Anyone who’s watched the Oscars knows the most deserving nominees don’t always win, but some injustices are graver than others. So we’ve ranked the winners of the 2016 Academy Awards, from least to most deserving. Enjoy.
Best Animated Short: “Bear Story”
Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow” is a work of crazy genius, and it’s the only short film in this category that people will still be watching years from now. An unsettling exploration of memory and identity told though with time-traveling stick figures, it’s hardly the warm tongue bath the Academy usually awards in this category, but a win for anything else is just wrong.
Best Documentary: “Amy”
Asif Kapadia’s chronicle of Amy Winehouse’s spiral into self-destruction is a gripping assemblage, but this makes two times now that “The Look of Silence’s” Joshua Oppenheimer, whose “The Act of Killing” lost to “20 Feet From Stardom” in 2014, has fallen to a music-driven documentary about the vicissitudes of fame. “Act” and “Look” are landmarks in the history of the form: challenging, groundbreaking works that use the medium to its fullest potential for illuminating historical and personal truth and confronting the ways that truth is constructed, but Oscars voters apparently find pop stars and working artists more relatable than the perpetrators and victims of Indonesian genocide.
Best Original Song: “Writing’s on the Wall”
Sam Smith’s lugubrious, histrionic Bond theme is the worst Oscar winner of 2016, but it also triumphed in a category with no good choices. Smith compounded the error in his acceptance speech by falsely taking credit for being the first openly gay Oscar winner, apparently because of Ian McKellen’s observation that no openly gay actor had ever won an Oscar.
Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “The Revenant”
Give Iñárritu credit: By playing up the riskiness and difficulty of “The Revenant” and “Birdman,” he’s swayed the Academy to think about directors the way they usually do about actors. If this were an award for Most Directing, he’d win it hands down. But if Iñárritu talks a good game, seducing Academy voters by painting the filmmaking process as a crazy, madcap adventure, he’s also responsible for his movies’ failure to follow through on their grand pronouncements, and the conceptual hollowness at their core. His mouth writes checks his films only pretend to cash.
Best Adapted Screenplay: “The Big Short”
Charles Randolph and Adam McKay’s illustrated lecture on the subprime mortgage crisis is funny and sharp, and never lets you forget it. But in a category that also included Phyllis Nagy’s diamond-cut “Carol” and the economical sentiment of Nick Hornby’s “Brooklyn,” picking “The Big Short” is rewarding flash over substance.
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
And speaking of flash over substance… I’ve said my piece on why Leonardo DiCaprio’s win — deserved, but not for this movie — underlines the Academy’s narrow, dully predictable taste in performances. But Best Actor was a weak category all around this year, which makes it difficult to point to a fellow nominee and say he was robbed. (Actually robbed: “Creed’s” Michael B. Jordan, who wasn’t even nominated.) At least winning his long sought-after Oscar will free Leo up to make a nice comedy or two.
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, “The Revenant”
There’s no question that Lubezki is one of the greats, but his work in “The Revenant” was so heavily reminiscent of the movies he’s shot with Terrence Malick that it sometimes felt like he was plagiarizing himself. Much of the blame lies at the feet of his director: There are only so many ways you can shoot a symbolic female figure with arms outstretched against a backdrop of untamed nature. But given the chance to recognize Ed Lachman’s sublimely nuanced work on “Carol” or John Seale’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” innovations or even Robert Richardson’s masterful use of the unforgiving 70mm format on “The Hateful Eight,” the Academy chose to honor Lubezki for the third year running.
Best Foreign-Language Film: “Son of Saul”
László Nemes’ debut is kind of a one-idea movie, but it’s a pretty good idea: representing a member of the Sonderkommando’s survival instinct through extreme shallow focus that literally blots out the horrors around him. (Memo to the Academy: Don’t play off the director of the Holocaust movie with Wagner.)
Best Actress: Brie Larson, “Room”
In a supremely strong year for Best Actress, there were no wrong answers, and though I would have picked Charlotte Rampling’s bone-deep performance in “45 Years” or Saoirse Ronan’s luminous work in “Brooklyn” first, Larson found levels within her character’s anguish rather than pushing it all to the surface like DiCaprio. May you love anything in your life as much as she loves Jacob Tremblay.
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Frank Stallone may disagree, but even if you were pulling for Sly, Rylance — a theatre legend who gave his Soviet spy the puckish bearing of an inventor in a children’s story — was so adorable on stage you had to open your heart.
Best Picture: “Spotlight”
Perhaps not the best Best Picture, but the most desirable by far of the three pundits favored for the top spot. “The Revenant” and “The Big Short” got love elsewhere on the ballot, but “Spotlight” walked away with the big prize, a tribute to old-fashioned craft and stellar ensemble who worked together too well for any single performance to stand out.
Best Visual Effects: “Ex Machina”
It wasn’t exactly lo-fi, but Alex Garland’s sci-fi fable featured more discreet work than any of its competitors, blurring the line between practical and CGI effects just as its story probes the boundaries between human and artificial intelligence. The technical categories often go to the biggest and loudest movies, but for once the Academy chose finesse over flash.
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone, “The Hateful Eight”
87-year-old Morricone had never won an Oscar, but this wasn’t just the Academy playing catch-up: “The Hateful Eight” is one of his finest scores, equal parts lyricism and menace. Speaking through a translator, the maestro let his acceptance speech run long, but no way was the orchestra going to play him off.
Best Original Screenplay: “Spotlight”
Tom McCarthy’s direction was solid and unselfish — a virtue easily overlooked by those who compared “Spotlight” to a TV movie. But its script, co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, had what a real estate agent would call “beautiful bones”: an immaculate structure that resisted the temptation to let its crusading journalists overshadow the story they pursued, and made Excel spreadsheets and archival research the stuff of engrossing drama.
Best Editing/Production Design/Costume Design/Makeup/Sound Editing/Sound Mixing: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
No Best Picture or Best Director, but George Miller’s action opus swept nearly every other category in was nominated in. Winning six Oscars — the most of any film — without taking Best Picture is a distinction it now shares with “Cabaret,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Gravity” and the original “Star Wars.” Not a bad group to be in.
Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
True, Vikander’s performance in “The Danish Girl” should probably have been slotted as a lead, but category fraud aside, she infused an otherwise dour movie with the freewheeling spirit of an early Verhoeven heroine — a practically heroic act, given how hard her director and co-star were working to drag it down. Supporting Actress often goes to ingénues, many of whom rarely do noteworthy work again, but the four other 2015 releases Vikander starred in are a strong indication she won’t be another flash in the pan.