1. Best Picture
Best picture is often one of the night’s most predictable categories, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case as of late. After fierce battles between "Birdman" and "Boyhood" and "12 Years A Slave" and "Gravity" in the last two years, best picture is even more competitive this year thanks to three films that have all split the industry’s top three guild prizes: SAG winner "Spotlight," PGA winner "The Big Short" and DGA winner "The Revenant." A clean three-way split has only happened three previous times in the past two decades (during the 2001, 2002 and 2005 seasons). The SAG winner has never gone on to take the Oscar in this case, which doesn’t bode well for "Spotlight" despite the fact that it is the clear favorite among critics groups.
DGA winners "A Beautiful Mind" and "Million Dollar Baby" ended up winning in their years, which is great news for "The Revenant," though the film’s lack of a screenplay nomination (of which "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" are frontrunners for) is definitely keeping prognosticators on their toes. Not since "Titanic" in 1998 has a movie won best picture without a screenplay nomination. After winning the BAFTA Award earlier this month, "The Revenant" seems to be gaining some late momentum over the more talky "Spotlight" (which will certainly be splitting votes with "The Big Short" given their topical natures), though it’s still anyone’s to lose at this point.
2. Best Supporting Actress
The only acting race still worth getting anxious over, best supporting actress has been shapeshifting all season long. Rooney Mara emerged as the early critics favorite thanks to unanimous praise for her turn in "Carol," but she’s failed to turn that admiration into any type of hardware on the awards circuit this season. While critics have been fawning over her performance, a more intense race has been growing between SAG winner Alicia Vikander and Golden Globe and BAFTA winner Kate Winslet. These two dramatic powerhouses are duking it out in a classic battle between the exciting newcomer and the industry darling.
While fresh faces often have better luck in the supporting category (see Lupita Nyong’o for a recent example), Winslet is beloved among many Academy members, and her performance in "Steve Jobs" is a showy firecracker right up the Oscars’ alley (it’s no easy task conquering that Sorkin dialogue). The deal-breaker could come down to Vikander’s tremendous 2015. Although she’s nominated for "The Danish Girl," members might be more inclined to select her based on her other acclaimed performances in "Ex Machina" and "Testament of Youth." Winslet is strong, but she might not be strong enough to outdo the entirety of Vikander’s breakthrough year.
3. Best Director
After winning the DGA and BAFTA for best director, all bets are on "The Revenant" visionary Alejandro González Iñárritu to walk away with the Oscar this year, though there’s two giant roadblocks standing in his way. The first is the fact that he won best director just last year for "Birdman," and no director has gone back to back at the Oscars for over six decades now (Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Ford did it back in the late 1940s and 1950s). Will the Academy want to recognize the director so soon after his last victory? With 12 nominations — the most of any movie this year — there’s clearly a ton of support for "The Revenant" within the Academy, and all that support is due to Iñárritu’s uncompromising vision. The director has emerged with a slight edge because of this in recent weeks, though "Mad Max: Fury Road" director George Miller is putting up one hell of a fight. Miller has never won the best director prize before, and this would be one of those moments when the Academy gets to honor an industry legend for a movie that is internationally celebrated. Honoring Miller seems like it’s too good for the Academy to pass up, but Iñárritu isn’t going to go down easy. Consider this the duel of the night.
4. Best Costume Design
Legendary costume designer Sandy Powell seemed like the earliest of Oscar frontrunners when "Cinderella" was released almost a year ago last March, but her lavish work on that fairy tale found some tough competition thanks to her eqaully-as-exceptional work on "Carol," in which clothing is an essential form of expression for the two ostracized lovers. Powell is competing against herself this year for two sets of costumes — one flamboyantly extravagant and the other more authentically elegant — and while she may end up splitting votes between herself, her work on both is so widely lauded that many would be shocked to see her go home empty-handed. However, she faces some pretty big competition from the apocalyptic designs of "Mad Max: Fury Road," an absolute monster of a nominee among the below-the-line categories this year. There’s also Paco Delgado’s work on "The Danish Girl," another slice of elegant period designs that is sure to turn some heads in the Academy. In a year with four possible victors, best costume design is bound to be a make or break category in Oscar pools this year.
5. Best Editing
The American Cinema Editors Society awarded both Margeret Sixel ("Mad Max: Fury Road") and Hank Corwin ("The Big Short") their guild prizes at the end of last month, positioning them in a neck-and-neck race for the Oscar. Sixel’s work on "Mad Max" is truly something to behold, as she provides an energized pulse to the story and weaves in quieter, more poetic moments amidst all the mayhem. She also manages to make the nonstop action feel linear, coherent and forward moving. The 18-minute climactic race, in particular, might be too astonishing not to reward, as Sixel cuts rapidly while maintaining Miller’s mandate that everything remain in the center of the frame. While "Mad Max" would seem like the safe pick, Corwin’s work on "The Big Short" has been lauded for much of the same reasons, most notably the way it keeps a confusing narrative driving along with forward momentum and humanizing undertones. Corwin informs the narrative in ways that are chaotic, absurd and surreal depending on the character, and it’s a feat the Academy might just end up choosing.
6. Best Visual Effects
While the bear from "The Revenant" is truly a jaw-dropping accomplishment, this year’s best visual effects race is coming down to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "Mad Max: Fury Road." A lot of "Fury Road" was performed with real vehicles and real explosions, but the key to bringing it all together was special effects. The film’s VFX team touched everything, keeping the vehicles moving and creating a dazzling sandstorm that is one of the highlights of the year in special effects. But will that set piece be enough to beat "The Force Awakens"? The team at Industrial Light and Magic combined the best effects practical and digital have to offer to create a new "Star Wars" adventure that felt and looked like it was very much a part of the old classics. Between realistic simulations and artistic-looking explosions, plus no shortage of droids, creatures and lightsabers, "Star Wars" has enough on its side to edge ever so slightly ahead of "Mad Max." Plus, ILM is turning 40 this year, and what better way to honor them than with the Oscar?
7-8. Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing.
Because sound mixing and sound editing often have overlapping winners, there’s always some confusion as to what the difference is between the categories, which are often some of the hardest races to predict on Oscar night. Sound editing refers to the actual creation of the film’s sound, from effects to on-set and ADR dialogue, while sound mixing involves leveling all of the movie’s sounds together, including music. This year, both categories break down into a race between the two most nominated films, "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "The Revenant," both of which have been universally lauded for their soundscapes. Each contender has a ton of action-heavy mixes, yet "Fury Road" is a much more assaultive experience than "The Revenant," a more immersive and spiritual outing that uses sound to connect the viewer to the wilderness landscape. The organized and orchestrated bombast of "Mad Max" might prevail in the end, but it’s a close race when both movies sound so epic.