Based On Recent Awards, Will This Be The First Oscars In Years Without A Best Picture Front-Runner?

There’s a certain sense of tittering anticipation on every Oscar night, but that could just be the sense of occasion. In actuality, both through months of careful analysis (some of it on this very site!) and clear disparities in the nominees’ quality, the winners start to make themselves known long before the stars file into the auditorium. Pundits assemble their slates of projections, and the really intense ones even add the hideously unnatural alchemy of mathematics into the mix, using hard stats to divine which nominees stand the highest chance. But the truth is that anyone who takes the time to get invested in awards season horse-racing both kinda knows what will happen and kinda doesn’t; there’s no way of knowing that Leonardo DiCaprio will win for certain, for instance, but it still won’t be surprising when he does.

This year’s Oscar race has proven so enduringly fascinating because every time a film nominated for Best Picture threatens to break away and emerge as a frontrunner, its closest competitors come roaring back and even up the race. Pundits gauge which films stand the best chance of winning big at the Oscars by observing and synthesizing the results from other awards-granting bodies, many members of which also regularly vote in the Oscars. This is a highly unscientific way of gauging the Academy membership’s temperature on the movies in competition this year, but the relatively even division of pre-Oscar prizes have made it less precise than ever.

Just two nights ago, two separate awards ceremonies painted the fragmented portrait of this year’s complex Oscar race. The biggest night not in Houllywooud (which is how Britons spell the word “Hollywood”) took place at London’s Royal Opera House Sunday, where the British Academy Film Awards heaped recognition on two of the major contenders. The BAFTAs favored The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, bestowing five trophies on the former and four on the latter, with the most prestigious accolade in the British film industry going to Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s wilderness endurance test. The Revenant snagged prizes for Leonardo DiCaprio for his leading performance as trapper/spittle-spitter/bear chew toy Hugh Glass and Iñarritu in the Best Director category, but the technical categories were mostly split between the two films. The Revenant would appear to be the closest thing we have to a Best Picture frontrunner, with its key win at the Producers Guild Awards earlier this month, but the weekend’s other awards ceremony tells a different story.

Two story-driven films have come on the scene to provide Fury Road and The Revenant with a little competition, and both won big at the Writers Guild Awards. Spotlight and The Big Short have both earned a lot of goodwill on the awards circuit on the merits of their strong ensemble work and flashy scripts, providing a sort of counterpoint to the terse, visual thrills of the other nominees. The WGA’s two main races, Original and Adapted screenplay, went to Spotlight and The Big Short, respectively, in response to the character driven-component of these films.

Historically, technically impressive projects have faltered behind more humanistic films in the Best Picture race — the formal acrobatics of Gravity couldn’t stack up against the brutal inhumanity of 12 Years a Slave, and the eye-popping Avatar had to settle for total box-office domination, ceding the Best Picture prize to The Hurt Locker. This would appear to put Spotlight and The Big Short ahead by a nose, and the social-import element would help them, as well, but The Revenant and Fury Road have amassed quite a bit of awards hardware. What’s more, the narrative surrounding The Revenant and its already famously troubled production process have created a general attitude of awe at most, begrudging respect at least for the effort expended. (And then, of course, there’s the inevitable backlash, which could push the other films over the top.)

All of this is to say that, in the words of the Coen brothers, nobody really knows what’s going on. But in an exciting way! Many of the Best Picture races in recent memory have boiled down to a one-on-one showdown — Boyhood v. BirdmanArgo v. Zero Dark Thirty — but for the first time in a long time, it’s anyone’s game. There are still two more weeks from a decisive frontrunner to emerge, but it’d be much more fun if none did. In that brief, second-long pause between when the announcer reads the envelope and speaks what is on the sheet, all the air should rush out of the room. The results should be up in the air, and this year, they’re practically stuck in zero-gravity.