He did not do nearly as well for the rest of the show. The Girl Scout bit seemed a little too "Ellen-y" for him (it was almost an exact replica of the pizza ordering from two years ago), the Stacey Dash joke didn't work, and the Asian accountants joke - whether he was responsible for it or not - was not okay under any circumstances. Rock had the opportunity to do something legendary here, and although he was good, I think he dropped the ball a bit, especially because two of his friends really upstaged him. The highlights of the presenters were Kevin Hart's inspirational speech and Louis C.K. riffing on the Documentary Short ("this award is going home in a Honda Civic"), either of whom would make a fine host someday. I give Rock a B+ and the telecast a B- overall.
In terms of the awards themselves, I was legitimately surprised three times by the awards when they were given out, a revelation which I would expect would be echoed by many fellow Oscar prognosticators: when Ex Machina won for Visual Effects over Mad Max: Fury Road; when Sam Smith beat Lady Gaga for Original Song; and when Spotlight triumphed over The Revenant and The Big Short for Best Picture. That last pick ruined my chance at my best year ever (well, of the last twelve that I have publicly picked the winners, anyway), so I ended up at 9/10 on the big awards and 15/21 overall (I didn't pick the short film categories this year).
It's a significant improvement on last year and marks a return to form for me, as well as validation of some of my instincts about the way the awards work. It does, however, mean that I have picked only half of the Best Picture winners correctly over the past twelve years, so I have improvements to make in regard to predicting that category. After last year's Birdman debacle, when I ignored the Guilds almost entirely to my detriment, I created five rules to follow in my prognostications for the future that I then used to guide my picks this year.
1. Don't be contrarian in your picks and trust the Guilds.
2. Don't choose subtlety.
3. Never underestimate the power of "the narrative" for the year.
4. Don't overestimate the possible long term ramifications.
5. Don't overthink it.
Rethinking the Rules
Since this was the first time that I really tested those rules, I decided to use this (mostly successful) experience to revise those rules for next year in my quest to finally get 100% of the major nominees right. I have italicized my additions to last year's rules, and I have also decided to consider the order of the rules more carefully, as I think now that some rules are more significant than others, with the most important coming earlier in the list.
1. Trust the Guilds, which matter more than other precursors. The major guilds - SAG (Screen Actors' Guild), the DGA (Directors' Guild of America), the WGA (Writers' Guild of America), and the PGA (Producers' Guild of America) - have significantly more power as a predictive tool than the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, as demonstrated by the performance of The Revenant this year, which won both of the latter but was not nominated for either the SAG or the WGA. The real wrench this year was the PGA choosing The Big Short over either Spotlight or The Revenant; had they chosen Spotlight, I imagine that the conversation would have been a lot more active about its chances.
2. Don't underestimate the power of the acting branch. The acting branch is the largest segment of the Academy, so its influence should not be taken too lightly, particularly in determining Best Picture. Spotlight won the SAG award for Best Cast - the SAG equivalent of Best Picture - which is arguably as significant a predictor as the PGA Award (for which 19 of 27 winners have lined up, and no Best Picture winner has not been previously nominated by the PGA). In the 21 years that SAG has given the Best Cast award, eleven winners have gone on to win Best Picture, which marks a high correlation on its own. But what is perhaps more telling is that the eventual Best Picture winner has only once not been nominated for Best Cast with SAG: Braveheart, which won Best Picture the first year in which the SAG gave out the award and exists as an avowed exception to most of the guidelines in choosing the Best Picture at the Oscars. So that means for twenty years that the Best Picture winner has at least been nominated for the SAG Best Cast award, which is an incredibly potent correlation and perhaps the best indicator that The Revenant - which was not nominated by SAG - was not going to win.
3. A film's other nominations matter. Much has been written about the correlation between a film's chances for Best Picture and certain other nominations, especially Acting, Writing and Editing. Films rarely have a chance without at least achieving nominations in each of those three categories, regardless of whether they end up winning or not, so The Revenant's lack of a nomination for Writing should have been a stronger clue as to the Academy's true leanings toward the film. There are historical exceptions, of course, such as when Titanic won Best Picture without a nomination in Writing, but those are not very common. This one fact wasn't enough to convince me on its own that The Revenant would not win, but I should have considered it more carefully with all of the other factors.
4. Historical precedent matters...unless it doesn't. We Oscar prognosticators love to trot out all kinds of statistics and precedents as we make our picks. Films rarely win Best Picture without at least two other wins - but Spotlight did (though it was the first time in over six decades that it had happened). Films usually do not win Best Picture without a nomination for Best Editing - until Birdman did last year; for reference, the previously most recent examples were The Godfather Part II, Annie Hall, and Ordinary People between 1975 and 1981. Then again, it is still the case that no director has ever directed two consecutive Best Picture winners - another shot against The Revenant. The challenge is to know which historical trends will continue, and which will not, which is why this rule ranks a bit lower down.
5. Never underestimate the power of "the narrative" for the year...but don't overestimate it, either. This awkwardly worded rule essentially just means that we need to properly consider the place of a film's narrative. The Revenant seemed unstoppable after its incredible box office run and its wins at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the DGAs, and its place in Oscar history seemed to be cemented before the ceremony. So what happened? We collectively overestimated the power of its narrative, and we did not see that voters would see its narrative as complete with its other victories.
6. Avoid the "interlopers", particularly in the acting categories. I properly picked Mark Rylance to defeat Sylvester Stallone despite the fact that Sly was seemingly the overwhelming favourite to win. I made my decision based primarily on the Academy's attitude as established by thwarting nominations previous comebacks (Burt Reynolds, Mickey Rourke), late career resuscitations or nominations (Lauren Bacall, Peter O'Toole), or pre-established fame outside of the Oscars (Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy). Sure, there are some examples in recent history that might indicate otherwise - Jeff Bridges and Christopher Plummer come to mind - but the difference is that those awards were given to previous nominees who were not seen as interlopers at the Oscars - which Stallone clearly was - but to long-standing members of the Academy community who had earned their keep. The closest to a violation of this rule that I can think of would be Mo'nique winning for Precious, but every rule has to have an exception. I'm sure this rule could apply in other fields, though it's likely the strongest in the acting branch.
7. Don't be contrarian in your picks unless you have a good reason to do so. I had good reasons to pick against Stallone, so I did, and I was successful. I had some good reasons to go against the leading pick - The Revenant - but I ultimately chose to trust the reasons against choosing Spotlight, which now represents a shortsighted decision. In this case, I weighed out the possibilities of being contrarian for each and I decided that going against Spotlight made more sense; hence, I have rethought these rules.
8. Don't choose subtlety, particularly regarding the crafting of a film. Spotlight's win might seem to be a reason to discard this rule entirely, but I think it still generally applies, with the small caveat of applying it more directing to the craft of the film than to the content. Spotlight, although subtle in its craft, is anything but subtle in its content (sexual abuse in the Catholic Church) or its message (the power of investigative journalism). I think it still holds that the Academy tends not to value subtlety, so I'm keeping this rule here, albeit lower in the list.
9. Don't really even consider the possible long term ramifications. I think this rule holds up in the wake of Spotlight's victory, as I think most voters picked Spotlight not because of its issues, but because they legitimately thought it was the best film of the year. I used this rule to justify picking The Revenant, but if anything, this rule worked against me, as I considered that The Revenant seemed to fit the canon of Best Picture winners more than The Big Short or Spotlight. I got caught up by thinking of the overall narrative and long term ramifications in a different way, and I need to learn not to do that at all.
10. Don't overthink it; after all, sometimes the best choice wins. I know that "best choice" is subjective, but I think it is true that occasionally critical, commercial, and Academy choices coalesce and the eventual winners are deemed "worthy" regardless of the politicizing and campaigning and whatever else goes into. This seems to happen most often in the craft categories (Writing, Directing, Editing), but it does happen in Best Picture every decade or so. It seems to happen more often that the winners are not necessarily the "best choice" (The King's Speech or Shakespeare in Love come immediately to mind), but there are times in which the "best choice" wins - like Spotlight.
Reevaluating Spotlight's win
So, with these revised rules in place, Spotlight's win and The Revenant's loss make more sense; then again, I'm not sure I would have rethought the rules as clearly if The Revenant had persevered. You could still make a case for The Revenant with my new rules, but Spotlight seems to fit just a bit better. If nothing else, it seems like the rules for Best Picture might be a little different than the rest anyway, and here's why. For each category, the nominees come from each particular guild and are voted on by the Academy in a "first-past-the-post" system in which the winner receives the most votes, period. Best Picture is nominated by everyone in the Academy, and the winner is determined by a process called "instant run-off voting" that is explained here by FiveThirtyEight in an article using last year's nominees.
Here's what I think happened: The Revenant had a devoted following as the number one pick, but it did not have enough love outside of those core votes to win. It may have received a plurality of first place votes, but it did not get enough to win outright, meaning that movies started to be eliminated from the ballot from the bottom up. That means that the second place votes for some nominees (perhaps Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn or Room) came into play, and I think it is more likely that Spotlight was named second-best on more ballots (and perhaps more of those ballots) than The Revenant was; it would be interesting to see someone (like FiveThirtyEight) do some analysis of which voters were more likely to vote which way, but alas, the Academy does not release the vote totals. The votes for Spotlight kept adding up, and it earned the majority it needed in order to win. I'm still very surprised, as I did not think that it would actually pull it off; I assumed that we would add Spotlight to the list of superior movies that should have won like The Social Network or Saving Private Ryan instead of adding it to the canon of Best Picture winners.
Why this all matters
This whole discussion brings us to the final question of why this all matters in the first place, as I have many friends who have cynically disavowed any interest in the entire enterprise. I can totally understand why they might do so, much in the same way that I have tended to be more cynical toward professional sports. The Oscars and the entire awards show industry features a lot of the same kinds of conversations and prejudices and cheesy jokes and snubs year after year, not to mention making a lot of money for rich white people, so it makes sense to become cynical about it. The funny thing for me is that I treat most other awards shows that way - with a passing interest in the Emmys or Grammys when nominations or awards are announced - but I continue to see the Oscars as more meaningful both personally and in terms of culture, even though more people likely watch more TV and listen to more music than watch movies.
There is something transcendent about the Oscars that creates a more universal validation of the films in question, whereas there seems to be more variation and room for personal taste in wake of the Emmys and the Grammys, and the awards themselves are not nearly as tied into intrinsic artistic worth. Perhaps it is the exclusivity of the Oscars, or the fact that they remain woefully out of touch at times, or even that they actually get it right often enough to justify their reputation, but the Oscars still mean something on a broader scale.
I know that part of the appeal is that the Oscars and movies have always appealed to me personally. I have been a fan of movies and of the Oscars in particular since I was nine largely because movies were a huge part of my childhood. I remember picking Unforgiven with my dad to beat my mom's pick of Howard's End in 1993, and I have been picking ever since. I enjoy watching the movies themselves, and I do find that my own tastes do line up with the actual nominees on a regular basis, but I also love the exercise of sifting through the data and the history and trying to pick the right winners. The Emmys and the Grammys often seem too arbitrary, whereas the Oscars are just predictable enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.
I think that part of the appeal is also tautological - the Oscars matter to me because they have mattered to me in the past. I have made picks publicly and staked some of my reputation as a cinephile on those picks. I have chosen to make them mean something, and so they do. I have been doing this long enough that I have a genuine excitement when the nominations are released and in the lead up to the awards, regardless of how many of the films I have managed to see by either point (which, by the way, remains at two for this year: Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian; three if you include Ex Machina).
I am excited to see how the canon grows and what kind of movies are part of the conversation, and I continue to persist in my quest for the year of perfect picks. Maybe I will be satisfied once I finally do it, but I imagine that I will continue to prognosticate after that time anyway - if it ever comes. For now, I have a number of films to see over the next few months before summer blockbuster season hits, not to mention the excitement of Super Tuesday and eight months of American politics to observe, at the conclusion of which we will be in the middle of the next Oscar season, in which I personally hope that #Oscarssowhite will be a thing of the past.