11:00 am EST, January 20, 2016

Why ‘Spotlight’ should beat ‘The Revenant’ for the Best Picture Academy Award

Everyone keeps talking about The Revenant, but my Spotlight is on another movie.

Everyone is talking about The Revenant, but Spotlight is the movie you should have your eye on this awards season. Due to the flawless execution, powerhouse ensemble — and yes, its subject matter — Spotlight is the film that should win the Academy Award for Best Picture. And thanks to a little Oscars inside baseball, it looks like Spotlight could win, too.

The Academy Awards are more than a month off, but the fight for Best Picture is just heating up. This year is an eclectic mix, with action and sci-fi blockbusters (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian), post-war period pieces (Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies), and films about hedge fund managers (The Big Short), kidnapping victims (Room), investigative reporters (Spotlight), and frontiersmen (The Revenant).

Article Continues Below

Already it’s this final film that has people talking. Indiewire is predicting a win for The Revenant, CinemaBlend has it as one of their top picks, and other critics are considering it a sure thing. As recently as January 16, GoldDerby had The Revenant as the clear favorite for four major awards, including Best Picture.

oscars best picture the revenant

It helps that The Revenant has made over $155m so far, while Spotlight has earned only $31m (The Revenant made more in its first weekend of wide release). It also helps that much of the buzz around The Revenant is fueled by the desire to see star Leonardo DiCaprio finally win an Oscar (although as another Hypable writer has pointed out, perhaps Leo isn’t the one we should be up in arms about).

Even those who haven’t seen The Revenant know something about the film. The Revenant shoot has been called “the toughest film shoot ever” and “a living hell,” which brought us this glorious response from the internet. There were rumors of “bear rape,” and clarifications that DiCaprio’s character is not raped by a bear. Now there is the repositioning of the film as one that is important for recognizing indigenous peoples. As far as marketing campaigns so, it would be hard to top.

However after seeing Spotlight, to my mind there is no other film that deserves this win. It’s not that I believe The Revenant will be bad, but how could it be better than Spotlight?

In full disclosure, I haven’t seen The Revenant. I’m also yet to see Room, which looks astonishing, and I have no plans to watch The Big Short or Bridge of Spies. I’m not doubting The Revenant’s masterful cinematography or director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s deft hand — I’m sure DiCaprio’s performance is as deserving as many are claiming. But the very presence of conversations about the film’s lack of substance — critiques that have certainly not been echoed in relation to Spotlight — is enough to tell me this film simply isn’t as good.

Hypable writers who have seen The Revenant tell me while beautiful, the film is underwhelming. One, who has seen both films, says Spotlight is still her pick. Another described The Revenant as “overhyped and boring.” And similar sentiments from respected critics do nothing to persuade me to think any differently.

oscars best picture spotlight

Compared with The Revenant (“Did you hear about the bear?”), mentioning Spotlight in conversation merits barely raised eyebrows. After seeing the film, every person I have raved to about it has responded invariably with some variation on, “now remind me what that is,” and “who is in that, I’m sure I’ve heard of it.” Without even mentioning that I was working on this article, four separate people followed this up with, “But have you seen The Revenant?”

This lack of awareness is a travesty for a film that is simply so, so good. I can’t remember the last time I appreciated a film so much, either with or without reservations. Even after 24 hours to consider it, I can still point to no flaws in Spotlight, not to a single thing I would change.

A large part is the unflinching portrayal of the investigation and subsequent reporting by The Boston Globe‘s “Spotlight” team into cases of sexual abuse by Catholic Priests in the Boston area. This research and reporting makes up the majority of Spotlight; when our reporters aren’t camped out in their dimly lit office, they are hunched over the phone, meeting sources for cheap coffee, rifling through records in dark, dank libraries, or camped out at the courthouse. These aren’t the kinds of sequences that have audiences on the edge of their seats, but Spotlight manages to make them not only interesting, but utterly enthralling.

Against these unforgiving spaces, the small all-star ensemble flourishes. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James are reporters who speak the same language of dogged tenacity. Michael Keaton, as their editor, puts in another star turn as a man dealing with the culpability of his beloved home town, and his beloved paper. John Slattery is the editor who demands results, and Liev Schreiber is the outsider who pushes them further. We catch only brief glimpses of their home lives; just like the film, their lives revolve around their small Globe office.

oscars best picture spotlight

The direction, which may at first appear banal, quickly reveals the clear intent that everything in Spotlight be stripped back to the essentials. This is fitting for a film that is all about revealing the truth, no matter how painful. The simplicity of design, direction and score gives neither the actors nor the astounding screenplay anywhere to hide. There is no freezing so much you don’t even have to act cold here; to pull this off, everyone has to be damn good at what they do.

Spotlight directly challenges the misleading notion that a great film can only be one with a huge budget, or a special effects team, or one telling a grand sprawling story. It also rightly reminds us that this scandal is ongoing, and that very little has been done in response. In terms of subject matter alone, this is a film of high importance. It happens to also be a great one.

In Spotlight, no one is a hero, and no one gets away clean. The filmmakers balance the professional dedication of the reporters with their emotional responses. They balance the nostalgia and familiarity that many characters feel for Catholicism with their abhorrence of the events they are discovering. They allow audiences to dwell for long moments in uncomfortable spaces by asking: if so many knew, how did this happen to such an extent, and for so long?

It is no small feat for a film with such a well publicized ending to surprise a room of jaded critics to the point of speechlessness, yet Spotlight did it. So if Spotlight should win, as I believe, the question then becomes: can it?

oscars best picture the revenant

Can ‘Spotlight’ win the Academy Award?

In examining the past decade, it becomes quickly clear that is it the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards — and not the Golden Globes — that bears directly on the outcome of the Oscars. There are many ways to break this down, but to avoid becoming too entangled in speculation I’ll stick to the two top awards: Best Picture and Best Director.

Only three times in the past ten years has the Academy Award winner for Best Picture not won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Picture — and it’s worth noting that none of those three picked up a Golden Globe award, either. In comparison, only four of ten Academy Award winners picked up the Golden Globe (for either Drama or Musical/Comedy) in the same year. The Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Action Movie and Best Comedy are even more unrelated; in the past ten years, neither have chosen a single Best Picture film.

The link continues when considering directors. Most movie goers are aware of the correlation between the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. Of the 87 films that have won Best Picture, 62 have also taken home Best Director, a trend that seven films of the past ten years has continued. Here again is it the Critics’ Choice Award for Director, rather than the Golden Globe, that appears to point to the Oscar winner, with six Critics’ Choice directors going on to win the Best Picture Oscar, compared with only three Golden Globe winners.

oscars best picture spotlight

What does this mean for Spotlight? The Revenant was the big Golden Globes winner, taking home Best Motion Picture — Drama and Best Director for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, but as we have seen, this means relatively little to the Oscars. The Critics’ Choice awards were an interesting case; for only the second time in ten years, the awards for Best Picture and Best Director were split, going to Spotlight and George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road respectively. In every other year in past decade, Best Director and Best Picture have awarded to the same film. It is worth noting that the only other time when this has happened this decade — in 2013 when 12 Years a Slave and Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón again split the awards, it was the Best Picture winner that ended up taking out the Oscar — not the film from the Best Director.

All of this implies that, despite conversations online, Spotlight is a reasonable favorite for the Academy Award, and many critics agree. At the time of writing, having changed their tune from a mere few days ago, 19 of 25 “experts” listed on GoldDerby were predicting a win for Spotlight; four others picked The Martian; only one chose The Revenant, tied with one for The Big Short. On Rotten Tomatoes, Spotlight has a 97% rating amongst critics, compared with The Revenant’s 82% (making it the lowest rated of all of the Best Picture nominees, as of the time of writing).

The other award ceremonies prove that Spotlight is still very much a contender. My universal experience has been that those who haven’t seen Spotlight find it difficult to remember what it is — and that those who have can’t stop praising it. Obviously the Academy is not always in line with the popular vote, but if only a few more people experienced this tremendous film, perhaps we could stop discussing the bear controversies of a film that many didn’t especially enjoy. And while we’re at it, let’s give Spotlight the Academy Award, too.

We want to hear your thoughts on this topic!
Write a comment below or submit an article to Hypable.

Introducing the Hypable app

Free for iOS and Android