Last night, gasps were heard in the Kodak theater as Morgan Freeman announced the name “Spotlight” after opening the envelope for Best Picture. It was arguably the biggest upset in Best Picture since Crash infamously beat Brokeback Mountain in 2006. Coming into the night, most pundits were backing “The Revenant,” while a few other seasoned prognosticators were favoring “The Big Short.” “The Revenant” had the most nominations and had recently won the BAFTA award as well as the Golden Globe for Best Picture drama. “The Big Short” won the Producer’s Guild Award, which had been 100% correct in predicting Best Picture since 2009, when they shifted to a Preferential Ballot, same voting mechanism as the Academy.
What most people forgot, though, was that “Spotlight” was not without accolades. It won the LA Film Critics Award, the Critics Choice Award, and most importantly, the Screen Actor’s Guild ensemble award. The SAG award is always a good indicator, because the biggest branch within the Academy is still the actors.
But there is something even bigger here than those precursor awards. Something that hasn’t been talked about in a while when it comes to the Oscars. And that is that “Spotlight” really was the best film. Since it debuted at Venice and played at Telluride last fall, “Spotlight” was widely regarded as one of the best films of the year. But then the narrative shifted. It shifted to “The Big Short,” because that movie tackled the timely 2008 financial crisis in a very entertaining manner. And then it shifted to “The Revenant,” which was soooo difficult to make….brutal conditions…..and how about that scene where Leonardo DiCaprio gets mauled by a bear, wow!!! “Spotlight” was forgotten because it wasn’t flashy, clever, and didn’t have stunning visuals. It was just a solid, well done film.
So here, as we conclude another fantastic Oscar season, we want to pay tribute to “Spotlight,” and especially to this year’s Oscar voters for having the sense and the foresight to award a truly deserving Best Picture. Think about it. What does Best Picture at the Academy Awards mean? It is a distinction of historical significance. It is a permanent honor. And, more often than not, it is a message that says something about the world we live in, at the time when we are living. This last sentence may be debated and disagreed upon by many, but consider some of the past Best Picture winners. “The Hurt Locker” so poignantly captured the experiences of US soldiers in a devastating, perhaps senseless war. “Argo” was about the heroism of many for a worthy cause. “12 Years A Slave” depicted the indignities of slavery in a way that had never been done before. Then you had films like “The Artist” and “Birdman,” that may not have had as powerful a social message, but still were important in their own way, and offered critiques of the entertainment industry and to a lesser extent, the way we live our lives.
“Spotlight” was hands down the most important film of this year. I still remember an unknown online blogger who proclaimed that “The Revenant” was basically the triumph of the white man against impossible odds. It’s not totally false. The film tells the story of settlers ravaging the land of Native Americans but then chooses to focus on one man, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his quest for “redemption.” Code for revenge. The story is unoriginal and full of cliches. What saved it was its stunning cinematography, but visuals alone do not win you a Best Picture. “The Big Short” was important, but probably too smart for its own good. It also didn’t help that its main characters were, practically speaking, all villains who profited from the collapse of the American economy. Movie goers usually would rather have someone to root for than against. And then you have “Spotlight,” which was about the disciplined tenacity of journalists to uncover and expose the truth, even against very powerful and influential forces. The truth is sometimes the most elusive of things, especially when it inconveniences those at the very top, or those who hold power and influence. “Spotlight” portrays this pursuit of the truth concerning the Catholic Church priest sexual abuse scandal in a measured and realistic light that always treats its subjects with respect. The filmmakers let the story tell itself, and the effect is a narrative that really moves you, more than you realize once you have left the theater.
Finally, congratulations to Open Road Films, a company that only started in 2011, and now has its first Best Picture winner. And to Michael Keaton, an excellent actor on a career resurgence, who has now appeared in back to back Best Picture winners. Another year is in the books. Our 2017 Oscar predictions are coming soon!