Thursday, February 25, 2016

Why Spotlight is still taking Best Picture

I don't know why I care so much about this silly race, but I guess my brain likes having something inconsequential to obsess about. It's also great to see a film you love win. It's also great to catch up on great historical wins, and to moan about travesty wins. I guess there're many reasons I care about this stupid race. 

The thing about this year's oscar race is that The Revenant, primed as it seems to sweep, is not really the best picture front runner any more than Boyhood was last year.

The Revenant may have taken the lead at both the Globes and the BAFTAs - two highly visible awards - but so did Boyhood. This fact highlights two things -  first; even when the Globes and BAFTAs are in agreement, they can still be out of sync with the Oscars. Second; they both had a debt to settle with AG Inarittu, because they both 'snubbed' his film last year. The same is not true at the Oscars.

It's possible that The Revenant's momentum has become unstoppable at this point - the same way Argo became unstoppable, even though the Oscars had initially considered  it unworthy of a Directing nomination.

It's also possible that the Oscars will offer up some surprises. What's clear is that Inarritu is most likely winning Best Director, after becoming the first Director in history to win back to back at the Directors Guild. What's also clear is that DiCaprio will finally win Best Actor and Chivo will make history with his third back-to-back, richly deserved, Cinematography win.

But surprises do happen. Occasionally - as in the case of Braveheart and, perhaps, Rocky - they can favour big, epic crowdpleasers (although The Revenant, epic though it is, can hardly be considered a crowdpleaser), but more often, Oscar surprises favor films driven by good old-fashioned great writing and great acting. More specifically, films embraced by industry actors and industry writers.

Consider Shakespeare in Love's upset sweep over Saving Private Ryan in 1998. Private Ryan had taken the Globes, the DGA and the PGA and seemed primed to take the Oscar. Only the BAFTAs went all out for Shakespeare, but they're British so why wouldn't they? The only clue that Shakespeare in Love was primed to sweep in a big way was its performance with the actors and writers branches. It won the SAG ensemble award and the WGA award for Original Screenplay. It was also at the SAG awards that Paltrow first bested Blanchett.

Consider also the curious case of Steven Soderbergh coming in at the last minute to win Best Director for Traffic. The season had been dominated by two moneymaking epics - Gladiator for Best Picture (including a Producers Guild win) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for Best Director (including a Directors Guild win for Ang Lee). When the Oscars came around, the directors unexpectedly favored Traffic - a smaller, independent drama. This could be seen as the directors branch simply wanting to award Soderbergh for his rare double nomination, but it could also be seen as the Academy reacting against epic filmmaking overload, and opting for a film driven more by performance and writing (see also The Hurt Locker vs Avatar; Argo vs Hugo / Life of Pi; 12 Years a Slave vs Gravity). It's also noteworthy that Traffic had, up to that point, won only - you guessed it - the SAG ensemble award and the WGA award for Best Original Screenplay. Benicia Del Toro had also surprised by winning lead actor at the SAG Awards (although he ended up winning the supporting category at the Oscars).

This year, two epic epics - Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant - vie for the technical categories, while The Revenant seems to be the preferred choice for the major categories. The guilds and precursor awards have been sharply divided, with no real consensus on a single film outside of the Globes and the BAFTAS (see above). With seemingly wide open possibility, a surprise seems eminent, so it may prove valuable to consider which film won the SAG ensemble award and the WGA award for Best Original Screenplay. You guessed it again - Spotlight.

Recent years have shown the Academy is comfortable splitting between a smaller, character-driven drama for Best Picture, and a big, epic visual achievement for Best Director, and Spotlight / The Revenant certainly fits that trend. Spotlight is also still the highest rated film among the nominees on Metacritic, and seems to have the support of the actors and writers branch. It also won the Critics Choice award, for what it's worth (which is not much), splitting with George Miller for director (showing just how much things have changed since then).

Perhaps it counts against Spotlight that it did not have any other surprise wins at SAG - only Rachel McAdams was nominated, while both Ruffallo and Keaton had been expected to dominate (but they likely split the vote). Spotlight also does not seem to have much support outside of the main fields - making it harder to win on a preferential ballot. While it wasn't really in competition for any of the visual categories, it was expected to show up in Original Score, and didn't. Both Ruffallo and McAdams are representing the actors though, so main category support is strong.

The Revenant, on the other hand, outperformed in nominations in both the main and technical categories. A slew of nominations were expected, but with surprises like Tom Hardy for supporting actor and nominations for both the (brilliant but minimal) production design and costuming, The Revenant clearly has deep support throughout the Academy.

I guess it really comes down to whether the Academy (to the extent that they actually act and think as a united entity) are ready to embrace the effects-driven epic, or if they'll push back again to a writing and acting driven drama.

It helps to keep in mind that even Braveheart won the WGA before sweeping the Oscars, and Rocky's screenplay was recognized by the Academy, while no one has shown any love for The Revenant's script (perhaps unfairly, as it has nearly no dialogue). Even the PGA win for The Big Short seems to indicate that the industry is still favoring actor-writer dramas over big epics.

For all these reasons, plus the feels, my money is still on Spotlight to win Best Picture, Original Screenplay and - improbably - Supporting Actor on Sunday. 

The Revenant will likely take Director, Actor, Cinematography and both Sound Categories, while Mad Max will own the technical categories - Costume Design, Production Design, Make Up and Editing. Or The Revenant will sweep and win everything but screenplay. It is a damn good movie. Only Sunday will tell.

Note: last year I predicted Boyhood would win, so I'm almost definitely wrong about anything.