The Oscars 2016 - why the winners really won

The 2016 Academy Awards have been handed out during a night of speeches, parties, and awesome Jacob Tremblay selfies. Host Chris Rock went some way to redressing the imbalance of #oscarssowhite with an opening speech that didn’t actually fix anything but made everyone feel pretty bad about themselves, and then nominees were whittled down to winners over three excruciating hours of disappointment close-ups.

Here’s a look at the smiling faces who made it to the stage - a breakdown of who won the major awards, and the real reason the Academy voted for them.

Best Picture - Spotlight

Why did it win?

Because in a year when the best picture nominee line-up probed American infirmities from all sides - the failures of capitalism in The Big Short, the spectre of male violence in Room and Mad Max, the nation’s founding savagery in The Revenant - Spotlight offered a compelling take on the most urgent and socially relevant issue of them all.

Why did it really win?

Because the Academy loves to celebrate movies which make moviemaking seem important, and in that sense the only other serious contender was The Big Short, a film that plays like a Wall Street pop video. Spotlight isn’t the actual best picture, obviously. It’s a better conspiracy thriller than it is an enlightening treatment of abuse (and it’s a far worse conspiracy thriller than, say, All The President’s Men, which didn’t win this category in 1977) but it won anyway because it wears its subject matter like a big badge of mattering, and because //of course// the Academy loves the film’s subtext about the importance of paying for quality content in a digital marketplace.

Best Actor In A Leading Role- Leonardo DiCaprio

Why did he win?

Because The Revenant is the kind of production that became an endurance test as much as a film shoot, and DiCaprio’s star turn was delivered through a nightmare of ice, exposure and pain that shows a serious commitment to his craft.

Why did he really win?

Because this leading actor year’s field was relatively weak, and DiCaprio has earned a win through years of close misses. If anything the focus on the arduous production might have hurt his chances with voters (“Give me a break. He got millions of dollars, and I would assume they had heaters”) but his was the most spectacular and aggressively actorly of all the nominated performances, and if you’re not going to reward the actual best acting, prevailing sense says you give it to the guy that grimaces and shivers a lot.

Best Actress In A Leading Role - Brie Larson

Why did she win?

Because she anchored the most surprising and powerful movie of this year’s awards season, captivity drama Room, a film about finding humanity in the darkest of places which also makes space to show the untidy and permanent consequences of trauma.

Why did she really win?

Because sometimes the Academy gets things right. It helps that Larson was up against awards regulars like Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence - less likely to earn an “only chance” sympathy vote - and Charlotte Rampling, always unlikely to win following those controversial comments on the diversity of this year’s nominees, even if that means in a very direct way the Academy has punished her for not calling out its own mad racism. All of which is a sideshow to the fact Brie Larson was great in Room, a film which deserved to win if only to make up for the fact that this year’s real best actor, Jacob Tremblay (who wore Darth Vader socks to the ceremony, because he is amazing) wasn’t even nominated.

Best Actor In A Supporting Role - Mark Rylance

Why did he win?

Because Bridge Of Spies - Steven Spielberg’s most politically relevant movie in years, a film which insists a true test of our values is how far we extend them to our enemies - is built around Mark Rylance’s dowdy, minimalist performance as a caught cold war spy.

Why did he really win?

Rylance delivers something out of the ordinary here, though it helps he does so in a Steven Spielberg film, and one that uncontroversially trumpets American virtue from a cosy Cold War past. If nothing else, Rylance’s win shows the Academy has an unsentimental streak - the real Hollywood ending would have been a Sylvester Stallone win, 39 years after missing out on best actor for the original Rocky (although maybe a career bookended by heroic failures is more Rocky’s style).

Best Actress In A Supporting Role - Alicia Vikander 

Why did she win?

Because she is the sympathetic heart of The Danish Girl, a film about love and identity whose success relies on a performance just like this - a channel of understanding and acceptance in a relationship that tests our conception of identity.

Why did she really win?

For all these reasons, perhaps given an added push by the fact that by voting time the staggeringly white nominee list had been a story for weeks, and giving awards to a boundary-pushing issues movie is a good way for the Academy to reclaim a sense of progressiveness in the midst of being accidentally massively racist. Keen observers will note that on Saturday black transgender performer Mya Taylor won best supporting actress at the Independent Spirit Awards for her role in the rather less warm-and-glowy take on trans life, Tangerine - how very Oscars of the Academy, in contrast, to bolster its liberal credentials by giving a prize to a pretty white lady.

Best Director - Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Why did he win?

Because The Revenant is a beautiful, uncompromising take on life at the frontier of both a new and unbroken country, and on the precarious edge of survival itself. Right?

Why did he really win?

I have literally no idea. Leaving aside the question of how it’s possible to win best director for not directing the best film - sorry, Tom McCarthy - why, having separated the awards, would you not give this year’s Oscar to George Miller? While the other films in the best picture race cross-reference conceptions of America with male power and violence, The Revenant is about headbutt-strength masculinity, the very kind that Mad Max left behind - raw and basic, trembling over the nobility of suffering like there’s no higher calling in existence than out-manning other men by enduring more pain, bears and outside than they can and then making a hole in them with a bullet or a stick. It’s vain, ostentatious and self-obsessed, and… actually of course that’s why Iñárritu won. If nothing else, the Academy is great at recognising one of its own.

Nathan Ditum