Oscar Predictions For 2016 Promise Big Things For 'Spotlight'

Spotlight does its job so subtly it might not be immediately evident what a feat it accomplishes. Set almost entirely inside a newsroom, courtroom, or living room, the film — which tracks an investigation by the Boston Globe's Spotlight team into alleged child molestation charges covered up by the city's Catholic Archdiocese — makes spreadsheet journalism not just compelling, but edge-of-your-seat exciting. Much like The Social Network before it, which turned the Internet schemes of Mark Zuckerberg into a high-stakes quasi-thriller, Spotlight turns a story that might better be suited to the page than the screen into a tale you can't imagine working better any other way. So how might Spotlight fare at the Oscars in 2016?

Though it followed another investigative journalism movie this year, and one with a higher-profile cast (the much-maligned Truth), Spotlight has come out ahead in critical recognition. In addition to near-universal positive reviews, the ensemble-cast film just received three Golden Globe nominations, for Best Motion Picture, Drama, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. This could bode well for its prospects when the Oscars roll around at the end of February — it's already been deemed a frontrunner for Best Picture and Best Director nominations by Decider, and Variety went a step further, predicting nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Michael Keaton, Best Supporting Actress for Rachel McAdams, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score for Howard Shore.

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But Spotlight will face off against some fierce competition across all categories. Though its ensemble cast is an asset to the film, because no one actor demands too much screen time this could hinder its chances at winning acting prizes. This contrasts with Rooney Mara's work in Carol or Jennifer Jason Leigh's turn in Hateful Eight: Both actresses will be campaigned as supporting cast members, even though they're essentially film leads, simply because competing in the Supporting Actress category increases their chances of winning. While Keaton and McAdams would both be valid winners in their categories, it looks increasingly likely that each will earn a nomination but will not ultimately come out on top.

Though it seems widely agreed, following the Golden Globes nominations, that if Mark Ruffalo is nominated for an award, it will be for his performance in Infinitely Polar Bear, his Spotlight role deserves more serious consideration. He plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes with great affect and journalistic savvy. Prior to the Golden Globes, he appeared a frontrunner for the Supporting Actor nomination, but was overlooked (as was the rest of the cast for that particular round of awards). It's the kind of character performance the Academy occasionally loves: Think of last year's win for J.K. Simmons of Whiplash or Christoph Waltz of Django Unchained in 2013.

And, while Carol is the Golden Globes frontrunner in sheer volume of nominations, Spotlight is still the favorite of many critics for the big prizes at the Oscars: Best Director and Best Picture. Variety didn't even predict a nomination for Carol for either category — Todd Haynes, though a big-name auteur, has never won Best Director. (Though, confusingly, Variety also predicted a Best Picture nomination for Straight Outta Compton. I'll believe it when I see it.) George Miller's comeback story could also go straight for the Academy's heartstrings, and we shouldn't begrudge the Mad Max: Fury Road director's chance at glory. But Spotlight director Tom McCarthy's hand is visible throughout the film, steadily guiding its perspective and making even the process of filling in an Excel sheet in a dingy newsroom basement seem somehow glamorous and compelling.

Spotlight's greatest strength, though, might be in its understated screenplay, and that's where it could have the best chance at success both at the Golden Globes and at the Oscars. Quentin Tarantino's brilliant Hateful Eight appears its biggest competition right now, but Tarantino just won the award two years ago for Django Unchained. If history is any indicator, recent winners like Tarantino — and like Blanchett, who will almost certainly be up for Best Actress for Carol — will be among the crop of nominees, but might be pushed aside in favor of films and personalities who haven't been honored so recently. This leaves space for the sleeper successes like Spotlight to claim the recognition they deserve.

Images: Open Road Films; berkah-barokah/Tumblr