Oscar front-runners hard to find as nominations loom

Story highlights

  • Oscar nominations will be announced Thursday morning
  • It's a year with virtually no guarantees -- except maybe Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant"

(CNN)Give Leonardo DiCaprio some credit: He's worked hard to put himself in the Oscar conversation.

The "Revenant" star famously ate a raw bison liver (which, he said, did NOT taste like chicken), waded through icy water and came down with the flu several times while portraying Hugh Glass, the vengeful 19th-century trapper, in the wilderness epic.
For his efforts (including some acting), he's considered the front-runner for best actor.
    That makes him unusual, because this year's Oscar races feature very few front-runners at all.
    The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced Thursday morning.
    The 2016 Oscars may come under fire for all kinds of reasons. There are rumblings about revisiting the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite based on the presumed category leaders. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" may now be the highest-grossing movie of all time, but financial success is no guarantee of academy nominations.
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    And will moviegoers be unhappy if, say, the little-seen "Room" bumps "The Martian" from the best picture list?
    There's a lot up in the air.
    The Producers Guild, one key Oscar indicator, included "Straight Outta Compton" and "Ex Machina" among its best film nominees but left off "Room" and "Star Wars." Director David O. Russell's "Joy," starring Oscar sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence, may not make the cut, either -- though Lawrence's new Golden Globe won't hurt.
    And "Mad Max: Fury Road"? In years past, it might have been dismissed as a clever but noisy summer action flick. Instead, the National Board of Review named it the best film of 2015 -- and there's growing talk of Oscar nominations for the film and director George Miller.
    What else is possible? Here's a look at the six major categories:

    Best picture

    Locks:
    "Spotlight," about the Boston Globe's investigation of a Catholic priest sex scandal, is such an ensemble piece, its performers have generally been overlooked in the acting races. Still, the film has topped critics' polls and won a slew of awards, including the American Film Institute's movie of the year. Joining "Spotlight" will be "Carol," "The Revenant" and "The Big Short."
    Contenders:
    After that, the race gets murky. "Mad Max" has appeared on dozens of top-10 lists, but its gasoline-powered fury is as far from the usual Oscar fare as "The Wild Angels." "The Danish Girl" is more Oscar's type -- elegant, tastefully performed, about a meaty subject (a man transitioning to female) -- but it's left many cold. Pixar's "Inside Out" deserves to make it, but it's animated, and animated best picture nominees are rarities. "The Martian" is popular, and "Room" has been praised, but neither is a sure-fire guarantee.
    Wild cards:
    "Straight Outta Compton" made the PGA's list; will the academy follow the lead? "Brooklyn's" performances are strong, but the movie might miss. "Bridge of Spies" is Spielberg, but that might not be enough this year. And after its initial reviews, "Star Wars" was practically a shoo-in. Now it's a long shot. Still, there can be as many as 10 nominees on the best picture list, so there's some room for long shots.

    Best actor

    Locks:
    Contenders:
    Matt Damon carries "The Martian" and won a Golden Globe -- for comedy, but we'll let that pass. Michael Fassbender doesn't look like "Steve Jobs," but he's mesmerizing nonetheless. The well-liked Bryan Cranston has earned accolades as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in "Trumbo," and Eddie Redmayne, as transgender Lili Elbe, is Oscar bait in "The Danish Girl."
    Wild cards:
    "The Big Short's" Steve Carell and Christian Bale and "Spotlight's" Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo have a problem: Are they playing lead or supporting roles? Johnny Depp was good as mobster Whitey Bulger in "Black Mass," but the movie didn't do very well. Will Smith received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as an NFL-challenging doctor in "Concussion." Michael B. Jordan was terrific as Apollo Creed's son in "Creed." And in the really far-out suggestion race, IMDb's Keith Simonton, voting on GoldDerby.com, has "Son of Saul's" Gaza Rohrig in his top five. The Oscars have done crazier things.

    Best actress

    Locks:
    Cate Blanchett is becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation. She has two Oscars and six nominations, and "Carol" -- as a 1950s woman embarking on a lesbian affair -- will net her a seventh nod. "Room's" Brie Larson, who plays a kidnapped mother in the grim drama, is already being tabbed for a win. She won the Globe on Sunday. "Brooklyn's" Saoirse Ronan, who was 13 when she was nominated for "Atonement," will pick up her second nomination.
    Contenders:
    The ageless Charlotte Rampling has been highly touted for "45 Years," but the art-house movie has been little seen, and Rampling missed out on a BAFTA nomination. The Oscars -- like everyone else -- love Jennifer Lawrence, but many reviewers don't think she pulled off a 40-something woman in "Joy."
    Wild cards:
    If it's Alicia Vikander's year, will it be as a lead in "The Danish Girl" or a supporting role in "Ex Machina" -- or neither? Two beloved performers, Maggie Smith ("The Lady in the Van") and Lily Tomlin ("Grandma"), could sneak in. And Charlize Theron can kick anyone's butt in "Mad Max," but the academy might not want to be kicked.

    Best supporting actor

    Locks:
    Mark Rylance said much while saying little as a Russian spy in "Bridge of Spies." Sylvester Stallone, who hasn't gotten a nomination since 1976's "Rocky," will probably get another for the same role, boxer Rocky Balboa -- this time a mentor in "Creed." He won a Globe on Sunday, too.
    Contenders:
    If any of "Spotlight's" performers get spotlighted, it'll be Mark Ruffalo, who has the showiest scene in the unshowy film. However, Michael Keaton could get a nod for the opposite reason: He's the film's rock. Idris Elba is earning raves as an African general in "Beasts of No Nation." And young -- very young (he's 9) -- Jacob Tremblay may pick up a nomination for "Room."
    Wild cards:
    Almost nobody's seen "99 Homes," but everyone who has -- and that includes members of the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association -- has singled out Michael Shannon's performance as an opportunistic real estate investor. Paul Dano's young Brian Wilson was eerily resonant in "Love and Mercy." Christian Bale could get a nod here for "The Big Short."

    Best supporting actress

    Locks:
    Rooney Mara, as the object of "Carol's" love, will earn a nomination. So will Globe winner Kate Winslet, playing a longtime Apple executive in "Steve Jobs."
    Contenders:
    Handicapping sites are all over the place on the next tier. Vikander's best bet, for "The Danish Girl," is probably here. Helen Mirren, as "Trumbo" gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and Rachel McAdams, as the lone female member of "Spotlight's" investigative reporter team, have also ranked highly.
    Wild cards:
    Jane Fonda ("Youth") has a following among some handicappers. Jennifer Jason Leigh appears to be the sole member of Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" who may get a nod. And Vikander can't be nominated twice in the same category, but her turn in "Ex Machina" may get her a nomination if "The Danish Girl" doesn't.

    Best director

    Locks:
    Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won last year for "Birdman," will get another nomination for "The Revenant." Ridley Scott, who directed 2000's best picture, "Gladiator," but has never won himself, will get a nod for "The Martian." "Carol" reeks of Oscar goodness; director Todd Haynes will receive a nomination, too.
    Contenders:
    Tom McCarthy ("Spotlight") oversaw a well-received movie, but it's the kind of movie where the director is sometimes overlooked. (See "Little Miss Sunshine," "In the Bedroom" and other low-key actors' films [PDF].) George Miller ("Mad Max: Fury Road") seems due -- if his film gets a best picture nomination. Adam McKay ("The Big Short") managed to handle a huge and complicated subject with brash aplomb.
    Wild cards:
    John Crowley did a charming job with "Brooklyn." Ryan Coogler invested "Creed" with more grit than any "Rocky" since "Rocky," which won John G. Avildsen an Oscar. And is there room for J.J. Abrams' work on "Star Wars"? Probably not, but never underestimate the power of the Force.