Oscar Predictions: Here’s How the ‘Revenant’ vs. ‘Big Short’ Dogfight Will End

In the closest race in more than a decade, we offer our picks for what will win and what should win

The diversity controversy has overshadowed all other aspects of the Oscar race this season, but it’s worth noting that eight very good films are competing for Best Picture in the strangest, most wide-open race in a very long time.

And two of those movies, “The Revenant” and “The Big Short,” are waging a dogfight to the end in the closest Oscar race in more than a decade, with “Spotlight” also hanging onto a chance to grab the big prize.

These are my final Oscar predictions, although I’ll be second-guessing myself right up to the moment the envelopes are opened. It’s that close, particularly in the Best Picture race.

I should also point out that the “Should Win” categories are really just what I’d vote for if I had a vote. Which, of course, I don’t.

NOMINEES: “The Big Short,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “The Revenant,” “Room,” “Spotlight”

WILL WIN: There are very good reasons to think “The Revenant” is going to win: It’s big and bold and it feels like something new, and Alejandro G. Inarritu won the DGA Award and will most likely win the Best Director Oscar.

But there are very good reasons to think “The Big Short” will win, too: It won the Producers Guild Award, the most reliable of all precursor honors, and the intricacies of the Academy’s preferential count (also used by the PGA) could well work in its favor.

This feels like a true tossup, but I think “The Revenant,” a crazy gamble that paid off commercially and critically, has a bit of momentum it didn’t have when it lost the PGA. I’m betting it’ll become the first Best Picture winner since “Titanic” without a screenplay nomination, although I won’t be the least bit surprised if “The Big Short” wins (and only a little surprised if “Spotlight” sneaks in).

SHOULD WIN: My two favorite films of 2015 were the two quiet movies set in early 1950s New York, “Carol” and “Brooklyn.” The former wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, to my mind the most egregious oversight in the nominations, so if I were filling out a preferential ballot, I’d rank “Brooklyn” first and “The Revenant” second. (That means that my vote would end up going to the latter film.)

NOMINEES: Lenny Abrahamson, “Room”; Alejandro G. Inarritu, “The Revenant”; Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”; Adam McKay, “The Big Short”; George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”

WILL WIN: This was supposed to be Ridley Scott‘s award to lose, until the Academy’s Directors Branch somehow neglected to nominate “The Martian” director. Alejandro G. Inarritu won the Directors Guild Award, and he should win this one, too — though it’s not inconceivable that Adam McKay could steal it if “The Big Short” is winning Best Picture, and it’s also possible that the well-liked George Miller could win for the crazy action flick “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

SHOULD WIN: I’d vote for “Carol” director Todd Haynes, if he’d been nominated. But he wasn’t. In a close race between the five men who were nominated, I guess I’d opt for the insane bravura of George Miller in a squeaker over Inarritu.

NOMINEES: Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”; Matt Damon, “The Martian”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”; Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs“; Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl”

WILL WIN: Compared to Best Picture, the acting races look easy to predict. After four Best Actor nominations without a win, Leonardo DiCaprio will finally take home an Oscar for enduring “The Revenant.” The only other conceivable outcome would be if voters get tired of the “look how hard it was” narrative and go for the enormously well-liked Bryan Cranston in “Trumbo.”

SHOULD WIN: I’d go for the exact opposite of DiCaprio’s impressive, near-wordless performance: Michael Fassbender‘s equally impressive turn as a motor-mouthed Steve Jobs.

NOMINEES: Cate Blanchett, “Carol”; Brie Larson, “Room”; Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”; Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”; Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”

WILL WIN: Cate Blanchett would be a real contender for “Carol” if she hadn’t already won twice and set her personal bar so high that her brilliantly subtle performance won’t turn enough heads. As it is, this one is between two gifted young actresses, with Brie Larson in “Room” beating Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn,” largely because Larson’s performance is a little bigger. (Could the young women split the vote and leave room for Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years?” No, but what a delicious surprise that would be.)

SHOULD WIN: I love the work of Larson and Blanchett and Rampling, but I’d go for Saoirse Ronan‘s luminous and heartbreaking performance in “Brooklyn.”

NOMINEES: Christian Bale, “The Big Short”; Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”; Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”; Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”; Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”

WILL WIN: When Sylvester Stallone received a hero’s welcome at the Golden Globes, it was clear that Hollywood loves his story and can’t wait to give him an Oscar. (Nobody even remembers all those bad action movies anymore.) If “Bridge of Spies” actor Mark Rylance had shown any interest in campaigning, he might have made more of a race of it — but he didn’t, leaving Christian Bale and Mark Ruffalo longshots to upset Stallone.

SHOULD WIN: Since Idris Elba isn’t in the running for his terrifying performance in “Beasts of No Nation,” I’d give it to Mark Rylance for his quietly gripping turn in “Bridge of Spies.”

NOMINEES: Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”; Rooney Mara, “Carol”; Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”; Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”; Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs

WILL WIN: The closest of the four acting races could go in a number of directions, but Alicia Vikander has two things going for her: She’s got the biggest role (which, truthfully, is a co-lead performance with Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl”), and a vote for her will also salute her breakout year and her performance in “Ex Machina,” too.

SHOULD WIN: Speaking of actresses with co-lead roles, Rooney Mara is as central to the brilliance of “Carol” as Cate Blanchett is. Since the Actors Branch put her in this category (where she arguably doesn’t belong), I’ll vote for her in this category.

NOMINEES: “Bridge of Spies,” “Ex Machina,” “Inside Out,” Spotlight,” “Straight Outta Compton”

WILL WIN: This could be an opportunity for Academy voters to show they embrace diversity by voting for “Straight Outta Compton,” but the symbolism of that win would be undercut by the fact that all four writers are white. The award will go to the one nominee in the category that has a chance to win Best Picture: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight.”

SHOULD WIN: For portraying (and celebrating) the painstaking, unglamorous and seemingly uncinematic practice of investigative journalism and somehow making it gripping, “Spotlight” gets my vote over the delightful “Inside Out” and the intriguing “Ex Machina.”

NOMINEES: “The Big Short,” “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” “The Martian,” “Room”

WILL WIN: This could be the Academy’s best opportunity to honor “The Martian” in a major category, but the achievement of turning a book about the intricacies of the financial crisis into a wildly entertaining movie will likely prove too impressive to ignore. This one goes to Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, “The Big Short.”

SHOULD WIN: Phyllis Nagy skillfully and subtly adapted “Carol” from the Patricia Highsmith novel, and deserves to win; so does Nick Hornby, who took the novel “Brooklyn” and made it emotional but never sentimental. The latter achievement affected me slightly more, so by the narrowest of margins I’d vote for Nick Hornby, “Brooklyn.”

NOMINEES: “Anomalisa,” “Boy and the World,” “Inside Out,” “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” “When Marnie Was There”

WILL WIN: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s marvelous oddity “Anomalisa” will probably get lots of votes from people who made the offbeat “Rango” a winner four years ago, but Pixar is the king of this category and “Inside Out” is the only contender to also land a nomination in a non-animation category, Best Original Screenplay.

SHOULD WIN: As cool a winner as “Anomalisa” would be, “Inside Out” is as good as Pixar gets, which is very, very good.

NOMINEES: “Embrace of the Serpent,” “Mustang,” “Theeb,” “Son of Saul,” “A War”

WILL WIN: Almost everybody is picking the harrowing and original Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” to win, but this race is far closer than the near-unanimity suggests. Under the old rules in the category, where you had to see all five nominees in a theater before you could vote, the crowd-pleasing female-empowerment drama “Mustang” would probably win, and it could well do so under current rules, too. (So could a real dark horse, “Theeb.”) Will voters go for the film they like best, or the one that feels the most important? In a very close race, the current rules give a slight edge to “Son of Saul.”

SHOULD WIN: “Mustang” and “Embrace of the Serpent” are exceptional films, but “Son of Saul” is a landmark.

NOMINEES: “Carol,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant,” “Sicario”

WILL WIN: Chivo, Chivo, Chivo. Three years ago, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki was the second-best living cinematographer never to have won an Oscar. Then he won for “Gravity” in 2014 and “Birdman” in 2015, and this year he’ll get his three-peat for “The Revenant,” shot entirely with natural light in brutal conditions and full of one jaw-dropping scene after another. And Roger Deakins, nominated for “Sicario,” will continue to be the best living cinematographer never to have won.

SHOULD WIN: It’s time to give somebody else a chance, Chivo. The most beautiful cinematography of the year, and the work that always illuminated the characters and served the movie, was Ed Lachman for “Carol.”

NOMINEES: “The Big Short,” Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant,” “Spotlight,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

WILL WIN: If Best Editing means Most Editing, “Mad Max: Fury Road” should win easily, but its frontrunner status is about far more than just the number of cuts. Margaret Sixel did a remarkable job assembling a coherent, emotional action film out of chaotic bits and pieces; she’s a huge reason the film works as well as it does, and voters will likely recognize that. But if “The Big Short” is on track to win Best Picture, it could score an upset here.

SHOULD WIN: “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a staggering achievement in editing.

The next three categories — costume design, production design and makeup and hairstyling — typically go to the prettiest, most lavish movies: “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Great Gatsby.” Could a movie as grimy and ugly as “Mad Max: Fury Road” actually win all three? It could, because the grungy look of the film, which created a world assembled from debris, is another major key to its success. But it’ll require voters to put aside their usual affection for petticoats and filigree in these categories, which would be a big step indeed.

NOMINEES: “Carol,” “Cinderella,” “The Danish Girl,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant”

WILL WIN: “Cinderella” is the most typical winner in the category, while “The Danish Girl” and “Carol” are strong compromise candidates. But so much is revealed in the makeshift garments of “Mad Max: Fury Road” that voters should forgo their usual leanings.

SHOULD WIN: While Sandy Powell’s work in “Carol” is impeccable in the way it helps tell the story, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is too bold to ignore.

NOMINEES: “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared,” “The Revenant”

WILL WIN: Forget about the weirdest Oscar nominee, “The 100-Year-Old Man,” and focus on “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant”: the former film’s scarred, chrome-bedecked War Boys vs. Leonardo DiCaprio‘s fearsome wounds in the latter. In a close race, “Mad Max: Fury Road” wins because there’s more of it.

SHOULD WIN: “Mad Max” was great, but the work done to make DiCaprio a realistic victim without making him too difficult to look at was hugely important to “The Revenant.”

NOMINEES: “Bridge of Spies,” “The Danish Girl,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “The Revenant”

WILL WIN: You couldn’t get much further apart than the genteel European salons of “The Danish Girl” and the stark, brutal desert of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and either one could win. But “Mad Max: Fury Road” didn’t recreate a past world — it built a rich and wild futurescape out of flotsam and jetsam, a hellacious achievement that the voters will find hard to ignore.

SHOULD WIN: “Mad Max: Fury Road” all the way.

NOMINEES: “Bridge of Spies,” “Carol,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Sicario,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

WILL WIN: The Oscar ballot doesn’t list the name of nominees outside the acting categories, only the names of their films. But does anybody not know that “The Hateful Eight” score was the first Western score in decades by the Italian master Ennio Morricone? And does anybody not know that Morricone has never won a competitive Oscar? And does anybody not think that last statistic is about to change?

SHOULD WIN: I’m torn between Carter Burwell’s exquisite and delicate score for “Carol” and Johann Johannsson’s creepy and tense music for “Sicario.” I’ll give Burwell the edge because he also wrote great music for “Anomalisa” last year.

NOMINEES: “Earned It” from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Manta Ray” from “Racing Extinction,” “Simple Song #3” from “Youth,” “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground,” “Writing’s on the Wall” from “Spectre”

WILL WIN: The combination of passionate song, important subject (campus rape) and the all-out campaign by performer and co-writer Lady Gaga should give the edge to “Til It Happens to You,” and finally make Diane Warren a winner on her eighth nomination. But the song might face a tougher foe than many people imagine in “Simple Song #3” from “Youth.” That classical art song is not only vastly different from anything else in the category, it’s completely integral to the film, and is the centerpiece of the movie’s climax. That’s enough to warrant serious consideration from voters, and to give it a chance at an upset.

SHOULD WIN: It is shameful that the Oscar producers are putting Lady Gaga, The Weeknd and Sam Smith on the show performing their songs, but have opted not to include performances of “Simple Song #3” and “Manta Ray” on the Oscars. Antony Hegarty, the co-writer and performer of “Manta Ray,” is one of the most glorious voices and most compelling performers in popular music, and the song by Hegarty and J. Ralph is a stunning lullaby to the planet that serves as the heart of the powerful documentary “Racing Extinction.” Not only does it deserve a spot on the show, it deserves a spot in the winner’s circle.

NOMINEES: “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “The Revenant,” “Sicario,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

WILL WIN: In the sound mixing and sound editing categories, the question is whether voters will go for two different winners, which they’ve done four times in the last decade, or give both Oscars to the same movie, with they’ve done the other six times. I have a hunch that they’ll split, and that Sound Editing – often as not the award for the loudest and craziest sounds – will go to the stupendously loud and crazy “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

SHOULD WIN: And yes, I think “Mad Max: Fury Road” deserves it.

NOMINEES: “Bridge of Spies,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “The Revenant,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

WILL WIN: Sound Mixing, on the other hand, sometimes goes to a more immersive film. Particularly if it’s on the road to Best Picture, “The Revenant” could easily win both sound awards, but I think it’ll just take this one.

SHOULD WIN: Between the fury of the bear attack and the quiet of the wilderness, “The Revenant” is hard to beat.

NOMINEES: “Ex Machina,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “The Revenant,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

WILL WIN: A non-Best Picture nominee hasn’t beaten a best-pic contender in the VFX category since “Tora! Tora! Tora!” beat “Patton” in 1971, which means that “Star Wars” should lose to either “Mad Max,” “The Martian” or “The Revenant.” But which one? Or will this be the year that the best-pic magic runs out? In an exceptionally hard category to call, I’m guessing that the film with a million big effects, “Star Wars,” loses to the film whose one big effect, the bear in “The Revenant,” is the effect that sticks in voters’ minds.

SHOULD WIN: I know it’s not as seamless or as lavish as its competitors, but “Ex Machina” gets my vote because it turned Alicia Vikander into a convincing cyborg on a total film budget of $15 million, about a tenth of its competitors in the category.

NOMINEES: “Amy,” “Cartel Land,” “The Look of Silence,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”

WILL WIN: In two of the last three years, Oscar voters have gone for music-themed documentaries in this category — and this year, they have two music docs to choose from, “Amy” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” The former film is the most substantial and artful of the recent music docs, and the darkness in its sobering tale of a self-destructive talent won’t keep “Amy” from winning – although Netflix, desperate to win an Oscar, is pulling out all the stops on behalf of “Miss Simone,” a potential dark horse. (So is “Cartel Land.”)

SHOULD WIN: Two years ago, Joshua Oppenheimer‘s surreal and disturbing “The Act of Killing” lost to the friendlier music film “20 Feet From Stardom,” though it definitely would have gotten my vote. This year, Oppenheimer’s companion piece “The Look of Silence” will lose to a more disquieting music film, and once again I’d unquestionably give it my vote.

NOMINEES: “Body Team 12,” “Chau, Beyond the Lines,” “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah,” “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” “Last Day of Freedom”

WILL WIN: All the films are about tough, sobering subjects, but “Chau, Beyond the Lines” leaves viewers with a sense of hope, with its main character fighting disabilities caused by Agent Orange to pursue an artistic career. Voters seem likely to choose either that or “Claude Lanzmann,” which would enable them to salute the landmark doc “Shoah,” which the Academy didn’t nominate 30 years ago. I think emotion will overcome guilt, and they’ll go for “Chau, Beyond the Lines.”

SHOULD WIN: In what I thought was a very strong category full of films that rose above their seemingly depressing subject matter, I was most moved by “Chau, Beyond the Lines.”

NOMINEES: “Bear Story,” “Prologue,” “Sanjay’s Super Team,” “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos,” “World of Tomorrow”

WILL WIN: The spare, inventive sci-fi tale “World of Tomorrow” has enormous critical praise, and the semi-autobiographical fantasy “Sanjay’s Super Team” has the Pixar brand. But for a mixture of visually arresting style, heart-tugging emotion and a personal, political story, I suspect the Chilean film “Bear Story” will eke out the win.

SHOULD WIN: I thought “Bear Story” deserved to win TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival earlier this year, and it did. I think it deserves the Oscar, too.

NOMINEES: “Ave Maria,” “Day One,” “Everything Will Be Okay” (Alles Wird Gut”), “Shok,” “Stutterer”

WILL WIN: To me, the most substantial nominees and the likeliest winners are the German domestic drama “Everything Will Be Okay,” the Afghan combat story “Day One” and the Kosovo-set drama “Shok.” The last of those films may be too dark, so I think the wrenching emotion of “Everything Will Be Okay” will score a narrow victory.

SHOULD WIN: I liked “Stutterer” a lot until a final-scene twist, but “Everything Will Be Okay” stood out and would get my vote.