On the morning after every Academy Awards ceremony, we, the viewers who stayed up past midnight to watch famous people hand trophies to other famous people, voice the same annual complaints. The show was too long. The host was not funny enough. And the classic catch-all: It was boring.
No matter what happens at the Oscars this Sunday night, come Monday, I fully expect reviews of the broadcast to hit those same, familiar notes. In a program that devotes the bulk of its time to distributing a 24-karat gold bald man to 24 recipients for work that many Americans have never even heard of, it’s inevitable that some moments will drag. But at least one thing will be unpredictable this year: the reveal of Best Picture.
For months, Academy Awards trackers have been saying that the Best Picture race is wide open and, with the Oscars a mere three days away, it still feels that way. In Entertainment Weekly‘s traditional “secret ballot” that reveals how anonymous Academy insiders plan to vote, the Best Picture selections were all over the place. “The Actor” chose The Revenant, “The Actress” went with Mad Max: Fury Road, “The Screenwriter” singled out Brooklyn, “The Director” selected The Big Short and “The Producer” and “The Publicist” both highlighted the film once considered the lone obvious frontrunner, Spotlight, which stopped being the lone obvious frontrunner several weeks ago. Things are so crazy that the New York Times recently implied that the preferential voting system could potentially lead to Room winning Best Picture, which I would actually be thrilled to see even though it seems unlikely. (The same article draw parallels between Room and Million Dollar Baby, another underdog in the sense that it entered the Oscar race at the 11th hour, but a total non-underdog in that it was still favored by many to win, to a degree Room has not been.)
In truth, the likely field of contenders has narrowed somewhat. As explained in my final Awards Forecast predictions, the choices made by the producers, directors and actors guilds — who bestowed their best picture equivalents upon The Big Short, The Revenant and Spotlight, respectively — suggest that one of those three films will most likely emerge triumphant on Sunday. But even if none of the other contenders outside of that trio stands a chance, heading toward an Oscar ceremony where three movies seem equally poised to win Best Picture, and where even the possibility of an outlier winning doesn’t seem entirely out of the question, is unusual.
The Best Picture competition in the modern era has tended to fall into one of two categories: either it’s a done deal year, where it’s obvious to everyone which movie will win (think Argo, The Artist, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Titanic) or it’s a this-or-that situation where the race turns into a perceived runoff between two films. (See Birdman vs. Boyhood, Gravity vs. 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network or Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker.) This year, it’s neither. Of course, if Best Picture goes to The Revenant, which has ridden the most box office momentum during awards season and become part of the broader cultural conversation at precisely the right moment, it may feel, in retrospect, like a done deal year. But with the Oscars ceremony still ahead of us, that’s not how it feels right now. In a year when the nominees have been criticized for reflecting tired biases and a lack of ethnic and racial variety, the most refreshing thing about these Oscars is that the Best Picture race doesn’t feel locked-up.
While the Academy Awards has managed to surprise during the past 15 years, that’s rarely happened in the Best Picture category. The biggest semi-recent shock in that regard was the Crash upset over Brokeback Mountain in 2006, and even then, some people called it ahead of time. But in the years since, the reading of the name inside the Best Picture envelope has often felt more like a formality than a true reveal, because by the time Oscar Sunday rolls around, we pretty much know which name is going to be said.
There may be many reasons for that predictability, but the biggest is surely the ballooning of the Oscar prognostication field during the past decade-plus. The advent of digital journalism has created opportunities for more and more experts to handicap the Oscars on blogs, websites, and YouTube channels, and to do so for months, making it even easier for the Best Picture winner to feel like a foregone conclusion long before the Academy Award nominations have even been announced. (And yes, as someone who does this myself, I realize I’m basically a pot pointing at kettles and calling them black.) For those who pay attention to awards season — admittedly a subset of the broader public — the run-up to the Oscars sucks up half the year. It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to even tell where one awards season ends and another begins. Example: USA Today has already started raising red flags about the lack of diversity at next year’s Academy Awards.
The positive of all the scrutiny is that it can lead to an #OscarSoWhite rallying cry that forces Hollywood to take a harder look at itself, and forces traditional media to keep reminding Hollywood to do so. But there’s no question that the Gold Derby-ization and Five Thirty Eight-ing of the Oscars has made the Academy Awards feel more like a math equation that usually easily solved than a genuinely surprising celebration of art. To my knowledge, no one has done an official survey to find out how many Academy voters pay attention to all the predictions that circulate online and via social media. But anecdotal evidence and common sense suggests that at least some do, and that it must be awfully tempting to fall into lockstep when a best picture consensus starts to build around one or two movies.
Which is why we should appreciate this unique moment in 2016, when we have a Best Picture race that’s harder to pin down. Let me ask you a question: What’s the best part of going to the movies? I’d argue that it’s the precious minute before the film starts, when the trailers have just finished and the lights finally fully dim and the picture’s about to start, but it hasn’t just yet. It’s the moment when a movie still has promise, when it can still be as wonderful as you hoped or better than that crummy Rotten Tomatoes rating implied or even worse than the commercials clearly said it would be. It’s the moment when a movie is still an unknown quantity.