These 20 Movies Are Vying For Best Picture At The 2016 Oscars

"Spotlight" is still the front-runner, but it's hardly guaranteed to win.
Disney/Open Road/TWC/Warner Bros/Fox Searchlight

Welcome to For Your Consideration, The Huffington Post's breakdown of all things Oscars. Between now and Feb. 28, 2016, entertainment editors Matthew Jacobs and Joe Satran will pore over awards season and discuss which films will make the most noise at the 88th annual Academy Awards.

At last, the final countdown has begun. It's been a grueling -- but never uninteresting -- Oscar season. With a week left until nominations are announced on Jan. 14, we're still looking at the haziest Best Picture race in recent memory. Even though "Spotlight," "The Big Short" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" seem like the category's headliners, the precursor awards have been so erratic that a few surprise nominees could unseat everything. Just deciding which movies -- remember it can be anywhere from five to 10 -- will make the shortlist is a daunting task. Could "Straight Outta Compton" or "Trumbo" topple "The Hateful Eight" or "Room"? Should we have included "Ex Machina" on this list now that it scored a surprise nod from the Producers Guild Awards? It's entirely possible. Let's rank the contenders.

"The Danish Girl" / "Steve Jobs" / "Sicario"
Focus Features/Universal/Lionsgate
These three are movies that have all the trappings of Oscar contenders, but never quite mustered the firepower to actually be Oscar contenders. All three were predicted to be major forces this awards season before they came out. And don't get us wrong: they've all seen their share of respect. The stars of "The Danish Girl" and "Steve Jobs" -- both directed by men who've previously piloted movies to Best Picture -- are still in the running for Best Actor. And "Sicario" has proven to be a serious player this awards season: It even landed a coveted spot on the Producers Guild of America's list of best pictures. So when we lump all these movies together at the bottom of the list, we're not saying they're bad, or even that they're not cut out for this awards season. But it's a competitive race, and there are too many other terrific movies for these three to stand out. So why not exclude them entirely? It's not completely inconceivable that any of them will actually land on the list of nominees. Stranger, worse movies -- like "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" -- have gotten in before. - Joe Satran
"Beasts of No Nation"
“Beasts of No Nation” is a beast of a hit, according to Netflix. It’s the streaming service’s first original feature, giving voters easy access to Cary Fukunaga’s West African war film, if they can stomach its brutality. Despite a bunch of A-list Academy members (Scarlett Johnasson, Ben Affleck, Edward Norton) hosting screenings of the film, there was no indication it would underscore the Oscar race outside of Idris Elba’s supporting performance, until the influential Screen Actors Guild threw it a left-field Best Ensemble nod. The movie hasn’t found favor with many other precursor prizes. Even though we can probably cast it aside, the what-if factor lingers. - Matthew Jacobs
Even I -- an avowed "Joy" supporter -- have to admit that David O. Russell's latest movie is divisive. The critical consensus was that it was an interesting shambles, redeemed only by Jennifer Lawrence's strong performance. And many audience members agreed with them, leaving the theater in puzzlement. So although many prognosticators considered "Joy" a lock for a Best Picture nomination before its release, it's fallen fast -- especially after being shut out of many of the big awards. Yet there's reason to think it still has a chance, as each of Russell's last three movies landed a nomination. Indeed, 2013's "American Hustle" scored a whopping 10 nominations, even though it was almost as polarizing among audiences as "Joy." Plus, many of my fellow "Joy" admirers really love it, and the Oscar's preferential voting system rewards strong feelings. - JS
Bleecker Street
“Trumbo” seemed like an also-ran the moment it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Reviews were lukewarm, and the biopic about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo felt more like a solid made-for-TV movie and less like a resilient Oscar player. But then came the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where “Trumbo” cleaned up, earning a coveted Best Ensemble nod and dampening every Oscar prognosticator’s forecast. In retrospect, lauding this mediocre political drama isn’t that much of a shocker: The Academy adores movies about Hollywood (see: “Birdman,” “Argo,” “The Artist”), and this one recalls the traditional storytelling that’s long been an accessory of the Oscars. Yet it’s hard to imagine many voters ranking this movie high on their ballots, which is an important factor in scoring a nomination. Adding even more confusion, the Writers Guild fancies it, but the Producers Guild snubbed it. - MJ
Warner Bros.
"Creed" could have been a contender. There was a brief moment, soon after its release, when it looked like this "Rocky" reboot might emerge as a consensus pick for those turned off by the violence of "Mad Max: Fury Road" and the drabness of "Spotlight." But the momentum dissipated as "Creed" was passed over (in the top category at least) by one major award after another. It still has vocal supporters, to be sure, and it has the advantage of feeling, in many ways, like an Oscar movie. It has an exciting, inspiring plotline and features excellent performances by rising star Michael B. Jordan and veteran scenery-chewer Sylvester Stallone. So a last-minute rally isn't out of the question. - JS
"The Hateful Eight"
The Weinstein Co.
Picture "The Hateful Eight" written or directed by anyone other than Quentin Tarantino. It's a joke! A three-hour-long movie, shot on 70mm, with an overture and an intermission, that takes place almost entirely within a single room. But in Quentin Tarantino's hand, it's deadly serious. (Even if it contains many LOL-worthy moments.) Tarantino has always been fascinated by the idea of violence as spectacle -- the idea that all narrative art boils down, on some level, to a gladiator match. "The Hateful Eight" gives him a chance to explore those themes in a rigidly controlled environment, with some of the best actors working today. There's value in that. And there's a good chance that the Academy will recognize that value -- even though many of the big early awards haven't. "The Hateful Eight" was among the last movies to screen to critics and voters, but that won't harm its odds with the Academy. Especially considering that they gave "Django Unchained" and "Inglorious Basterds" more love than many other groups.Those two were bigger, more elaborate movies than "The Hateful Eight." But "Hateful" may actually be more artistically ambitious, precisely because it's so out of step with most trends in Hollywood. Tarantino clearly has a loyal following within the Academy, so if they're into it, it has a good a chance as any movie to end up in the final group. - JS
"Straight Outta Compton"
There might not be another movie this season that's as tricky to make predictions about than "Straight Outta Compton." It was a true blockbuster, bringing in over $200 million worldwide at the box office -- and while conventional wisdom says the Academy doesn't like blockbusters, they're also under pressure to make the awards more populist. It features a mostly black, unknown cast -- which conventional wisdom says is no good with the Academy, but which also presents them with an opportunity to show themselves as modern and open-minded. It got very good reviews, but a cynic might argue that low expectations contributed to the positivity of the reviews. The whole thing is a conundrum! But this much we know: "Straight Outta Compton" was in the running for best picture at the SAG Awards, the PGA Awards, the AFI Awards and the National Board Of Review's top films of the year. Those are some serious awards, so you have to judge "Straight Outta Compton" as a very serious contender, no matter what shade you might throw at it. And let's face it: It would be cool if it were nominated! Because it was a cool movie. - JS
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
Walt Disney Studios
“The Martian” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” will ensure this category doesn’t want for blockbusters. Will “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” be part of that list, too? There’s a good chance it will. Critics’ Choice Award voters, for example, went back and added the movie to its best-picture roster a week after nominations were announced. It just became the highest-grossing movie in North American of all time, and even though the "Force" was blanked by the Producers Guild Awards, its path toward a nomination doesn’t seem too far, far away. The original “Star Wars” managed a Best Picture nod back in 1978, and many see “The Force Awakens” as an effective remake of “A New Hope,” so why not? - MJ
"Inside Out"
Walt Disney Studios
Two Pixar movies -- “Up” and “Toy Story 3” -- have achieved Best Picture nominations, and at the year’s midway point, some declared “Inside Out” the category’s front-runner. But the preferential ballots could be a death knell for this gem. Glowing reviews and fruitful box office indicate the movie has a lot of fans, but the Oscars’ weighted ballots mean a lot of those voters need to rank the movie at No. 1. Critics’ groups and guild prizes don’t tend to favor animated films, especially one that opened back in June, so it’s hard to tell just how much momentum this movie has. Consider "Inside Out" a lock for Best Animated Feature, but also assume that Joy and Anger are sparring over whether it will take the 10th Best Picture slot. - MJ
"Bridge of Spies"
Walt Disney Studios
“Bridge of Spies” has been one of the more intriguing question marks throughout awards season. Its positive, if unenthusiastic, reception at October’s New York Film Festival gave way to a decent box-office haul, but Mark Rylance’s supporting turn in the Cold War spy drama is the only consistent nomination the film has managed. Golden Globe voters weren’t fans, but the PGA members were. Critics groups didn’t take to it much, but the National Board of Review named it one of the year's 10 best. Regardless, Steven Spielberg’s polished work often appeals to the collective Academy, and “Bridge of Spies” has a traditional, almost retro feel to its storytelling. That will go far with the organization’s older voters, if they aren’t too blindsided by contenders that emerged later in the game and tackled more contemporary social issues. - MJ
On occasion, the movies with the most buzz in the Best Actress category don't do very well in other categories. Indeed, eight of the last 10 movies that garnered their star a Best Actress award won no other Oscars. And the two exceptions -- "La Vie en Rose" and "The Iron Lady" -- only took home one other, for Best Makeup. There's a very real chance that pattern could continue this year: Brie Larson has won the lion's share of the early awards for her stellar performance, but "Room" itself hasn't generated as much heat as many expected. Some have speculated that voters have been avoiding it out of fear that it will be too depressing; that certainly seems to be the case with audiences, as the movie has only pulled in about $5 million so far. That's a shame, because it's a far better movie than "The Blind Side," "The Reader" or "Still Alice." Despite its dark subject matter, it feels artful, subtle and downright escapist. The reviews were stellar. - JS
Fox Searchlight
"Brooklyn" didn't make sense to me when I first saw it. I found it charming, but I didn't quite understand why it was a movie, why so much terrific craftsmanship went into making it. (And I recognized even then how terrific it was! All those painterly shots, with their splashes of jewel tones, and those tear-jerking facial expressions that Saorsie Ronan pulled off!) But then I remembered an interview with novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay, that I heard on the radio years ago. He said -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that he wished he possessed the ability to write a pop song, because a pop song manages to compel the listener emotionally as much in three minutes as a novel does in 10 hours. I realized, when I thought back to this interview, that that's sort of what "Brooklyn" does -- albeit in 90 minutes, not three. It conjures up an entirely convincing world and gets you to root for an unprepossessing girl who experiences a realistic sort of human drama. And it provokes real emotion, without garish fireworks. There's a serious risk that "Brooklyn" could get lost amid all the flashy movies in contention this year, but it's entirely possible that enough voters will have been moved enough by "Brooklyn" that they put it near the top of their ballots. One slight disadvantage? It covers some of the same territory as "Carol" (weirdly), and does so with less finesse and critical acclaim. - JS
"The Revenant"
By any measure, "The Revenant" is one of the year's most impressive movies. The shoot, in the frozen wilderness of Alberta, was perhaps the most arduous of any film this side of "Fitzcarraldo." Leonardo DiCaprio boasted of enduring freezing-cold water and raw bison liver to make his performance -- a near-lock, at this point, for Best Actor -- feel authentic. And the cinematography, by two-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, is revelatory: Most any D.P. out there would kill to craft a shot as beautiful as any of the dozens of shots of ice and snow on trees throughout the movie. The Academy loves rewarding this type of thing -- and it gave director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu's last movie, "Birdman," Best Picture, so we know they love him too. All this should be enough for "The Revenant" to secure a nomination. A win looks less likely, and not only because the Academy rarely gives one artist two in a row. "The Revenant" is a brutal movie to watch; because it's so well-shot and -acted, the struggles the characters go through feel viscerally real for the audience as well. And some have said that the simple story at the heart of the movie isn't meaty enough to justify the agony. - JS
The Weinstein Co.
The Academy has been fickle with Todd Haynes’ films in the past, bypassing critical favorites “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There” in this category. But neither was as majestic as “Carol,” which is still riding the wave that first rippled through its Cannes Film Festival premiere in May. The movie was a surprise PGA Awards omission, but it’s collected just about every other significant nomination so far, including more Globe nods than anything else. Not only is it an exquisite film whose production design captures both the glamour and grittiness of the 1950s, but “Carol” has the advantage of coasting on its main stars, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, whose nominations are so probable that they double as a Best Picture hike. Ultimately, it's probably too much of an art-house picture to win, but the Academy would have to be phillistines not to appreciate the movie's subtle grandeur. - MJ
"The Martian"
“The Martian” could be the blockbuster to beat. But so could “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Or “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The last categorical blockbuster to win Best Picture was 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” six years before the Academy expanded the category in hopes of honoring the popular releases that are often overlooked. SAG voters excluded Ridley Scott’s beloved space epic, but that’s not a deal breaker: Since Best Picture broadened to 10 slots in 2010, only 45 percent of nominees also earned SAG recognition. It helps that “The Martian” scored a PAG shout-out and could very well win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (even if it isn’t really a comedy). It also helps that Scott is an Academy veteran who is showcasing his finest movie since "Gladiator," which scored Best Picture in 2001. - MJ
"The Big Short"
Paramount didn’t announce a 2015 release for “The Big Short” until late September, right as festival season was ostensibly cementing the Oscar contest. Now there’s a good chance that Adam McKay’s riotous exposé about the 2008 housing-bubble burst could win the whole damn thing. “Short” manages to feel both important and approachable -- qualities that presumably bolstered its impression on the Screen Actors Guild, which nominated it for Best Ensemble and picked Christian Bale as a supporting-actor nominee over “Spotlight” stars Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo. The Writers Guild, Producers Guild and Golden Globes have also been affectionate toward the film, and it could now go head to head with ‘Spotlight” in a battle of social topicality. May the best dude-centric project win -- unless Imperator Furiosa dumps both of them in the barren wilderness. - MJ
"Mad Max: Fury Road"
Warner Bros.
The first time I saw "Mad Max: Fury Road," I was with a large group of film-obsessed friends at the IMAX screen at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, one of the best single theaters in the country. I was awestruck. My jaw was dropped for almost the entire movie. Every aspect -- from the acting to the production design -- was so brilliantly thought-out and perfectly executed that they added up to a total vision, one that pushed cinema in bold new directions. But part of me worried that I was swept up in the acclaim and in the experience of seeing it in that specific theater. So I watched it again on a recent cross-country flight, assuming that I would be less enthusiastic about seeing it on the tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of me. I was wrong. It was almost as compelling there as in IMAX. That's a sign of an amazing movie. "Fury Road" has also -- to everyone's surprise -- been a very strong contender throughout this awards season. It's won a number of critics' prizes and been nominated in the Best Picture category of many of the most important early awards. The typical proviso about blockbuster genre movies applies, but at this point, it would be more shocking for "Fury Road" not to be nominated than for it to win the whole prize. - JS
Open Road Films
After its rapturous showing at the Toronto Film Festival in September, “Spotlight” was declared the de facto Best Picture firebrand, partly because it's an effortless examination of social injustice and partly because no other movie had picked up the front-runner torch. Its momentum hasn’t wavered since, thanks to exquisite reviews and the fact that every other top-tier contender seems to come with addendums and/or detractors. “Spotlight” collected headline nods from the SAG, PGA and Golden Globe awards, along with a bevy of critics’ prizes. It’s slightly alarming that none of the cast earned solo nods from SAG, but given this anything-could-happen derby, it’s a mild hindrance. "Spotlight" is the sort of movie the Academy can feel proud of honoring -- it doesn't need the pomp and circumstance of the race's more effects-driven films, and endorsing it is a way of supporting the victims of the systematic abuse at the movie's center. No matter the motive, the win wouldn't be undeserved: Rarely are stories this detailed told in such an understated way. - MJ

From earlier in the race, read our handicapping of the other five major categories:

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