The latest Academy Awards were overshadowed by the "#oscarssowhite" controversy, which itself was successfully turned into more or less a joke by MC Chris Rock. No film loomed so head and shoulders high above all the others that I had any great rooting interest in any of the categories, apart from wanting to see George Miller win Best Director for Mad Max: Fury Road. Instead, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won the award for the second year in a row, this time for The Revenant, while Best Picture went to Tom McCarthy's Spotlight. A record was set when Revenant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki won his category for the third consecutive year, while Ennio Morricone at last won a Best Original Score award, even though a good part of his score for The Hateful Eight consists of music rejected by John Carpenter for The Thing. In the most noteworthy upset of the night, sentimental favorite for Best Supporting Actor Sylvester Stallone (Creed) was beaten by Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies). I said before that if Rylance won for a rather minimalist performance in the Spielberg spy film, it would be because the TV miniseries Wolf Hall had convinced voters that Rylance was a great actor, but I also suspect that the Academy might have feared embarrassment over giving an Oscar to Creed's white supporting actor after infamously ignoring its black writer-director and star at the nomination stage. To no one's surprise, I assume, a film touching upon the Holocaust won Best Foreign Language Film, but as I've seen none of the nominees I can't say more than that.
By giving Spotlight the highest honor the Academy takes a swipe at an often-antagonistic Catholic Church, whose offenses against children give the film Significance, but above all seeks to affirm, after some years of fascination with the visual potential of film, that writing matters. It's telling that the only other award Spotlight won was the Original Screenplay Oscar, the film being too much an ensemble play for any actor to have much claim on a personal award. It's a very good film and would have been my second choice from the field of eight after Fury Road, and McCarthy did a fine job in the relatively invisible art of directing actors rather than action, but I can't help thinking that after a few years Spotlight will be remembered as a thought rather than an image. If that can happen to a Best Picture than the point of moviemaking may be missed altogether. Dismiss Fury Road as a genre piece -- The General was dismissed in its time, after all -- and there remain many more visually memorable films than Spotlight. Visuals need not trump writing, for many stinkers are visually dazzling, but shouldn't truly great screenwriting, if it isn't just great theatrical writing, lead to truly memorable moving images? Some will say that's why Inarritu and Lubezki won Oscars again, but given how inferior Revenant was to Birdman, I can't help feeling that everything to do with Revenant, including Leonardo DiCaprio's acting award, was a medal of valor for the making of the picture rather than the finished product. And lest you think this is more special pleading for Fury Road, I would have been happy to see Carol, as different a film as you could ask for, win Best Picture and Director had it been given a chance. The Revenant clearly was the most overrated film in the field, though it was still fiercely compelling at its best, while Spotlight's honors, by comparison, simply signal aesthetic priorities potentially at odds with the best that pictures can be. But what's new? The Academy's priorities, however they shift across history, have always been different from the priorities of art. Sometimes those separate priorities coincidentally complement each other, but whether that has happened this time, posterity must judge.