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The only thing wilder than this presidential election cycle is the Oscar race for best picture.

Just like candidates divvy up primary wins, three films — wilderness survival story The Revenant, Wall Street dramedy The Big Short and journalism thriller Spotlight — have each built up strong front-runner résumés heading into the 88th Academy Awards Feb. 28 (ABC, 7 p.m. ET/4 PT). But while it’s entertaining for movie fans, it’s maddening to the experts who predict this stuff.

“Although I’m pulling my hair out, I’m also happy that this year’s Oscars are not a done deal,” says Fandango.com’s Dave Karger.

Usually at this time, one or two films have broken from the pack — last year, Birdman and Boyhood tussled for the title (Birdman prevailed). This year’s free-for-all is mainly a result of the various guilds, usually the best predictors for the Oscars, splitting their honorees: The Revenant was honored as top film by the Directors Guild of America, Spotlight captured the best-ensemble honor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and The Big Short took the main Producers Guild prize.

The rest don’t quite measure up because they don’t have the important award-season wins. Though it may end Oscar night with the most awards, thanks to all its technical nominations, Mad Max: Fury Road remains a real dark horse, and Bridge of Spies, Room, Brooklyn and The Martian, even with a Golden Globe trophy, are on the outside looking in.

Though similar sprints shaped up in 2005 with Sideways, Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator, and two years ago with Gravity, 12 Years A Slave and American Hustle, “we’ve never had a race like this,” says Tom O’Neil of the awards-prediction site GoldDerby.com. “All the signposts point in different directions.”

Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggles to stay warm during a vicious winter in ‘The Revenant.’ (Photo: Kimberley French)

If anything has momentum among Academy Awards voters (who must turn in final ballots by Tuesday), it’s The Revenant. It has the most nominations with 12 — Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio are favored for best director and best actor — plus it took best film at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, along with the DGA honor. Also, with the #OscarsSoWhite debate in the air, “if you go with Iñárritu, you’re picking somebody who’s not white,” says Sasha Stone, editor of AwardsDaily.com.

O’Neil points out, however, that it’s “very rare” that a movie wins without a screenplay nomination — only Titanic and The Sound of Music have pulled off that feat. It also would also be the first time that back-to-back best picture winners shared the same director, Stone says. And “lots of people hate The Revenant. It’s got Les Misérables level of hatred on it, and that’s hard to win.”

Spotlight and The Big Short are more conventional candidates, O’Neil says. “They’re ensemble films with an A-list Hollywood cast about two of the most urgent social messages of our time: the Catholic Church scandal and the Wall Street collapse.”

Steve Carell in ‘The Big Short.’ (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk)

Spotlight was an early favorite, but at most it will win two of its six nominated categories, O’Neil says, and the last best-picture winner to win that few awards was 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth.

And oddly enough, the presidential race could possibly play into the best-picture race, Stone says, if supporters of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders — who has been very critical of big banks — want to see public recognition for The Big Short and its portrayal of financial recklessness.  “If people are tapped into the election, they might put their vote there.”

Of course, making everything more complicated is the Oscars’ preferential ballot, in which voters rank their best-picture choices instead of picking one winner. If no movie gets a 50% count plus one of first-place votes, then the rankings become important. “It doesn’t matter if you have more No. 1s. What matters is if you also have No. 2s or No. 3s,” Stone says.

“The movie that ends up winning, we’ll never know, but it probably has just 20% or 25% of the vote,” Karger says. “That’s it.”

As “psychologically traumatic” as it is for O’Neil, the chaos does have a silver lining.

“It’s the most fun Oscar year in modern times,” he says, “and despite the smugness of pundits, no one’s going to know what will be best picture until that envelope is opened and everyone gasps.”

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