While the 2016 Oscars were dominated by big-scale studio vehicles “The Revenant” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” two little-indies-that-could with gravitas, “Spotlight” and “Room,” which launched like rockets out of the Telluride Film Festival, took Best Picture and Original Screenplay, and Best Actress, respectively, after taking the same wins at the Spirit Awards the day before. Finally, the preferential ballot helped a movie with only two Oscar wins make the big score, as many voters placed it at number two. “We made this film for all the journalists who held the powerful accountable,” said “Spotlight” writer-director Tom McCarthy, who protested against the Catholic Church downtown on Oscar morning. “We have to make sure this never happens again.” Finally, anyone who’s angry about pedophile priests and sexual abuse responded strongly to “Spotlight.”
With momentum from Golden Globe and Guild wins and a strong surge at the post-holiday box office, gorgeously mounted frontier epic “The Revenant” (Fox/New Regency), directed by last year’s Oscar-winner Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (“Birdman”), was expected to take home a raft of Oscars. They had to settle for Iñárritu’s second Director win in a row (joining John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz), cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s third consecutive win (after “Birdman” and “Gravity”), and Leonardo DiCaprio, to the delight of the roaring crowd at the Dolby Theatre, winning Best Actor at last, after five nominations. “Finally!” cried the woman sitting next to me in the Mezzanine, jumping to her feet.
DiCaprio wasn’t the only one to use his platform to make a political statement (on behalf of the environment) after an evening which functioned as a long mea culpa from the Academy, via host Chris Rock and president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, for its Oscars So White. As ABC had feared, the telecast was down in the ratings from last year’s awful numbers by 6% for an eight-year low. (The Reverend Al Sharpton credited a boycott by non-white viewers for the decline.) The show launched with a clip reel that included not only the year’s nominated films but many films not on the Academy roster, from Will Smith-starrer “Concussion” to Netflix’s Spirit Awards-winner “Beasts of No Nation.” The “Creed” clips showcased Michael B. Jordan, while “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” promoted John Boyega.
“I counted at least 15 black people in the montage,” quipped Rock, resplendent in a white tux, at what he called “The White People’s Choice Awards. If they nominated hosts I wouldn’t get this job.” Rock managed no small feat: walking the line between making the Academy folks in the room laugh at themselves, entertaining the audience around the world, and not offending anyone. (An obscure joke featuring “Clueless” actress Stacey Dash did not play.) “We want opportunity,” Rock pointed out, citing great Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx. “Leo gets a great part every year, all the time.”
When I caught a relaxed Rock at Friday’s pre-Oscar UTA bash, he admitted that he was hocking the likes of party guests Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow for jokes (he had notes in his back pocket), and that a part of him was dying with pre-show jitters. But that did not show on the big day, as early in the afternoon he slipped through the Academy Awards cocktails hour in a baseball cap with a backpack and security entourage, heading backstage.
At the Governor’s Ball, Boone Isaacs was palpably relieved, and denied the rumors that the co-producers, movie producer Reginald Hudlin and TV veteran David Hill, did not get along, although she admitted they had some inevitable disagreements along the way. The show itself moved right along, and featured handsome vertical images of the nominees and mobile cameras (Cate Blanchett walked and talked at the camera, announcing the costume nominees), but the music cues were mystifying, and The Weeknd’s S & M themed choreography for his “50 Shades of Grey” song “Earned It” was unintentionally hilarious. Lady Gaga’s moving performance of her song from “The Hunting Ground” played well in the Dolby, complete with fellow sexual assault victims. And continuing its woeful music choices over the years, the Academy embarrassed itself by awarding Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall” James Bond song.
Why didn’t “The Revenant” do better? Finally, it was a violent actioner. Even as its awards campaigners positioned the film as Art, overcoming the initial negative publicity about arduous and abusive conditions, the movie lost the PGA to “The Big Short,” which suggested that the producers were horrified by its nightmare eight-month exterior shooting schedule. “The Revenant” took home three big wins—but “Spotlight” grabbed Best Picture.
At the Governor’s Ball, DiCaprio stuffed down some pizza, asking photographers to let him eat, and asked his proud mother, “Shall we go?” He repaired to the corner where the Oscars were being engraved, happy to have one at last. I first met him as a teenager in 1994, standing at the valet line after he lost his first Oscar for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”
Credit Open Road’s Tom Ortenberg for the “Spotlight” Best Picture win. (Indie Open Road has landed that milestone earlier than both DreamWorks and Orion.) He shepherded “Crash” to the Picture Oscar when he was at Lionsgate, and this time steadily stuck to his guns, spending like the old Harvey Weinstein (who trained him at Miramax). Open Road did everything right, peaking a tad early but nabbing the SAG Ensemble Award, which told Ortenberg, he admitted at the raucous Participant/Open Road Oscar after-party, that they could take the Oscar win. Ultimately, “Spotlight” made Oscar voters feel good about themselves. They wanted to see a movie that celebrated American journalism in pursuit of justice represent the best of Hollywood.
George Miller’s fourth “Mad Max” action adventure “Fury Road” snatched Oscars from “The Revenant.” Launched at Cannes, the Warner Bros. release was praised by critics — who included it in year-end ten-best lists and awards — and was so well-made that it rose above the fray despite its genre pedigree and scored ten nominations and a remarkable six wins, including Best Editing for Miller’s wife Margaret Sixel. Was Miller close to stealing Director from Iñárritu, who had won the BAFTA and DGA? We will never know.
A big surprise was the Supporting Actor win for BAFTA-winner Mark Rylance for Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” (Disney/Dreamworks). Launched at the New York Film Festival, the ’50s spy thriller played well with critics, audiences, and went on to land nine BAFTA and six Oscar nominations. From the start the Brit thespian seemed like an Oscar lock, even though he was working in the theater and couldn’t campaign much. But while “Rocky” creator Sylvester Stallone stole some thunder with his “Creed” comeback narrative, the Academy took the high road in the end.
Shut out of the Oscar wins was Fox’s impeccably made “The Martian.” As well as “The Revenant” awards campaigners managed to turn the early production nightmare publicity into the triumph of a visionary artist over impossible odds, “The Martian” was saddled with a director who liked to talk about how much he loved making commercials; sure enough Ridley Scott did not land a directing slot, and the positioning of the film as a comedy at the Golden Globes did not add the necessary gravitas for “The Martian” to be perceived as more than an entertaining space adventure. With the right handling “The Martian” could have become 2016’s “Argo,” the mainstream crowdpleaser that celebrates American ingenuity.
This was not Harvey Weinstein’s year. While he expertly pushed Todd Haynes’ Cannes Competition romance “Carol,” starring “The Aviator” and “Blue Jasmine” Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, to nine BAFTA and six Oscar nominations, when it failed to land a Best Picture nomination he pulled back on the reins. “Carol” faced the same issues that “Brokeback Mountain” did: a male-dominated Academy full of what Oscar campaigners call Steak Eaters. It’s a new penny-pinching era for the Weinsteins, as the company did not send “Carol” producer Christine Vachon to the Oscars, and declined to pitch in to send “The Hateful Eight” Supporting Actress nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh to the BAFTAs.
Weinstein knew which Oscar they were going to get: Best Score for “The Hateful Eight,” composed by 87-year-old Ennio Morricone, who with six nominations had never won a competitive Oscar (he has an honorary one). At Saturday’s music-themed pre-Oscar fete (one of three), Weinstein promoted Broadway’s “Finding Neverland” and upcoming “Singin’ in the Rain,” as well as RadiusTWC’s Diane Warren/Lady Gaga “The Hunting Ground” song — and proclaimed that Morricone would win the Oscar, adding that “Carol” composer Carter Burwell was lucky to earn his first nomination. (He was not amused.)
After playing well at Telluride and Toronto, “Frank” director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” (A24) won the coveted TIFF Audience Award. Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”) scored SAG, Indie Spirit, BAFTA, and Golden Globe Drama wins before snagging the Oscar as a kidnapped and abused young woman who raises her young son (Jacob Tremblay) for five years in a locked room. Throughout the campaign Larson kept Tremblay close, which proved an endearing strategy as they high-fived each other on Oscar night.
Losing out on their bids for Best Actress were four-time nominee Jennifer Lawrence, star of Fox 2000’s David O. Russell comedy-drama “Joy,” which didn’t measure up to Russell’s three prior Academy-friendly outings, including the movie that Lawrence won the Oscar for, “Silver Linings Playbook,” and first-timer Charlotte Rampling, whose unfortunate racial gaffe hurt her chances for “45 Years” (IFC).
Oscar perennial Tom Hooper’s visually sumptuous period transgender drama “The Danish Girl” (Focus/Working Title) drew more raves for Swedish import Alicia Vikander than last year’s Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne at Venice and Toronto. The Golden Globes placed the in-demand Vikander in Best Actress for “The Danish Girl” and supporting for critics’ fave “Ex Machina,” even though Focus campaigned her in supporting, where she did score SAG, BFCA, and her inevitable Oscar win. It was her year. In her acceptance speech she called Redmayne “the best acting partner you could ever have.” “I could not have done it without you and you raised my game.” Next year she may be back: she stars with her boyfriend Michael Fassbender, who lost his “Steve Jobs” Best Actor bid to DiCaprio, in Derek Cianfrance’s tearjerker “The Light Between Oceans.”
Finally, despite expert promotion from Paramount, comedy writer-director Adam McKay’s brainy Michael Lewis adaptation “The Big Short,” starring Oscar nominee Christian Bale and Steve Carell, had to settle for its PGA, WGA and BAFTA wins and the Adapted Screenplay Oscar. The entertaining yet nourishing political movie remained a scruffy comedy.
Beloved Disney/Pixar Cannes entry “Inside Out” was impossible to beat in the animation category, and marked writer-director Pete Docter’s second Oscar (after “Up”). Unable to catch up was Paramount’s Toronto pickup, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s R-rated stop-motion animated feature “Anomalisa,” featuring David Thewlis and Leigh.
Sony Pictures Classics’ devastating and aesthetically innovative Cannes award-winner and Oscar submission from Hungary, Laszlo Nemes’ Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” came out on top in the Best Foreign-Language race after having been favored for the win.
The usual crop of Sundance hot docs included Matthew Heineman’s jury-winner “Cartel Land” and Liz Garbus’s “What Happened Miss Simone?” which competed with Asif Kapadia’s well-received Cannes documentary “Amy” (A24), about the downfall of the gifted and troubled singer Amy Winehouse. The most mainstream of the doc contenders nabbed the most acclaim on the road to its inevitable Oscar win. Young distributor A24 delivered a rare indie feat: Oscars in three categories for “Room,” “Amy,” and “Ex Machina,” which arguably contributed to Vikander’s win.
Emerging at Sundance and playing later fall fests was John Crowley’s period romance “Brooklyn” (Fox Searchlight), elegantly adapted from the Colm Toibin novel by Nick Hornby, and starring glowing Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant juggling two swains. But the film’s old-fashioned pleasures proved both an asset and a liability during an especially noisy season.
Many thought popular late entry “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Disney/Lucasfilm), which the producers managed to wedge into the telecast with appearances for R2D2, C3PO and BB-8 as well as J.J. Abrams, would score the visual effects award, but “Ex Machina” (A24) took it home.
Debuting well at Telluride, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s audacious biopic “Steve Jobs” (Universal) continued on to New York and London festivals, where Sorkin, Fassbender and Winslet scored praise from critics and early awards noms, despite the dialogue-heavy drama’s lackluster box office performance. As Sony’s Amy Pascal suspected, the movie turned out to be an expensive art film— and did not play well with mainstream Academy voters. While Winslet and Sorkin both scored unexpected Golden Globe wins and Winslet won the BAFTA, Sorkin failed to land an Oscar nomination, and “It Girl” Vikander took Supporting Actress. Winslet, finally, had already won an Oscar, for “The Reader.”
Universal opened F. Gary Gray’s hip-hop origin myth “Straight Outta Compton” on August 14 to superb reviews and strong box office; the entertaining period picture landed a SAG Ensemble nod as well as inclusion on the PGA and AFI Top Ten, but lost its one chance at an Oscar, Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman’s original screenplay, to “Spotlight.” This was not for lack of trying by Universal, which went all out to push the film with Oscar voters.
Playing well to audiences and critics over Thanksgiving and swiftly passing $100 million, Ryan Coogler’s update of the Rocky saga “Creed” nabbed a nomination for Sylvester Stallone, who movingly reinhabited the character he created 40 years ago, and scored standing ovations at the Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards. But Stallone is what he is — an aging genre star — and the Academy did not vote him into the Oscar winners’ club.
Full List of Oscar Winners below.
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”)
Brie Larson (“Room”)
Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”)
“The Revenant” (Emmanuel Lubezki)
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (Jenny Beavan)
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (“The Revenant”)
“Amy” (Asif Kapadia)
Best foreign language film of the year
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“Writing’s on the Wall” (“Spectre”)
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Hateful Eight” (Ennio Morricone)
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”)
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer (“Spotlight”)
Achievement in sound editing