A critic's picks and choices for the Oscars

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For movie buffs whose Oscar pools are usually decided long before the competition reaches the final, climactic category — Best Picture — Sunday's Academy Awards telecast promises some high drama.

The Best Picture competition is shaping up as a three-way race among "Spotlight," the early leader in the clubhouse, "The Revenant," and "The Big Short," which is coming up on the outside. It's unusual for the competition for best movie to be hotly contested this late in the race, and that should make it easier for viewers who start to doze off around 11 p.m. to stay awake to the end of the ABC telecast.

Here is how it might go on Sunday night:

Best picture

"Spotlight" has won near-universal acclaim and deservedly so. This story of how the Boston Globe exposed the clergy abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese explores the power for good (the press) and for evil (the church hierarchy), that institutions possess, and the difficulty both face in confronting entrenched beliefs and vested interests.

But did "Spotlight" peak too soon? As its run in theaters was winding down, along came "The Revenant," a brutally realistic though often beautiful film about a man's pursuit of vengeance in an unforgiving wilderness.

Its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, won the Directors Guild Award, which is a strong indicator that his film will win Best Picture honors. Keep an eye on the early technical awards — if "The Revenant" consistently beats "Mad Max: Fury Road," it could be a great night for "The Revenant," which led all films with 12 nominations.

"The Big Short," a black comic look back at the economic collapse of several years ago engineered by greedy Wall Street cynics, could not be more topical today — it would definitely get Bernie Sanders' vote. Its winning of the Producers Guild Award, which was a predictor of the eight of the last 10 Best Picture Oscar winners, suddenly turned a perceived two-film race into a three-way race.

All three are good movies, but "Spotlight" is the one that in its understated way sticks with you the longest.

Will win: "Spotlight"

Deserves to win: "Spotlight"

Overlooked: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Now that the Academy allows as many as 10 nominees in this category, and eight were nominated, it is unfortunate that an excellent movie that succeeded in reviving an iconic franchise didn't make the list.

Best director

Inarritu, who won this award last year for "Birdman," is poised to become the first director since Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1949-1950) to be chosen best director back-to-back. "The Revenant" is certainly an achievement, one designed for the Big Screen.

However, "Spotlight" director Tom McCarthy made a riveting movie largely involving characters talking and going through filing cabinets. His recognition, however, is likely to come in the Best Original Screenplay category, and deservedly so. (Look for the Best Adapted Screenplay to go to Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, the latter also a Best Director nominee, for the smart and savagely witty script for "The Big Short.")

Will win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Deserves to win: Tom McCarthy

Doesn't belong here: Lenny Abramson, "Room"

Overlooked: Ridley Scott, "The Martian"

As befits its title, Most of "Room" takes place in a room and doesn't ask a lot of the director. "The Martian," in contrast, is a technical marvel with both brains and soul.

Best actor

In the least suspenseful category of the night, Leonard DiCaprio collects his latest piece of award-season hardware for his performance as 19th century fur trader Hugh Glass in "The Revenant."

It's ironic that DiCaprio, whose career is built in large part on series of glib fast-talkers, will win his first Oscar for portraying a vengeful man of few words. He is deserving and the award recognizes his growing maturity as an actor.

It was good to see Bryan Cranston nominated for his multi-faceted performance as Dalton Trumbo in the under-recognized "Trumbo," but 2015 was the wrong year to be a lead actor not named DiCaprio.

Will win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Deserves to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

Best actress

Brie Larson, the brave, tormented mom in "Room," has been collecting awards like DiCaprio, including the Screen Actors Guild award, which DiCaprio also won and is usually an indicator of who will win the acting Oscar.

Larson is fine in a movie that slowly fizzles after a strong first half, but Charlotte Rampling is even better in a better movie, "45 Years," as a woman questioning the foundation of her marriage. Rampling can say more with one anguished look than many performers can say with a paragraph of dialogue.

Will win: Brie Larson

Deserves to win: Charlotte Rampling

Doesn't Belong Here: Cate Blanchett, "Carol."

Overlooked: Charlize Theron, "Mad Max: Fury Road."

Theron's gutsy, hard-driving rebel steals the movie away from Tom Hardy's title character. Blanchett, a top notch actress, does what she can with a bland character in a pretentious film.

Supporting actor

Indications are that the Academy will honor Sylvester Stallone for playing an aging ailing Rocky in "Creed" in what amounts to a lifetime achievement award for an actor who has never been taken that seriously by Hollywood.

In most any other year, there would be a contest between Mark Rylance as the philosophical Russian spy in "Bridge of Spies" and Tom Hardy for his work as DiCaprio's cold-hearted foe in "The Revenant."

Will win: Sylvester Stallone

Deserves to win: Voters can't go far wrong, although Christian Bale, who was fine in "The Big Short," nonetheless took a spot away from a more deserving nominee.

Doesn't Belong Here: Bale, "The Big Short."

Overlooked: Stanley Tucci, "Spotlight."

Tucci was pitch perfect as the cranky, cynical, honorable attorney who fought long odds in seeking justice for victims of clergy abuse.

Supporting actress

This shapes up as a battle between Alicia Vikander, Eddie Redmayne's partner in "The Danish Girl," and Kate Winslet as the long-suffering adviser to the difficult tech genius in "Steve Jobs." The SAG award gives the edge to Vikander, who was terrific last year in a starring role in the science fiction film "Ex Machina."

Will win: Alicia Vikander

Should win: Jennifer Jason Leigh, "The Hateful Eight."

"The Hateful Eight" is lesser Tarantino, but Leigh's conniving Wild West criminal stands out in the ensemble cast.

LIVE FROM HOLLYWOOD

What: 88th Academy Awards

Who: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

When: Sunday — 7 p.m. Red Carpet; 8 p.m. Awards ceremony

Where: ABC Network — WTEN, Channel 10 (live from Dolby Theatre in Hollywood)

Host: Chris Rock


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