Out”

Pixar owns this category whenever they have a masterpiece hit in contention. Unfortunately, “Inside Out” isn’t competition for Best Picture too — it more than deserves to be up there.

Best Original Score

Will Win: “The Hateful Eight” — Ennio Morricone

Dark Horse: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — John Williams

Should Win: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Ennio Morricone has scored over 70 films in a long and illustrious career, but has no Oscar. While not overly featured in the movie itself, his score for “The Hateful Eight” is a highlight. He also has Critics Choice, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards which have to count for something. His main opponent is likely the legendary John Williams, landing his 50th nomination for his seventh “Star Wars” score. He created a compelling and emotionally rich score in his seventh trip to the well, which while barely relying on his own iconic themes, was no small feat.

Best Original Song

Will Win: “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground” — Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga and Diane Warren

Dark Horse: “Writing’s on the Wall” from “Spectre” — Music and Lyric by Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith

Should Win: “Earned It” from “Fifty Shades of Grey” — Music and Lyric by Ahmad Balshe, Stephan Moccio, Jason “Daheala” Quenneville and Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd)

In a year with no “Let It Go” or “Skyfall,” this category is trickier than usual. While Sam Smith’s Bond theme won at the Golden Globes, it is at risk of running into criticism when compared to its better-regarded predecessor — like “Spectre” itself. It would make the most sense for the Academy to make a statement by rewarding “Til It Happens to You” from the campus sexual assault documentary “The Hunting Ground.” It isn’t up for Best Documentary, but the lack of nomination shouldn’t be a problem, as separate branches determine the nominees.

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — Mark A. Mangini and David White

Dark Horse: “The Revenant” — Martin Hernández and Lon Bender

Should Win: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — Matthew Wood and David Acord

While in most years the Sound categories have a clear formula — judges pick the action movie for editing and the music movie for mixing — this year is different because all nominees for Sound Editing could plausibly win. The awards often go together, but because of this fierce competition a split is more likely. Of the nominees, “Mad Max” has the most audacious sound design, so it may be a favorite — loud and technically challenging movies do well here. However, the same argument applies to “The Revenant.” While “Star Wars” is mostly known for visual effects, the series is just as famous for it’s sound design. An Oscar for the amazing sound work in “The Force Awakens” would be well deserved, even if just for BB-8’s voice.

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: “The Revenant” — Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdiek

Dark Horse: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo

Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

While both Sound categories are harder to forecast than usual this year, this one has some guidance in the form of the BAFTA for Best Sound. The winner of the BAFTA has won the Sound Mixing Oscar for the last eight years. This year’s winner was “The Revenant,” so it’s the safe pick.

Best Production Design

Will Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson

Dark Horse: “Bridge of Spies” — Rena DeAngelo, Bernhard Henrich and Adam Stockhausen

Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

This award tends to either go to lush fantasy, period pieces, or someplace in between. The high detail and creative designs of “Mad Max” set it apart and should score the movie a win. Stephen Spielberg’s last period drama, “Lincoln,” won this award in 2013, so “Bridge of Spies” is likely the biggest competition. A wave for “The Revenant” could sweep it to a win here, but the frontier epic may be at a disadvantage due to its almost exclusively outdoor settings.

Best Cinematography

Will Win: “The Revenant” — Emmanuel Lubezki

Dark Horse: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — John Seale

Should Win: “The Revenant”

This will be Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s third Oscar in a row — he won in the last two years for “Gravity” and “Birdman.” They might as well rename this award “The Chivo.”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin

Dark Horse: “The Revenant” — Siân Grigg, Duncan Jarman and Robert Pandini

Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

It could be tight, but expect the Academy to reward the crazy and audacious over the gritty and gruesome.

Best Costume Design

Will Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — Jenny Beavan

Dark Horse: “Cinderella” — Sandy Powell

Should Win: ”Mad Max: Fury Road”

While “Cinderella” looked like a shoe-in all the way back in March, “Mad Max” won the Best Costume Design BAFTA, which has a high correlation with the eventual Oscar winner. The win would be a change of pace for this award, which usually goes for lush fantasy or period rather than the mix of gritty utilitarianism and outlandish armor on display in “Max.”

Best Film Editing

Will Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — Margaret Sixel

Dark Horse: “The Big Short” — Hank Corwin

Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Sixel took 480 hours of footage and turned it into a thrilling modern action classic, which is a herculean feat deserving of a reward. This should be the easiest win of the night for “Mad Max.” On the other hand, this will be a make-or-break category for “The Big Short.” If it wins here, its chances at Best Picture go up exponentially. A win wouldn’t be without merit; it seamlessly keeps four separate stories going together while making room for wildly amusing side-explanations of its dense finance concepts.

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — Chris Corbould, Roger Guyett, Paul Kavanagh and Neal Scanlon

Dark Horse: “Mad Max: Fury Road” — Andrew Jackson, Dan Oliver, Andy Williams and Tom Wood

Should Win: “The Revenant” — Richard McBride, Matt Shumway, Jason Smith and Cameron Waldbauer

Visual Effects is a category with “Star Wars” written all over it, and the Academy should reward the movie’s deft and excellent use of both practical and computer generated effects. On the other hand, the Academy may reward the insane practical effects of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Supposedly, most of what’s on screen was achieved in frame. While the effects in these movies are incredible accomplishments, the bear attack scene in “The Revenant” may have been the best use of visual effects all year.

Best Foreign Language Film

Will Win: “Son of Saul” — Hungary, László Nemes

Dark Horse: “Theeb” — Jordan, Naji Abu Nowar

Best Documentary – Feature

Will Win: “Amy” — Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees

Dark Horse: “Cartel Land” — Matthew Heineman and Tom Yellin

Best Documentary – Short Subject

Will Win: “Body Team 12” — David Darg and Bryn Mooser

Dark Horse: “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” — Adam Benzine

Best Live Action Short Film

Will Win: “Shok” — Jamie Donoughue

Dark Horse: “Ave Maria” — Eric Dupont and Basil Khalil

Best Animated Short Film

Will Win: “Sanjay’s Super Team” — Nicole Grindle and Sanjay Patel

Dark Horse: “World of Tomorrow” — Don Hertzfeldt

Tune in next week for A&E’s review and discussion of the Academy Awards after the victors are announced.

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