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Three reasons why 'Spotlight' walked away with the Oscar for best picture

It was a year of two films. Until it wasn't.

It was a year of small but well-placed surprises, right up to the end.

It was the year "Spotlight," the third film on everyone's list of top three finishers, came from behind and walked off with the best picture trophy.

An impeccable ensemble picture that polished classic Hollywood virtues to a splendid shine, “Spotlight” won the first Oscar of the night, for original screenplay, and then had to wait three-plus hours for another trip to the stage.

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In between, two other films traded momentum, with both looking at times like they had what it took to go all the way.

Fastest out of the box was the visual fantasamagoria that is “Mad Max: Fury Road,” reeling off six Oscars in the richly deserved below-the-line categories, a real tribute to the astonishing imagination of director George Miller.

“Mad Max” reached the height of its run when it took the editing Oscar (marvelous work by Margaret Sixel) that was expected to go to “The Big Short.”

But “Mad Max's” momentum stalled just two awards later when the visual effects award it was favored to win went to the unnerving “Ex Machina.”

Periodic surprises like that were the order of the night. Just when we were getting comfortable with favorites taking it all, out came a monkey wrench, like Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith (who gave a powerful acceptance speech about being an openly gay man) winning for song over Diane Warren and Lady Gaga.

And then there was Mark Rylance besting Sylvester Stallone for supporting actor.

In the program's middle section, things got surprisingly balanced, with no less than six dramatic features — “The Hateful Eight,” “Room,” “The Danish Girl,” “The Big Short” as well as “Ex Machina” and “Bridge of Spies” taking home one Oscar apiece.

But toward the end, “The Revenant” with victories for Alejandro G. Iñárritu for director and Leonardo DiCaprio for lead actor, added Emmanuel Lubezki's record third straight cinematography Oscar, appeared to pull away.

But deceptive appearances are an Oscar as well as a Hollywood tradition, and “Spotlight,” the film I'd been telling people was going to take it all, actually won the prize for a variety of reasons.

Reason 1 was Oscar history. It seemed a given that Iñárritu would win director after taking the DGA prize, but if “The Revenant” had won best picture as well, it would have marked the first time in the Oscar's 88 years that the same filmmaker had won both director and best film two years running. The feeling for the film was just not strong enough to make that happen.

So what did “Spotlight” have that “The Big Short” did not? Three things:

It not only provided work for a lot of actors, it featured an actor (Tom McCarthy) who also co-wrote and directed. As “Good Will Hunting” proved years ago, actors, a big chunk of academy members like to see actors branching out.

It successfully conveyed its significance, something that Oscar voters look on with favor. When I started to see ads saying things like “One Film Breaks the Silence, One Film Moved Us With the Truth,” I started to see how “Spotlight” could win.

Finally, and perhaps most important, of all the three top contenders, “Spotlight” provided the most satisfyingly emotional experience, and it was honestly earned, unsentimental feeling at that.

Moments after Morgan Freeman announced “Spotlight's” win, an academy member friend who shared my belief in the film sent me the following brief email:

“We were right about ‘Spotlight.'

“Emotion usually wins best pic.”

It certainly did Sunday night.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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