The 88th annual Academy Awards take place Sunday, Feb. 28 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Critics, Oscar prognosticators and curious observers alike tend to look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a living, breathing organism hooked up to a giant unibrain (let’s say an older, largely male and mostly white unibrain). Like a finicky house pet, the Academy has likes and dislikes, some inexplicable and others as easy to read as the flapping of a golden retriever’s tail. Sometimes, its thinking is as blankly straightforward as that of a goldfish. But it’s also capable of Abyssinian-catlike capriciousness and mystery. What will happen this year? If we knew for sure, it wouldn’t be so much fun to try to guess. And so here are a few predictions’ worth of scattered kibble, based partly on the past proclivities of this shadowy creature known as the Academy, with some wild conjecture thrown in—counterweighted with my own personal favorites in each category. I take no responsibility for the occasional knocked-over vase, and face it: The surprises are half the fun.
The Big Short | Bridge of Spies | Brooklyn | Mad Max: Fury Road | The Martian | The Revenant | Room | Spotlight
Should win: A great American news-reporting movie, and the fragile state of newspapers today gives Spotlight an urgent, melancholy context.
Will win: As a somber survivalist western, The Revenant has a faux-gritty grandeur that’s likely to appeal to Academy voters.
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo | Matt Damon, The Martian | Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant | Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs | Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Should win: Watching characters suffer is rarely what it’s cracked up to be, but DiCaprio gives left-for-dead wilderness guide Hugh Glass scruffy vitality and plenty of soul.
Will win: A marvelous child actor who grew into a clockwork-reliable grownup one, DiCaprio has never won an Oscar. Now is as good a time as any.
Cate Blanchett, Carol | Brie Larson, Room | Jennifer Lawrence, Joy | Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years | Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Should win: As a young Irish immigrant who becomes unsure of where her real home should be, Ronan gives the kind of tender, understated performance that doesn’t always nab prizes.
Will win: Larson is a young, vibrant actress with lots of promise, and her performance in Room, as a mother struggling under extraordinary circumstances, has a level of gravity the Academy tends to like.
Christian Bale, The Big Short | Tom Hardy, The Revenant | Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight | Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies | Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Should win: Rylance plays Soviet spy Rudolf Abel beautifully as an eternal outsider who’s both socially awkward and piercingly direct.
Will win: Stallone is lovely in Creed, returning to the role that defined him, and he’s likely to prove a sentimental favorite with the Academy.
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight | Rooney Mara, Carol | Rachel McAdams, Spotlight | Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl | Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Should win: McAdams is superb as a diligent, compassionate reporter. But because Spotlight is widely considered to be an ensemble film, she’s likely to be overlooked.
Will win: Winslet won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Apple exec and Steve Jobs confidant Joanna Hoffman; she’s probably looking pretty shiny to the Academy as well.
Adam McKay, The Big Short | George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road | Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant | Lenny Abrahamson, Room | Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Should win: Tom McCarthy may not be flashy, but his classic newspaper movie Spotlight is more subtly resonant than The Revenant.
Will win: Accepting his Golden Globe for The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu was self-assured to the point of seeming cocky. Sometimes the Academy just falls for braggadocio.
Anomalisa | Boy and the World | Inside Out | Shaun the Sheep Movie | When Marnie Was There
Will win: Everyone seems to love Pixar charmer Inside Out, which explores the inner workings of a preteen girl’s brain. Like most Pixar flicks, it works hard at being charming.
Should win: The visually imaginative stop-motion adventure Shaun the Sheep Movie, about a bunch of wooly wanderers in search of their amnesiac owner, has a loopy exuberance.
Embrace of the Serpent | Mustang | Son of Saul | Theeb | A War
Should win: Mustang, the debut film by Turkish-born filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, follows a family of girls growing up in a restrictive patriarchal household. Its lightness of touch is the key to its power.
Will win: Son of Saul, László Nemes’ skillful debut film about a concentration-camp prisoner clinging to the single task that will keep him feeling human, won the Grand Prix in Cannes last year and has been gathering steam ever since.
Bridge of Spies | Ex Machina | Inside Out | Spotlight | Straight Outta Compton
Should win: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s tense, taut, gloriously well-paced screenplay for Spotlight—which addresses a painful, sensitive subject—keeps the picture moving like a shot.
Will win: Straight Outta Compton’s screenplay—by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff from a story by S. Leigh Savidge—is strong, and you can bet the Academy is desperate to redeem itself.
The Big Short | Brooklyn | Carol | The Martian | Room
Should win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2010 exegesis of the subprime-mortgage crisis really sings, and it isn’t likely to take any other major award.
Will win: The Big Short clearly explains the seemingly inexplicable—without making the details any less jaw-droppingly appalling.