'The Big Short': An Oscars dark horse for Best Picture

'The Big Short,' a film about those who predicted the 2008 financial crisis, is suddenly the talk of the Oscars race. Why?

Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures/AP
'The Big Short' stars Christian Bale.

Why were so many industry observers surprised by the results at this year’s Producers Guild of America Awards? 

At the latest awards ceremony honoring films released in 2015, the film “The Big Short,” which tells the story of various people who foresaw the recent recession, won the PGA big prize, the Darryl F. Zanuck Award. 

This is the PGA Awards equivalent of the Oscars' Best Picture. The Darryl F. Zanuck Award winner has gone on to take Best Picture every year since 2007, including the 2014 movie “Birdman,” 2012’s “Argo,” 2011’s “The Artist,” and 2010’s “The King’s Speech.” (In 2014, the movies “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” tied – “Slave” went on to win Best Picture.)

Directed by “Anchorman” conductor Adam McKay, “Short” is one of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.

But until recently, many Oscar watchers had believed that the journalism film “Spotlight” was the frontrunner for the Oscars top prize, while some thought the survival movie “The Revenant” might have a chance at Best Picture after winning the Golden Globe for best drama (over “Spotlight,” no less). And at the Golden Globes, the science fiction movie “The Martian” beat out “Short” for the best comedy or musical prize.

Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times noted that the win by “Short” “largely [took] the room by surprise. Winning the Darryl F. Zanuck Award adds further momentum to the movie’s late-breaking awards run, just the latest development in a topsy-turvy awards season."

Variety writer Dave McNary called the decision "a major surprise."

Pete Hammond of Deadline wrote that the win by “Short” is less shocking to him, though: “This movie has been surging like Donald Trump ever since it opened in December, gaining steam at every stop (well, maybe except the Golden Globes).” 

What could be the next indicator as to the chances of “Short”? Awards season watchers are pointing to the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which will be held later this week on Jan. 30 and where “Short” is nominated for the best cast award (the SAG Awards equivalent of Best Picture). If “Short” won the top award there, it could be hard to beat. 

Why is "Short" doing so well?

Monitor film critic Peter Rainer called "Short" "fast-paced and entertaining and, given that it’s about the home loan mortgage crisis that led to the 2008 financial collapse, I found it surprisingly easy to follow." 

"Short" may also be the first movie about the Great Recession to be released post-recession that has caught the attention of audiences. In 2009, "Up in the Air," for example, became an Oscar nominee and a box office hit, but it was a fictional story about a man who fires employees at various companies.  "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013) experienced awards season plaudits and also became a box office hit, but it was about a stockbroker living in the 1980s.

By contrast, "Short" attempts to explain in detail what happened to cause the 2008 financial crisis. Most of the movies made on the subject since the recession occurred have been documentaries like "Inside Job" in 2010. But "Inside," for example, didn't gross anything close to the numbers of "Short," nor did a fictional take on the recession, the 2011 film "Margin Call."

A movie that looks at what caused the recession (accurately or not), presumably resonates emotionally with audiences and critics. Bourree Lam and Gillian B. White of the Atlantic write:

For those who vividly remember the crisis, the movie can be stressful at times, showing all the points at which safety mechanisms failed to kick in. For those who don’t remember or weren’t paying close attention, it’s a good primer on how the recession started. For both groups, it’s worth watching."

Inkoo Kang of TheWrap writes, "Unless you’re a Wall Street trader or a CNBC fanatic, you’re bound to learn something new about how unregulated capitalism set itself on fire less than a decade ago."

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