Spotlight: Oscar gets it right

Spotlight: Oscar gets it right February 29, 2016

Photo courtesy of Open Road Films. 

I was prepared to go home crabby.

Early in last night’s Oscar telecast, it looked like the impossible might happen. “Mad Max: Fury Road” swept nearly all of the technical categories, upsetting critically beloved — but thematically hollow — “The Revenant” in all tech categories except for cinematography. When the Oscar went to “Mad Max” for editing, I perked up. Was it possible that this genre film — the fourth film in a series spanning four decades — could actually walk away with the big prizes it had been nominated for? Was it possible that George Miller’s blistering, bizarre post-apocalyptic action flick could ride to Valhalla all shiny and chrome?

And then Sam Smith won the Oscar for his wretched James Bond song and the evening struck a sour note. When Alejandro G. Inarritu won the best director prize, my heart sank. I’d previously predicted the Oscars would split the difference and give George Miller the best director prize; I’d resigned myself to “The Revenant” winning best picture. When Leonardo DiCaprio took the stage to collect his trophy, I sighed. As in many years, it looked like the same story was about to play out. The beloved film and probably rightful winner would sweep early technical awards, paving the way for the more traditional winner to take home the big prizes. When Morgan Freeman stepped up to announce best picture, I steeled myself. There was no way “Mad Max” was going to win best picture; its director was its best asset. It looked like, for another straight year, a mediocre Inarritu film would be crowned the year’s best motion picture.

And then, “Spotlight” won.

I was shocked, of course. The only award Thomas McCarthy’s film had won all night was for its screenplay. And I’d been so focused on a “Mad Max”/”Revenant” split that I pretty much considered the film an also-ran by the time we hit the end of the evening. And while the film slid into front-runner place when it was released in the fall to a flurry of critical acclaim, the end-of-the-year deluge kind of pushed it to the middle or even back of the pack, especially from critics who dismissed it as an important film with boring direction (a charge that I disagree with and which Matt Singer fired back against in a wonderful article). The Oscars rarely hold any surprises; but when Freeman said “Spotlight,” it genuinely took me a few seconds to register what had happened.

And you know what? It was the right choice.

Coincidentally, my wife and I had just watched “Spotlight” the evening before the Oscars. I’d seen it before, but she hadn’t. And watching it again, I was reminded what a great film it really is.I was glad that its only acting nominations came in the supporting categories, because this film really is a true ensemble. Despite featuring actors like Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Stanely Tucci — any of whom could easily carry their own movie — it’s a film where no one jockeys for position. Everyone supports the film and, aside from one dramatic outburst from Ruffalo, no one really has a big “Oscar moment.” Its script is smart, and it’s an ode to pavement-pounding shoe-leather journalism and the importance of that field to challenge those in power. It’s about an important issue; it’s the rare film where its ending footnotes produce real feelings of anxiety. And McCarthy — a director whose films “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win-Win” I love (we shall not speak of “The Cobbler”) — holds it altogether with tact and restraint. Sure, it lacks many visual frills. But that’s kind of the point; it’s about hard work, paper trails and late-night phone calls.

So, while I may have had “Mad Max: Fury Road” at number one on last year’s top 10 list, there’s a reason that “Spotlight” was a very close number two. And as someone who worked as a reporter for several years and considers that work the best and most important work of his life, it was great to see a film honored that celebrates the importance of investigative reporting and the power of newspapers. “Spotlight’s” a legitimately great film, and there was no disappointment when it walked away victorious.

Other brief Oscar thoughts:

  • I was helping to MC an Oscar night event hosted by the Detroit Film Critics Society last night. It was a lot of fun. We dressed up nice, attendees enjoyed a good dinner, and I helped two other local critics toss out trivia questions and prizes to the crowd. I highly recommend attending an event like this if you get the chance in the future.  It’s a big, star-studded event celebrating motion pictures. Celebrating it all on a big screen with dozens of other movie-lovers just feels right.
  • I liked Chris Rock as host, but then again, I liked him when he hosted 10 years earlier. He, of course, walked in with high expectations. With the Oscars under fire for the lack of diversity in nominees, he had to walk a tightrope of bluntly addressing the issue while still keeping the show fun. Rock got off some good one-liners (I particularly liked who he described Hollywood as not “burning crosses racist” but as “sorority racist). He’d return to the diversity issue throughout the night, whether it was coming in from a break announcing “we’re black” or showing a clip of the nominated films with black people in the deleted scenes (Leslie Jones in “The Revenant” as pretty good, although I was partial to Tracy Morgan’s “Danish Girl.”). Like most hosts, he was hit or miss in a few areas. The Girl Scouts cookies bit was cute, but I still don’t understand the Stacy Dash cameo. But all in all, he kept the show moving, kept it funny and I’d be happy to see him back next year.
  • Unless, of course, Louis CK is up for it. His bit before the short documentary awards was great, and his delivery so natural. I’m a huge fan of Louis CK, and I’ve always thought he’d make a great host. But I would say there’s a pretty good chance he’s already been asked, and I would not be surprised at all if he turned it down.
  • I know there’s a lot of people clamoring for Sacha Baron Cohen to host as Ali G. And I love me some Ali G; but I’m thinking Cohen’s moment has passed. If he had shown up as Borat, we’d all be groaning. And the trailers for “Grimsby” make me wonder if he’s about to hit a wall.
  • Was happy to have “Inside Out” take home best picture; it was up high in my top 10 list last year. However, I have to admit that there was a big part of me rooting for “Anomalisa” (which was also on my list). We’re going to see many more returns to the podium for Pixar. But how many movies like “Anomalisa” will we see again?
  • The less said about Sam Smith’s win for “Spectre,” the better. It’s a boring song for a boring movie. But part of me wonders if the award was meant for Lady Gaga’s song, but ripped away after her performance. I thought the song itself was fine, and bringing in sexual assault survivors was very powerful. But Lady Gaga’s overly theatrical performance undercut all of its rawness and made it a spectacle, when it could have been a moment akin to last year’s performance of “Glory.”
  • While it may have lost out on prizes for best picture and director, “Mad Max” was far from mediocre. With six awards, it won more Oscars than any film nominated last night. And it’s going to have a nice long history as one of the greatest action films ever made. If you haven’t seen it, witness it!
  • Aside from “Spotlight’s” win, I have to say the biggest surprise of the evening for me was Sylvester Stallone not winning best supporting actor for “Creed.” I’d just watched the “Rocky” follow-up again a week or so ago and was more impressed with Stallone’s performances (along with Michael B. Jordan, who, as Rock said, should have been a nominee). Stallone was the sentimental favorite and the front-runner. But if it had to go to anyone else, I’m glad it went to Mark Rylance, whose wry work as a captured Russian spy in “Bridge of Spies” took the spotlight away from even Tom Hanks. It’s a great performance in a movie that keeps being dismissed as “minor Spielberg,” when everyone knows it would be the best film of most other directors’ careers.
  • Ennio Morricone for “The Hateful Eight” is a high mark for the Oscars and a much deserved win.
  • And finally, while I’m not a “Revenant” fan at all, I wasn’t upset by the awards it did take home. Emmauel Lubezki’s cinematography was gorgeous, all captured by natural light. You could argue, as some have (including myself), that it was similar to what Lubezki did with Terrence Malick in “Tree of Life” or “The New World,” but I don’t know how much that matters. Empty as it may be, “The Revenant” was one of the year’s most gorgeous films. I also won’t begrudge Leo’s win. He may have been let down by an inert script, but few actors throw themselves into a project with as much passion and commitment as he does, and it’s as great a performance as the movie could get. In the future, I might just pretend he won it for “Wolf of Wall Street,” but for now I’m glad he has a trophy. And Inarritu doesn’t know how to hold a film together. But few directors assemble individual scenes as well as he does. Granted, that trophy belonged to George Miller; but as long as it kept “The Revenant” from a best picture win, I’m happy.

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