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Could a blockbuster win the Oscar? With ‘Mad Max,’ ‘Star Wars,’ it doesn’t seem impossible.

Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” (Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Rarely do box office smashes wow academy voters. Technical categories aside, Oscars are reserved for movies that are just 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 artsy 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”

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In a year when many long-gestating franchise flicks flopped — think “Entourage” and “Terminator: Genisys” — people flocked to theaters to see George Miller’s dust-covered summer blockbuster. The action flick, released 30 years after the last “Max” installment, brought in north of $150 million domestically 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, the movie 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 D.C., 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, “Mad Max” 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.

Golden Globes nominations 2016: Complete list and analysis; Schumer, Stallone nominated; ‘Carol’ leads with five

“Mad Max: 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-fueled 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 “Mad Max” 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.

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ review: Baby, it was born to run

“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 a half-billion dollars 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, reveals 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, aces 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.

Stirring and amusing, ‘The Martian’ defines what’s best about Big Movies

“The Hateful Eight”

Quentin Tarantino’s latest, a western, won’t be released 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 of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, too.

“Pulp Fiction” was the 10th biggest hit of 1994 and earned Tarantino a best screenplay Oscar; “Inglourious Basterds” brought in more than $120 million domestically and scored a nom 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. I have opinions about the movie that I’m not at liberty to relay until the week the movie comes out, but I can at least say that, 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 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.

With blood, bounty hunters and 70mm film, Quentin Tarantino is on a mission to save cinema

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ gets the nostalgia-novelty mix just right

“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’s Scott 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 nod.

The original “Star Wars” movie was honored 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, Episode IV was like nothing filmgoers 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.

Fear not, young Padawan. If you are stuck at a party where "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" seems to be the only thing on people's minds, here are a few tips to make it sound like you know a thing or two. (Video: Michael Cavna and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)
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