The 2016 Oscars were a weird roller coaster ride of expectations.
The movie that won the night's first award, Best Original Screenplay, bookended the evening by also winning Best Picture — but those were the only two prizes it won.
In between, a post-apocalyptic action spectacular cleaned up, an R-rated art film won three high-profile awards, and host Chris Rock kept the focus squarely on the Oscars' diversity (or lack thereof). Naturally, the ceremony was not without controversy, but said controversy didn't always come from the direction you'd expect.
It was as wild and well-produced a telecast as any in recent memory, with clips packages that actually explained the awards they introduced and a surprising run of really good speeches. There were winners both unexpected and very expected, and only a couple of cringe-worthy moments.
You can read a full list of winners here. But some films won bigger than others — and that's what we're here for. Here are four winners and three losers from the 88th annual Academy Awards.
Winner: Spotlight takes home the night's biggest prize
Spotlight won only two Oscars, but they were both big ones. The night's first prize, for Best Original Screenplay, went to screenwriters Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (who also directed the film), and then Spotlight lost the next four awards it was nominated for.
Heading into Best Picture — the last award of the night — the odds were not in Spotlight's favor. The last time a movie won Best Picture and only one other award was in March 1953, when The Greatest Show on Earth took home Best Picture and Best Story (coincidentally enough, another screenwriting prize) at the 25th annual awards.
Since then, the floor for Best Picture winners has been three total awards. (The most recent Best Picture winner to win only three awards total was 12 Years a Slave, in 2014.)
But Spotlight broke through to win the biggest prize of them all, in a result that seemed to shock even producer Michael Sugar, who accepted the award. He rattled off a few words about holding the Catholic Church accountable for the sexual abuse of children, then wrapped up the night.
Spotlight's win is the result of many things — the way the Oscars choose Best Picture, the film's important subject matter, nostalgia for journalism, etc. — but chief among them is distributor Open Road Films, a tiny studio that made sure Oscar voters saw the film early, and then kept it in the conversation.
After Spotlight won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble cast award, Mark Ruffalo delivered a speech in which he declared that to support Spotlight was to support all forms of fighting against systemic injustice — not just sex abuse in the Catholic church. That central campaign narrative took hold, and Spotlight rode it all the way to the win.
The Oscar rarely goes to the absolute best movie; it much more frequently goes to the film with the best narrative. And that turned out to be Spotlight in this very confused year. (It certainly didn't hurt that Spotlight was also a very good movie, in the classicist style the Oscars generally prefer.)
Winner: Mad Max: Fury Road nabs the most trophies
There had been some speculation that The Revenant, which was nominated for 12 awards, might box Mad Max: Fury Road out of most of the technical categories. Consequently, many critics (including me) divided their predictions for the technical categories between the two films.
Such a split was not to be. Mad Max didn't make a dent in the top categories, and it unexpectedly lost Visual Effects (to Ex Machina — surely the lowest-budgeted Visual Effects winner of the CGI era). But it rattled off wins in Costume Design, Film Editing, Production Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing, for a total of six trophies. Not bad for a movie that as recently as December was considered a long shot even for nominations.
Sure, Mad Max didn't win any of the big prizes, but with its strong showing, solid global box office, and beloved status among film fans, the movie seems likely to sail along into history as an action movie classic. That's hugely unexpected for the fourth film in a franchise that hadn't seen a new movie in 30 years until Fury Road was released.
Winner: Small distributors win big
One of the big questions of the 2016 Oscars was whether tiny, untested indie distributors like Open Road and A24 could convert critical passion for their films into Oscar gold. It's usually difficult for smaller distributors to crack the Oscar game on their first try, as we saw in 2015 when IFC faded down the stretch with Boyhood, which went from frontrunner to also-ran.
But Open Road and A24 both saw substantial success. Open Road's Spotlight nabbed those two big awards, and A24 did just as well, winning Best Actress with Room's Brie Larson (who very quietly remained a frontrunner all awards season long, yet never wore out her welcome), Documentary Feature with Amy, and Visual Effects with Ex Machina.
However, the two studios' most impressive feat is that they each went head to head with 20th Century Fox — a dominant Oscar player with significant contenders in The Revenant and Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan — and won.
Winner: Chris Rock keeps #OscarsSoWhite at the forefront of the evening
It feels a little weird to be labeling #OscarsSoWhite a "winner," since it's a hashtag that deplores Hollywood's utter lack of diversity — as seen in the 2016 Oscars' second consecutive slate of all-white Oscar nominees.
And yet the diversity issue was the top story of the night. Stars were interviewed about it on the red carpet. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs gave an entire speech about the body's dedication to fostering diversity. And host Chris Rock used nearly every one of the comedy routines he performed between awards to discuss how hard it is for black actors to make it in Hollywood.
To be sure, Rock also devoted much of his monologue to the notion that in the grand scheme of things, Oscar nominations aren't such a big deal.
But he pivoted at the monologue's midpoint and ultimately brought things back to why Hollywood diversity is such a big problem in the first place, with a brilliant riff on just why Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for Ray, then saw his career utterly crumble.
What Rock was doing was loosening up the room (by suggesting that Oscar diversity isn't such a big deal), before layering in just how little the film industry actually cares about diversity, beyond paying it lip service. It wasn't Rock's finest piece of comedy ever, but it was deeper than expected. And it was telling how often the host boomeranged back to those issues as the long night wore on. He even closed the show by saying, "Buy Girl Scout cookies. Black lives matter."
Loser: The Revenant doesn't sweep
It's a bit odd to label the film with the second-highest Oscar tally of the evening a "loser," but such was the hype surrounding The Revenant. It had big box office. It had 12 nominations. After it won a bunch of Golden Globes, the top prize at the Directors Guild Awards, and even more prizes from the British Academy, it seemed more and more like the film to beat.
It also boasted three unshakable pillars that would normally secure a win: Best Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Best Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and Best Cinematography winner Emmanuel Lubezki. Prior to the 2016 Oscars, the number of films that won those three prizes but then lost Best Picture was zero. (Although, granted, that specific lineup of trophies doesn't happen too often.)
And since The Revenant was nominated in 12 different categories, it easily could have racked up an epic Oscar sweep, the likes of which haven't been seen in several years. Instead, it lost most of the technical awards to Mad Max, and then the top prize to Spotlight. It isn't an Oscar also-ran, but it didn't live up to its potential.
Loser: Sylvester Stallone misses out on his career Oscar
Sylvester Stallone was considered the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor for his work as Rocky Balboa in Creed. It was a beautifully wounded performance, the kind of old man role that the Academy often rewards when an actor who's made Hollywood a bunch of money offers up a critically acclaimed turn late in life.
Instead, Stallone lost to Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, and though he nodded and smiled as Rylance took the stage to give his acceptance speech, it was still hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Stallone.
Now, Rylance's work was among the best in the category, and he's only the second acting winner ever to win for a Steven Spielberg movie (the other was Daniel Day-Lewis from Lincoln). It's not as if Stallone lost to someone utterly incompetent. But it was still an Oscar narrative that never coalesced.
Loser: The Martian never takes off
Strictly in terms of trophies not won, The Martian was the night's big loser. The sci-fi adventure tale of an astronaut left to fend for himself on Mars went 0 for 7 over the night, including losses in the Best Picture and Best Actor (for lead Matt Damon) categories.
But look back to, say, October, and this result would have seemed unthinkable. The Martian was routinely being talked up as a potential frontrunner at the time; it appeared to be the sort of big box office hit that would quietly wait out the critics awards, then start winning the televised awards ceremonies.
Indeed, that's almost what happened, with the film winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical.
Yet The Martian just never took off. It didn't receive any nominations at the Screen Actors Guild awards, not even for its jam-packed ensemble cast. An expected nomination for director Ridley Scott (who would have had a real shot at winning a "career Oscar" if nominated) didn't happen. And the film's "big box office" narrative was blunted by Star Wars: The Force Awakens performing at an even larger scale.
The Martian seemed like a possible Best Picture winner as recently as a couple of months ago. That things didn't pan out that way is indicative of how the Oscars are changing, and how much harder it is to predict what they're going to do.
Agree with my choices? Disagree? Join me to chat about it in comments at noon Eastern.
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