The Nod: Could A Wide-Open Oscar Race Come Down To ‘Creed’ And ‘Star Wars’?

The Nod is a weekly column focused on the current Academy Awards season. It will include an essay that deep-dives into a potential category or contender, as well as an Awards Forecast infographic (see below) that tracks how things are evolving week-to-week in the six major races.

Screenwriter William Goldman once famously wrote that in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.” That sentiment also seems to be the theme of this year’s best picture race, which, at this admittedly early moment in awards season, feels like an open door through which anything could still walk.

When it comes to predicting the Oscars, the idea that “nobody knows anything” — especially four weeks before Academy members start their nomination process — is a given. But in recent years, the landscape already could be viewed with some clarity well before Christmas. Last year by this time, the best movie of 2014 had already been winnowed down to a battle between Birdman and Boyhood. In 2013, the trophy was called, rightly, by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan in favor of 12 Years a Slave, nearly six months before the Oscar ceremony. The Artist and The King’s Speech looked pretty locked-in well ahead of time, too, which is why the New York Times’ Carpetbagger column, among other trophy-focused think pieces, has declared this year’s Best Picture race “notable for not having a clear front-runner.”

But wait. Stop the presses, even: Isn’t the front-runner for best picture Spotlight, a film that was granted leader-of-the-pack status earlier this fall by the New York Post, Vanity Fair, and, yes, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, in addition to being named best feature earlier this week at the Gotham Independent Film Awards?

Technically, yes. But there seems to be an unwillingness, at least among professional Oscar analyzers, to officially and unabashedly confer front-runner status on Spotlight, in part because it does what it does without fanfare, just like the reporters it so painstakingly depicts. As Aisha Harris at Slate points out, Spotlight is an extremely well-made, solid picture, and one that journalists understandably love. But as Harris writes, “solid doesn’t cut it for making it to the finish line” because Academy members like “to be dazzled.” As refreshingly focused as this throwback to 1976’s All the President’s Men might be, Oscar voters may crave a well-crafted but just plain bigger Hollywood crowd-pleaser.

Enter two movies that may fit that bill and, coincidentally, also hearken back to the ’70s, too: Creed, the immensely satisfying seventh film in the Rocky franchise, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh (yet another lucky number seven!) episode of the Jedi saga that makes the phrase “highly anticipated” sound like the utmost in understatement.

Creed already opened last weekend to deservedly rapturous reviews, so we know what we’re dealing with there: a drama that follows the underdog-getting-in-the-ring template established by the original, 1976 Rocky, but refreshes it with excellent performances from Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, under direction by Ryan Coogler that boasts as much swagger as a Muhammad Ali sting-like-a-bee brag. Once the press got a look at this next-gen boxing movie, the Oscar talk commenced immediately. If voters want a Best Picture that comes equipped with the power to induce goosebumps, Creed certainly does the damn trick.

Then there’s The Force Awakens, which no one has seen, save J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, presumably a few Abrams/Lucasfilm/Disney insiders, and possibly a remote control BB-8 that rolled into the screening room while no one was looking. Being that it hasn’t screened for press or the public, it is impossible to say whether The Force Awakens has what it takes to become a Best Picture nominee. But given the level of Star Wars love that exists in the culture, and that surely exists among those in the industry who grew up on Luke and Leia the same way the rest of us did, it seems fair to say the following: If The Force Awakens is just plain entertaining and good, it will be perceived as a straight-up masterpiece. I say this as someone who attended a 1999 advance screening of The Phantom Menace that was met with heartfelt applause at the end. If Jar-Jar got that kind of reception, surely J.J. will do even better.