As Hollywood and film fans anticipate the Academy Awards on Sunday, the race for the most coveted prize -- best picture -- remains wide open.
Industry insiders and Oscar prognosticators have largely narrowed the field to three likely contenders out of the eight films nominated: "The Revenant," a period revenge drama which has become a breakout commercial success; "Spotlight," which revisits the Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and is the best reviewed film of the bunch; and "The Big Short," director Adam McKay's blistering take on the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, which is arguably the most topical movie in the running.
This year's Oscars will take place amid a heated presidential election campaign in which, at least on the Democratic side, the recklessness of Wall Street has become a familiar talking point. Sen. Bernie Sanders in particular has been reminding voters of the financial industry's role in the Great Recession. And McKay, who has made no secret of his own lefty leanings, made a film after Sanders' own heart. "The Big Short" not only points a finger at financial institutions but sounds the alarm that a similar calamity could happen again if ruthless speculation goes unchecked.
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The film has earned rave reviews for its more comedic, accessible take on a recent crisis, and it has enjoyed some modest success at the box office. But it is also not the type of fare that typically takes home best picture awards. It's a dialogue-heavy film, by no means epic in scale visually and its mostly male, mostly white cast feels out of sync with the post-#OscarsSoWhite climate, although the surging "Revenant" doesn't do much better in that regard.
"It's the only movie of the moment [nominated], and in an election year it's going to ring closer to home," Clayton Davis, the editor-in-chief of The Awards Circuit, told MSNBC on Friday. However, Davis, who is predicting "The Revenant" will ultimately emerge victorious, says "members of the academy are very easily distracted," and concerns over representation, support for other films from the technical branch of voters, as well as "the Leo factor" could be more of an influence on the results.
"I really didn't think it would do as well as it's done," said Davis, who believes both "The Big Short" and "The Revenant" are "divisive" within the academy, but he thinks the movie's unconventional storytelling and wonky subject matter may be off-putting to older Oscar voters.
Can the political climate affect an Oscar race? There is not a lot of evidence to support that notion. A look at the past seven years of Obama's presidency shows that best picture winners tend to oscillate between showbiz fables ("The Artist," "Birdman" and even "Argo") and historical epics ("The King's Speech" and "12 Years a Slave"). The one politically timely film, 2009's "The Hurt Locker," did deal with the fallout of the Iraq War but was fairly agnostic about its politics and came about after the president who initiated and championed that conflict, George W. Bush, was already out of office.
A look back on the winners during the Bush years reflects even less of the tension of those times, although some did speculate that the uplifting "Slumdog Millionaire"'s triumph after a successful run in theaters in 2008 may have been somewhat colored by newfound optimism following the historic first election of a black president.
That doesn't mean that there hasn't been a precedent of "message movies" making their mark at the Academy Awards. The classic "Casablanca," with its World War II backdrop, took home the prestigious best picture honor while the U.S. was still fighting abroad in 1943. In 1948, "Gentelmen's Agreement," a movie that dramatized persistent anti-Semitism in America won. Twenty years later, while the civil rights movement was reaching middle age, the Sidney Poitier melodrama "In The Heat of the Night," which delved into anti-black Southern bigotry, took home the Oscar.
Still, despite the Vietnam War being the most hotly debate issue of that time, no film on that subject actually won the top Oscar until "The Deer Hunter" in 1979. Some critics have argued that part of the reason the film "Straight Outta Compton," which made overt nods to the current "Black Lives Matter" movement, did not even make into this year's best picture race is discomfort among Oscar voters with confronting subjects that are currently contentious too soon.
“The truth is, those academy members will watch movies that deal with the heroism of the African-American community or the history of blacks, like ‘12 Years a Slave,’ because that interests them,” Rod Lurie, an Israeli-American director, recently told the Washington Post. “What doesn’t interest them is the current black experience or black culture. A movie like ‘Straight Outta Compton’ doesn’t stand a chance.”
That the Oscars have often made the "safe" choice has consistently been a source of controversy for the awards. In 2013, the hunt for Osama bin Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" appeared to collapse under the weight of debate over its portrayal of torture, and the more inoffensive "Argo" won best picture instead. Davis told MSNBC that he recalls Oscar voters telling him they were lobbied not to vote for that film because of its politics.
In 2006, "Brokeback Mountain," which dramatized a gay affair between two male cowboys, was widely favored to win but was defeated by "Crash," which was considered a film that better affirmed liberal values on matters of race. According to Davis, the defeat of "Brokeback Mountain" is an example of how political influence on the Oscars is often triggered by a result after the fact. 'When 'Crash' upset 'Brokeback Mountain,' it started a conversation about prejudices at the Academy Awards," he said.
And the ongoing conversation about diversity in Hollywood may have a bigger impact on "The Big Short" than any presidential soundbite.
"The lack of diversity has come up in conversation," Davis said. Despite small, but not insignificant roles for Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, Adepero Oduye, as well as a memorable cameos from Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie (albeit nude in a bathtub), the movie may be the most white-male dominated of the best picture nominees. And although it may be in some ways the "movie of the moment," because of a growing chorus calling on Hollywood to refocus on other issues in house, its moment may have already passed.