I have rarely had a difficult time predicting the winner in the in the Best Visual Effects category, even when the Award went to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There is a long standing tradition that when there is a Best Picture nominee in the Visual Effects category, that film will win the Visual Effects Oscar. This trend/statistic is something many have cited since Star Wars won this award back in 1977.
The reason this statistic has held up over time was because between 1977 and 1993, there were only two other Best Picture nominees who were nominated for Best Visual Effects, and took home the Oscar, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E..T. Throughout this almost twenty year span winners in the Visual Effects category were the blockbusters who moved audiences and and the visual effects art form in new and interesting directions. Some of these winners include Aliens, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Jurassic Park. These are three films which deserved Best Picture consideration, but the Academy rarely honored "genre pictures" outside of the technical categories.
In 1994 three movies were nominated, Forrest Gump, True Lies, and The Mask. Forrest Gump was the first Best Picture nominee in this category since 1982, and won the award. Forrest Gump's visual effects were a novelty, and are the first example of prestige drama winning in this category. Gump's digital manipulation of events in history won out over the typical explosive motorcycle crashing into a building of True Lies. This was a changing of the guard, and while I would imagine there were other viable contenders from that year, this would mark the start for more Best Picture nominees in the visual effects Oscar category.
Since 1994 18 films have been nominated for Best Picture and Best Visual Effects. There have only been 8 years when there was no Best Picture nominated in the Visual Effects category. The largest time frame when this happened was between 2004 and 2007. The category typically only had 3 nominees up until 2010. As far as statistics go predicting this award in a year without a Best Picture nomination is incredibly difficult, I am not sure many saw Pirate's of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest beating Superman Returns (2006) or The Golden Compass beating Transformers (2007). All four of these films had mediocre to terrible reviews, so how do you pick a winner in this bunch? Admiration? The Guilds?
Beyond these two years, it's sad to say that the visual effects Oscar winner has more to do with "perceived prestige" and lazy voting not the actual best visual effects. This trend has continued with more Best Picture nominees present in this category. A repetitive pattern started in 2008, Benjamin Button beat The Dark Knight, Hugo beat Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part and Rise of of the Planet of the Apes, Life of Pi beat The Avengers. I could see this pattern repeating here this year with The Revenant beating Mad Max and Star Wars. For those following the Oscars it has been apparent that voters have been checking boxes for films like Hugo, Life of Pi, and Gravity in the technical categories, and while their visual effects are impressive (Gravity easily deserved the win), I want more dissension.
The fact that there is a statistic that proves every time a Best Picture is nominated in Best Visual Effects it wins shows laziness. My hope is that the Oscars move away from the "prestige" choice in this category, if that alternative is not worth rewarding. This year there are three films nominated for Best Picture and Best Visual Effects, the most correlation in the Oscars history. They are The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Martian.
Forrest Gump (6 Oscar wins), Titanic (11 Oscar wins), Gladiator (5 Oscar wins), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (11 Oscar wins), are the only four films to win Best Picture and Best Visual Effects, they were clear front runners. Gladiator winning over Hollow Man and The Perfect Storm makes sense, while there were stronger candidates which were not nominated that year like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, that is not the case this year.
If the tradition stands the Best Picture front runner will win this award, and that is The Revenant. The film predicted by my many to win Best Picture/Director/Actor and many other technical awards. Will The Revenant have that rubber stamp from voters in a similar way to Return of the King, and Titanic, or will another film triumph? In a year filled with some fantastic nominees, The Revenant would feel like Benjamin Button, a lazy "prestige" choice.
I would rather practical effects of Mad Max take the win here, they are the most impressive of the nominees. The Martian will not win, they have pick Gravity and Interstellar too recently. Ex Machina was a surprise nominee, but well deserved. The true spoiler in this category could be the film which many cite as starting the Best Picture/Best Visual Effects statistic, and that is The Force Awakens. Force is not nominated but won at the Visual Effects Guild and at BAFTA, this could be the thing to watch out for, especially if people want to honor the achievement of bringing Star Wars back. At the end of the day I want Oscar voters to make the right choice, and honor the best visual effects, not the best manufactured bear attack.