Even Morgan Freeman sounded slightly surprised when he announced the name of this year’s Best Picture Winner: Spotlight.
Spotlight, the movie that had been rejected by the Golden Globes, Directors Guild, Producers Guild and BAFTAs? And that’s saying a lot because the Directors Guild had predicted 7 out of the last 8 Best Picture winners while the Producers Guild had gone 8 for 8.
Spotlight, the movie that opened the night with a Best Original Screenplay win and then watched as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant seemed to win everything else?
Spotlight, the movie which the Academy determined did not have the best acting, directing, editing or cinematography? The last Best Picture winner to go home with only 2 total awards was The Greatest Show on Earth in 1953. Like Spotlight, it’s other award was also for Best Screenplay.
Spotlight, the … actually totally respectable pick for Best Picture which was so enthusiastically embraced at this year’s Venice and Toronto Film Festivals and won the Screen Actor Guild’s Best Ensemble award. Still, it winning the Oscar for Best Picture did not line up with the rest of the evening at all.
Perhaps that’s a fitting end to the strangest awards season in recent memory. The show itself, with its separate periods of domination by Mad Max and then The Revenant, mirrored this year’s ever-shifting winds of awards momentum. Since last March, critics have gone back and forth arguing over the awards merits of: It Follows, Ex Machina, Clouds of Sils Maria, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Love & Mercy, Trainwreck, Southpaw, Mr. Holmes, The End of the Tour, Straight Outta Compton, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Tangerine, Sicario, 99 Homes, Beasts of No Nation, Spotlight, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, Room, Brooklyn, Carol, The Danish Girl, Creed, The Big Short, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hateful Eight, Joy and The Revenant.
Some of those ended up sticking. A great many did not. That’s how it always goes. The acting awards often go to movies which no one particularly liked, like Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl and Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, and the Academy displays its short memory by overly embracing more recent movies over those which came out earlier in the year. Plus, as of late, the Best Picture winner is the one not nearly enough people saw, and the more financially successful movies are just happy to be nominated.
A lot of that was true of this year’s show, but not all of it. A summer blockbuster like Mad Max, embraced at the time of its release as a monumental triumph for its genre, is supposed to be mostly ignored by the Oscars. Instead, it led the way with 6 wins, all of them in the technical categories. The more recent flavors of the moment like The Revenant and The Big Short could not topple Spotlight, which, if you remember, was anointed the presumptive Best Picture favorite upon its film festival premiere. The utter predictability that often plagues the Oscars was disrupted by multiple upset wins, and not just Spotlight winning for Best Picture. There was also Sam Smith over Lada Gaga for Song, Rylance over Stallone for Supporting Actor and Ex Machina over Star Wars for Visual Effects. The Rylance win in particular was a gift for Twitter one-liners:
It was also an awards show which ran way to long, and didn’t even stick to its own self-imposed rules of presenting the awards according to the order in which a movie is made. I didn’t realize that you start our by writing a script, then casting a supporting actress before moving on to designing the costumes.
As the host, Chris Rock’s singular focus on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy throughout the entire evening led to some inspired jokes and pre-taped video segments, but it also rendered Hollywood’s diversity problem a black/white binary when in fact Latinos and Asians have it even worse. It was odd that this wasn’t acknowledged by Rock but instead by a random black theater goer in Compton who worked in a reference to the other overlooked races in his faux acceptance speech during one of the pre-taped segments.
That being said, the most entertaining part of the show must have been Rock’s “take no prisoners” opening monologue, unless you were watching your Twitter feed in which the case the most fun to be had from the whole show was seeing the internet throw one meme after another teasing the eventuality of DiCaprio’s win for Best Actor.
One of the themes which emerged during this year’s Oscars telecast is just how much Hollywood wants to look like it supports social change through art. DiCaprio’s speech about climate change was admirable and more than welcomed, but does The Revenant – the movie itself, not the conditions under which it was made – really speak to that issue as much they all pretend it does? On the opposite end, why would you play off the Short Documentary winner as she was telling us exactly how her movie caused positive change in her local government? Chris Rock and Kevin Hart were occasionally serious when discussing diversity, and the Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs delivered a stern speech challenging the producers and artists in the room to step up their damn game to make movies which better reflect the world we live in.
The people at the Oscars were quick to throw money at the actual black girls scouts distributing cookies during one of Rock’s comedy bits, and Joe Biden was on hand to promote a website challenging us to take charge in the fight against sexual assault. However, there’s only so much they can really do. At the end of the day, it’s a freakin’ awards show, not a political rally. As Rock himself joked during his monologue, black people didn’t protest the Oscars during all of the #OscarsSoWhite occasions throughout the 60s because they had bigger, world-changing Civil Rights battles to fight.
At the exact same time the Oscars were happening Creed director Ryan Coogler and other Hollywood figures were off in Flint, Michigan actually raising money and awareness for the infuriating breakdown of civil responsibility which led to poor people, most of them black, being exposed to toxic drinking water. That’s the type of actionable change the Oscars can only pay lip service to, merely hoping that mabye some of their movies will inspire such action in others.
What the Oscars can definitely do is award great movies, and that certainly describes Spotlight, which tells an important story about a still-pressing social issue in the least flashy way possible (apart from Ruffalo’s moment of shouting at Keaton). It’s not my personal favorite (Creed) nor would it be my pick among the 8 films which were actually nominated, but it is an absolutely worthy selection.
For the record: I went 16 for 21 with my predictions (I sipped the 3 short film categories). I guessed Revenant would lose Best Picture, but I ultimately backed the wrong “social relevant movie,” picking The Big Short over Spotlight. I also foolishly picked George Miller for Director, and most of the other ones I missed were the ones everyone probably missed (Supporting Actor, Visual Effects, Song, etc.).