I assume everyone’s moved on from this year’s Oscars – Magilla’s kicked off the relaunch of the screenplay races elsewhere – but I had a few late thoughts I wanted to put in the record before we permanently shut the door on this reasonably entertaining season.
Spotlight’s last-minute win over The Revenant kept alive a few traditions that would otherwise have gone astray. For the 20th straight year, the winning film has had a SAG Ensemble nomination (something The Revenant’s supporters didn’t give much attention). Also, a screenplay nomination remains sine qua non for all but true box-office colossi like The Sound of Music or Titanic. And, once again, the worst-reviewed of the best picture slate (which was The Revenant) didn’t triumph -- in fact, in choosing Spotlight, voters went with the film that had the highest Metacritic score of the eight nominated.
The Revenant’s shortfall also kept going a string of recent best picture winners falling in mid-range gross territory: Spotlight will end somewhere between 40 and 50 million, the same place The Artist and Birdman fell, with 12 Years a Slave just a bit higher. Argo and The King’s Speech are the only winners since the expansion to do truly major business and, in their years, the great majority of nominees and all major contenders grossed over $90 million, so it was impossible to have a winner in this lower range. The remarkable thing is, voters have been choosing these middling-popular films over viable alternatives with far greater public support: Gravity and American Hustle both well outpaced 12 Years a Slave; The Revenant and even The Big Short drew substantially bigger audiences than Spotlight; and Moneyball or The Descendants were more widely seen than The Artist. The expansion of the best picture list put more substantial hits in the mix, so the Board of Governors succeeded to that degree…but it’s not getting Academy members to consistently vote for them.
It’s also worth noting this year’s best picture list was one of the most sleeper-filled in recent times. Back in the slate-of-five years, it always seemed we got a mix: 1 or 2 movies that were on everyone’s A-list; another 1 or 2 that were moderately intriguing but not blue chip prospects; and 1 or 2 that came from nowhere. (For example, the 1972 group: The Godfather was hugely anticipated; Cabaret and Deliverance had decent source material but turned out far bigger films than anticipated; and The Emigrants and Sounder came from essentially nowhere.) Since the expansion, though, perhaps because some are straining to find as many as ten contenders, there’s been more default to pre-season favorites: the line-ups in 2012 and 2013 were chock-full of movies IndieWire had in their Spring prediction list. Even in a year like 2014, with Boyhood and Grand Budapest Hotel surprising us, a solid half of the nominees – Birdman, The Imitation Game, American Sniper, The Theory of Everything – made that IndieWire list. This year, though, only Bridge of Spies and The Revenant could be put in blue-chip territory. Spotlight, Brooklyn, Room and The Big Short, though some of them had decent source material, could as easily have slipped through unnoticed without critical/festival support, and The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road were the sorts of movies no one would predict for the best picture list. Years like 2012 or 2013, with big names producing major film, make for great Oscar vintages, but, if off-years come, I’d much rather see voters dig up stuff like The Martian or The Big Short than settle for War Horse and Extremely Loud.
I mentioned this in my morning-after recap, but I think it’s worth repeating: best picture and best director are no longer automatically connected. Some of us thought this might happen when best picture was expanded to ten and subjected to preferential balloting, but when it didn’t come about in the first couple of years (especially 2009, where The Hurt Locker felt like a classic director/not picture candidate), it seemed the categories were just too welded together. Now, though…between a tendency to go a bit auteur-y under directing and the consensus balloting for picture, we’ve seen three splits in the past four years (and, if you want to go back, 7 in the past 17 years, after only 4 in the 41 preceding).
Spotlight is of course the first best picture winner since 1952 with only one other prize. That a film could still be alive for the final win after such a night suggests more suspenseful contests in the years ahead. However…if you’re looking for guidance in the best director category, the DGA is still your best bet. Discounting the Affleck omission that made 2012 an impossibility, the DGA choice has matched the Oscar every year since 2002. Even with all the discarded precedents of recent years, it remains a golden precursor.
One more thing: in years where SAG/PGA/DGA have split, SAG has had a woeful record of late – forecasting Little Miss Sunshine, Inglourious Basterds, The Help, and America Hustle, while its sister guilds have pointed the way to the best picture victor. This is the first time SAG has earned bragging rights since Crash (and, yes, I’m sorry to remind you of that).
The Stallone loss/Rylance win is being treated as Lauren Bacall redux (“I guess they didn’t like him so much after all”), but could it maybe just suggest a tendency of voters these days to largely stick to the best picture category in making their choices? With as many as ten films to see just for that top category, voters may have less time to spend their time on films without major nominations. This year‘s supporting actress category would be an exception because four of the five films represented were orphans – but even there, Danish Girl was a film with four nods, including two acting nods. Had Stallone won, he’d have been among very few winners representing his film’s sole nomination.
Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m annoyed I fell for the “everybody wants Lady Gaga’s song to win” routine. The best song category is almost never completely divorced from the prominence of the movie in which the song appears. Look back over recent decades – best song winners come from films that are commercial hits (whether broad, like 8 Mile or Toy Story 3, or at indie level, like Once or An Inconvenient Truth) or that show up in other Oscar categories (Wonder Boys, Hustle and Flow – even The Motorcycle Diaries had the screenplay nomination). The Hunting Ground was a movie very few ever heard of, let alone saw. Had it made the final documentary five, it might have given the song enough exposure to win. As it was, the song was out there contending on its own -- which didn’t do any favors for such losers as “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?”, “The Prayer”, or all those songs that lost to “If I Didn’t Have You” in 2001. In retrospect, the song from the $200 million grossing Spectre is a fairly logical choice.
Anybody else with any lingering thoughts about this year’s pack?