The Best Picture Mystery: Is there a case for Spotlight, or will it be mauled by The Revenant

Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight; Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.

We are just over 24 hours away from the 88th Academy Awards, where all the drama of the season about what will win Best Picture will finally be over. At the start of the year, sight unseen,I said that The Revenant will take it. Then, after Cannes, I said that Carol will take it. Then, after Telluride and Toronto, I jumped onto the Spotlight train, which I was on board for quite a few months. Then, after the Producers Guild of America Awards, I went onto The Big Short. Then, after SAG, I went back to Spotlight. Then, after DGA I went all the way back to The Revenant, where I have stayed, and will remain to stay with up to the ceremony. But something is bothering me. I’m really not at all comfortable projecting The Revenant as the winner, even though I was about 90% sure it would win a couple of days ago. Now I’m on about 60%, mainly because I think Spotlight has a really, really good shot.

Tom O’Neil, the owner and editor of GoldDerby.com has just changed his prediction for Best Picture from The Revenant to Spotlight, after saying The Big Short before The Revenant’s win at BAFTA. His reasoning is pretty much spot on, and is the reason I am doubting my own pick of The Revenant: it’s the consensus pick. It’s the film that people love, rather than just admire, and not many people actually dislike the film. That can’t be said for The Revenant. Just look at their Rotten Tomatoes scores: Spotlight is on 96% with critics and 94% with audiences, while The Revenant is on 82% on critics and 85% with audiences, the lowest critical percentage of the Best Picture nominees. Some people love The Revenant, and some people hate it, and when was the last ‘marmite’ movie to win Best Picture? Some would argue Birdman, last year’s winner, but that had more critical acclaim than The Revenant, even though some people didn’t get on with it, as is common with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s directing style, further proven by the response to The Revenant. It’s big, bold filmmaking, but not a style that can come off as cynical (in the case of Birdman) and cold (in the case of The Revenant). Will the Academy really want to reward that again?

That was always the reason that people were dismissing The Revenant’s chances earlier on in the season, how could two Inarritu films win back-to-back, and surely not in both Picture and Director? It seems sure to be the case where there is a split. That’s how Spotlight got into the frontrunner position after the monumental critical acclaimed from its premiere at Telluride, followed by screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. But that has, perhaps lead to its downfall, especially when attempting to pull off some big, game-changing victories. It almost completely swept the critics awards in Best Picture, even though it struggled to get more than 1 other notice, recognition in places other than Original Screenplay, which it will win the Oscar in. That allowed The Revenant to shine following its premiere in early December. It can sweep all the technical awards, facing off directly with Mad Max: Fury Road, in a way that Spotlight has struggled. Frontrunner territory is easier for something like The Revenant because it’s so big, so epic, so ambitious. People can be completely blown away by the direction, cinematography, and the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, that they can completely forget how inferior it is to Spotlight in terms of pacing, writing, and passion.

It’s very easy to box check The Revenant in every category: it’s already winning Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography, as well as probably a Sound category (most likely mixing), and maybe a slight shot at Editing or Visual Effects (even though they are sub-standard to say the least). But if you don’t like it that much, and spread your vote around, it becomes less likely that you’re going to rank it high in Best Picture. There are plenty of voters that will put it at the top of their ballot, mainly because of Leonardo DiCaprio and that ‘it will be nice if the film won when he wins his first Oscar’. But what’s going to get the most number 2s? It’s going to be Spotlight. It’s the one that everyone likes. Even though number 1 votes will be spread about, mainly amongst Revenant, Room, Mad Max, and The Big Short, Spotlight will still be ranked highly. And that’s what counts. I can’t imagine anyone putting it near the bottom. I, personally, would rank it number 1. I would also put The Revenant in 7th.

Another problem with the Spotlight theory is that it’s only winning 1 other award: Original Screenplay. It’ll lose Editing to Mad Max, Supporting Actress to Alicia Vikander, Supporting Actor to Sylvester Stallone, and Director to Inarritu. If it pulls an upset in any of those categories, like Argo and Crash did winning Editing, then it should take it. It probably won’t if those categories go as expected: no film has won Best Picture with only 1 other Oscar since The Greatest Show on Earth in the 1950’s.

It’s absolutely a risk, but one I am tempted to make.

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