At last, an Oscar shocker that has nothing to do with the racial makeup of the nominees.

This particular shocker happened outside of the televised media spotlight, but it could still change the direction of the Oscar race. It happened over the weekend at the Producers Guild Awards, when the Guild's top prize went to... "The Big Short."

Not "Spotlight," the movie about real-life crusading journalists that was long considered the Best Picture frontrunner. Not "The Revenant," the blockbuster Leonardo DiCaprio survival epic that's been the favorite for the last few weeks. No, it went to a comedy-drama from the guy who made "Anchorman," about a real-life financial crisis whose origins were so complicated that even a clever script and a cast of A-list actors in bad wigs could explain only a fraction of them.

Did anyone see that coming?
Well, maybe. The movie did win a number of Critics Choice Awards earlier this month. The Broadcast Film Critics Association gave "Big Short" Best Comedy, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor in a Comedy (for Christian Bale, who's up for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role). To the extent that the BFCA reflects conventional wisdom in Hollywood, that support meant a lot, even though the group ultimately gave Best Picture and Best Acting Ensemble to "Spotlight."

Still, the PGA award is a game-changer. In the nine years since the Producers Guild adopted a proportional voting system much like the one used by the Academy, the PGA winner has gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar every year. (Well, almost; two years ago, "12 Years a Slave" tied with "Gravity" at the PGA, while the Academy gave the prize only to "12 Years.")

The prizes "Short" is nominated for are all considered important precursors to a Best Picture win. And while McKay may be best known for unleashing some of Will Ferrell's most manic performances, he's earned a lot of praise for his "Short" screenplay (co-written with Charles Randolph) that not only explains the 2008 financial crisis but does so in an entertaining and even funny way.
The Academy does like movies that address serious topics of historical importance. It likes them even more when they're hits, and to date, "Short" has racked up a respectable $57.5 million. (That's less than half of what "Revenant" [above] has earned, but it's still about double the earnings of fellow nominees "Spotlight" and "Brooklyn," and eight times the earnings of "Room.")

The next big test of "Short" support will come this Saturday at the Screen Actors Guild awards. There, it's nominated for Supporting Actor (for Bale) and for the top prize, Best Ensemble, against "Spotlight" and three films that didn't make the Oscar cut: "Trumbo," "Straight Outta Compton," and "Beasts of No Nation."

The SAG awards are considered important because there's some overlap with the actors' branch of the Academy, the single biggest bloc of professionals voting for the Oscars. While Sylvester Stallone is favored to win the Supporting Actor Oscar, perhaps for sentimental reasons, for his artistic comeback role in "Creed," there's a school of thought that favors Bale. Why? Of the five nominees for Supporting Actor at SAG, only Bale and "Room" co-star Jacob Tremblay appeared in films whose distributors managed to get screener DVDs to SAG voters in a timely manner.

So "Short" and "Room" are the two candidates SAG voters are most likely to have seen, and rather than give the prize to a little boy whose performance might be a fluke, they'll give it to the veteran A-lister and previous Oscar-winner. That Bale momentum could carry forward to the Oscars.
Still, when the (blue) chips are down, is "The Big Short" really the kind of movie that the Academy wants to elevate above all others? After all, "Spotlight" is about heroic reporters taking on a powerful institution and uncovering terrible crimes. "Revenant," "The Martian," and "Room" are all about people surviving horrific situations against long odds. "Mad Max" (pictured above) and "Bridge of Spies" are about selfless men who fight for justice and civility in worlds that tend toward violence and suspicion. "Short," however, is about some rich white guys who predict an economic collapse that will bring misery to millions... and profit handsomely from their foresight.

Then again, last year's top picks, including winner "Birdman" and also-rans "Boyhood" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel," weren't about heroism, social issues, or historical events either. The two nominees that did fit the traditional Best Picture profile, "American Sniper" and "Selma," didn't stand a chance. If "Big Short" does follow the PGA precedent to take the Academy's top prize, it'll be another sign that the Oscars are becoming more about the merits of individual movies than about sending a political message -- or presenting a particular image of what an Academy honoree should look like.

Of course, the fact that this trend comes at a time when the Academy is desperate to present a more inclusive image means that even the effort to be apolitical is itself political.

But then, that's the kind of absurd paradox that "The Big Short" revels in. Maybe it really is the most apt movie of our time.
categories Movies, Oscars, Awards