The four movie blockbusters vying, unusually, for best picture Oscar

It’s rare to see so many box office hits tipped for the best picture Academy Award, with new Star Wars and Mad Max films, Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight all in the running

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Rarely do box office smashes wow Academy voters. Technical categories aside, Oscars are reserved for movies that are supposedly more sophisticated.

There are exceptions, of course. Titanic won best picture in 1997, and ever since the best picture field expanded to 10 potential nominees, there's supposedly more space for less weighty movies. It's sort of a peace offering for the common folk – a chance for one movie that's less arty and more mainstream to get a nomination.

Last year it was top earner American Sniper. Meanwhile, the award winner, Birdman, was the 78th most profitable film of 2014, and none of the other hopefuls cracked the top 30.

This year might be different, however. Four popular movies have a shot at a best picture nomination. In order of likelihood, they are Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Hateful Eight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here's a look at their chances.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In a year when many long-gestating franchise films flopped – think Entourage and Terminator: Genisys – people flocked to cinemas to see George Miller's dust-covered summer blockbuster. The action film, released 30 years after the last Max instalment, earned more than US$150 million in the United States alone and even more overseas.

But it wasn't just the masses that enjoyed seeing Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron as partners-in-justifiable-crime, kicking tail in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Despite its B-movie origins, Fury Road was also a huge hit with nearly every movie critic. And not just in a “fun for a mindless summer blockbuster” kind of way. Critics associations in Washington, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Diego and Boston, among many others, have proclaimed that the movie or the director (and in some cases both) are the most impressive of the year. Better than all the movies that are supposed to be the best: The Revenant and Spotlight, Carol and Bridge of Spies. At the upcoming Critics' Choice Awards, Fury Road leads the field by a large margin with 13 nominations.

The Hollywood Foreign Press, which dictates the Golden Globes, has joined the party, too. George Miller was nominated for best director, and the movie beat out more stereotypical entries (Brooklyn, The Danish Girl) to secure a place in the best dramatic motion picture category.

Fury Road is essentially a two-hour chase, so a lot of people are probably wondering: Um ...what? And that's justifiable for people who haven't seen it. The marketing for the movie made it seem, at least to some of us, like a grotesque, testosterone-fuelled trip to a monochromatic hellscape.

But the movie turns out to be much more than that. For starters, most of the heroes in the movie are women, and they're more interesting characters than the man of the title, who spends much of the movie grunting. The most memorable is Charlize Theron's Furiosa, the one-armed vigilante driver of a war rig who risks everything to rescue a group of sex slaves and deliver them to a better place.

The movie isn't entirely progressive, as the first time we see the women, they're wearing next to nothing. But Fury Road is unquestionably about more than showing skin. In addition to a story that turns out to be unexpectedly touching, the visuals are magnificent. The landscapes look ripped from your most gorgeous nightmares, and the high-speed chase scenes aren't just muscular; they're acrobatic and strangely beautiful.

During an interview with HitFix, cinematographer John Seale said that Miller manipulated the frame rate in many of the scenes, slowing down the action so that audiences could really grasp what was happening, then speeding things up. That quickening makes Mad Max almost cartoonishly jerky. In other words, it doesn't necessarily look like an Oscar contender. Then again, it's imaginative risks that have earned the movie so much recognition.

The Martian

Ridley Scott's sci-fi adventure about an astronaut who is accidentally left behind on Mars was an enormous crowd-pleaser, bringing in more than US$500 million worldwide. On the surface it seemed like a relatively serious movie about a single man's struggle to survive – something along the lines of Gravity or Cast Away in space. In reality, it was a more sprawling tale, not to mention a much funnier one.

The large ensemble cast of talented actors, including Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig, reveal an expansive story about many people, in various corners of the galaxy, coming together to try to save one man's life. The movie itself is a little bit lighter (despite the dire circumstances) than your typical Oscar fare, but it's hard to deny the winning combination of remarkable camera work, great casting and efficient script (expertly adapted from Andy Weir's novel), which makes sense of some pretty dense science.

And then there's the fact that Ridley Scott has never actually won an Oscar. So even if The Martian winds up missing out on a best picture nod – which is a pretty big if – Scott could very well get love for his direction simply because the man behind Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Black Hawk Down is long overdue for a win.

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s latest, a western, won't be released in the US until Christmas Day, so box office pull is still a question mark. But if his other movies are any indication, Hateful will be a hit with audiences and could strike a chord with the Academy, too.

Pulp Fiction was the 10th biggest hit of 1994 and earned Tarantino a best screenplay Oscar; Inglourious Basterds brought in more than US$120 million in the US alone and scored a nomination for best picture; as did Django Unchained, the 15th most profitable movie of 2012, which also won the best original screenplay prize.

Which brings us to The Hateful Eight. Most of the story takes place in a haberdashery, where a group of seven men and one woman are stranded during a blizzard. This being Tarantino, bloodshed is obligatory, as is a story that unfolds with a disregard for chronological order.While this may not be Tarantino's strongest outing, it's a movie with grand ambitions.

The western was filmed in a super-wide, rarely seen format, which entailed using decades-old equipment. Tarantino is trying to restore the idea that going to the movies should be a big event, so for the first couple of weeks audiences can buy tickets to a special “roadshow” screening of the movie, which will be projected in the old-school manner, in 70mm. Those screenings include extra footage, an overture and an intermission.

Whether or not the movie is as good as Tarantino’s others, the Academy may give him points for his high regard for film, not to mention his personal quest to remind people how exciting movies can be.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The latest Star Wars instalment started breaking box office records before it even hit cinemas. Prognosticators are estimating that the film, which is the first that George Lucas had no hand in making, will rake in around US$200 million during its opening weekend. Early reviews have been equally starry-eyed, calling the movie, directed by J.J. Abrams, who earlier rebooted the Star Trek franchise, the best of the year, among other superlatives.

The Force Awakens is a long shot for Oscars outside of technical categories. But the fact that the Academy is hosting multiple screenings for voters and their families this weekend has imaginations running wild. At least one in-the-know journalist has taken the bait. Hollywood Reporter’sScott Feinberg proclaimed that the movie has a good chance at being a best picture contender, based on a rapturous reception during the Los Angeles premiere, not to mention some tweets from voting members of the Academy. He also said that Abrams wouldn’t be a long shot for a directing prize.

The original Star Wars was honoured by the Academy in 1977, with nominations for best picture, director and screenplay, among others. And it won six awards, in technical categories. Of course, that film, Episode IV, was like nothing film-goers had ever seen. The new Episode VII is a lot like the original trilogy. So if the Academy is looking for something beyond pure entertainment value, which it usually is, voters may not find it in the biggest release of the year.

The Washington Post