Oscar Nominations Anoint a Top 4, Make Ridley Scott an Underdog

“The Martian” now has a narrative to use in its battle against “The Revenant,” “Mad Max,” “Spotlight” and “The Big Short”

Is Ridley Scott ready to pull a Ben Affleck?

The Academy’s Directors Branch gave the iconic British director that opportunity on Thursday morning, when the Oscar nominations turned him from the sentimental favorite to win his first Best Director Oscar for “The Martian” into a man who surprisingly isn’t even nominated for directing.

Three years ago, a similar situation rallied support behind Affleck and “Argo,” which rode the “He wuz robbed!” underdog narrative all the way to a Best Picture win at the Oscars. But “The Martian” might have a tougher time pulling off that trick, since Scott’s film was also passed over in the Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing categories, which are considered crucial if not mandatory for a big win.

And besides, “The Martian” now has formidable rivals in two big, bold movies, “The Revenant” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and two quieter, smart ones, “Spotlight” and “The Big Short.”

None of the contenders wound up with nominations in an all-important quintet of categories — picture, director, screenplay, film editing and cinematography — but “The Revenant” and “Mad Max” landed everything but screenplay, while “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” got them all except cinematography.

That could well be the Best Picture landscape we’re left with as the dust settles on Oscar nominations morning: a battle for supremacy between “The Revenant,” “Spotlight,” “The Big Short” and “Mad Max,” with the other four Best Picture nominees – “The Martian,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn” and “Room” — occupying a second tier.

Or maybe we should promote “Room” to the first tier, considering that its director, Lenny Abrahamson, got that Best Director slot that everybody figured was going to Scott.

If the nominations leave us in uncertainty, that’s par for the course in an uncertain and unsettled year, and a year in which the Best Picture nominees came from everywhere. The Cannes Film Festival brought us not an art-house gem, but George Miller‘s assaultive, gloriously bombastic thrill ride “Mad Max”; the fall festivals brought the tiny, disquieting “Room” and Tom McCarthy’s exemplary procedural “Spotlight,” both critics’ favorites from the start, as well as the wildly entertaining popcorn movie “The Martian.”

Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge of Spies” came down the pike, from a major studio, right in the Academy’s wheelhouse. “Brooklyn” had been here all along, since Sundance in January, but we didn’t notice until later in the year, when it was nudged into the race by Fox Searchlight, which has a two-year Best Picture winning streak on the line with “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman.”

And then two major players came in at the last minute, and they couldn’t be more different. Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant” was enormous and ambitious and dead serious, and it had CONTENDER! written all over it from a mile away; Adam McKay‘s “The Big Short” was a light and lively sneak attack, the guy who made “Anchorman” tackling the financial crisis and turning it into a fine piece of entertainment.

So we’ve got five major-studio movies (two from Fox and one each from Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros.), one semi-indie (Fox Searchlight) and two true indies (Open Road and A24). We’ve got genre movies and commercial movies and art movies, movies that want to entertain and movies that want to change the world.

What do they have in common? One thing, I guess: They all found at least 300 or so Academy voters to put them at the top of their ballots. We all have our complaints about what got nominated on Thursday and particularly about what didn’t — to my mind, “Carol” was robbed and “Beasts of No Nation” deserved more and “Son of Saul” should have been in the Best Picture mix — but we can’t say that the Academy was too much of this or too little of that. Because the Academy, like the year in cinema, was all over the map, a little bit of everything.

Except, maybe, they’re not everything. After all the hoopla, it turns out that “Star Wars” is not an Oscar movie. After all the high hopes, it seems that AMPAS is not the audience for “Straight Outta Compton.”

The “Star Wars” talk was probably just wishful thinking from fanboys and folks who warily eye the Oscars’ TV ratings, but “Straight Outta Compton” feels more like a troubling blind spot. And between that film’s failure to land anything but a screenwriting nod and another all-white roster of acting nominees, it’s a blind spot we’ll be hearing plenty about between now and Feb. 28.

Other thoughts on the Oscar nominations:

Netflix is back in the race with another documentary, “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” but the streaming company couldn’t crash the big party with “Beasts of No Nation.” It probably didn’t help that the day-and-date theatrical/streaming release annoyed a big chunk of the industry, since the Academy is made up of folks from the industry.

The Actors Branch went along with the Weinstein Company and Focus Features’ suggestion that Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander were supporting actresses in “Carol” and “The Danish Girl,” respectively, a move that should make them the two frontrunners in their category.

The Writers Branch, which in the past sometimes seemed to confuse Best Screenplay with Most Screenplay, suddenly developed an aversion to scripts with lots of words. They left out Aaron Sorkin‘s screenplay for “Steve Jobs,” even though it propelled Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet to acting nominations, and Quentin Tarantino‘s script for “The Hateful Eight.”

And the ever-quirky Music Branch knocked out the song that could well have been the favorite to win, Wiz Khalifa‘s “See You Again” from “Furious 7.”

So now everybody regroups and gears up for Phase 2. Your move, Ridley.

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