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.
Mark Rylance, left, Brie Larson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Alicia Vikander in the winners room.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Songwriter Jimmy Napes, left, and singer Sam Smith won the original song Oscar for “Writing’s on the Wall” for the film “Spectre.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Brie Larson with her Oscar for lead actress for the film “Room.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Alejandro G. Inarritu with his Oscar for directing for the film “The Revenant.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Alicia Vikander won the supporting actress Oscar for her role in “The Danish Girl.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Leonardo DiCaprio with his lead actor Oscar for “The Revenant.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Production designers Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson celebrate winning the production design Oscar for their work on “Mad Max: Fury Road.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Ennio Morricone, 87, won the Oscar for original score for “The Hateful Eight.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes won the Oscar for foreign language film for “Son of Saul.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Mark Rylance displays his Academy Award for his supporting role in “Bridge of Spies.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Directors James Gay-Rees, left, and Asif Kapadia take home an Academy Award for their documentary feature “Amy” about late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy holds her Oscar for documentary short subject. Her winning film, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” is about honor killings in Pakistan.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Gabriel Osorio, left, and Pato Escala win the Academy Award for animated short film for their film “Bear Story.” Their win is the first win for their country, Chile.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Emmanuel Lubezki wins the Academy Award for cinematography for this work in “The Revenant.” He is photographed with the presenter of the award, actress Rachel McAdams.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
“Inside Out” producer Jonas Rivera, left, and director Pete Docter take home the Oscar for animated feature.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Margaret Sixel holds her Oscar for film editing for her work in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The winning visual effects team for “Ex Machina,” from left, Mark Ardington, Paul Norris, Sara Bennett and Andrew Whitehurst.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Winning “Mad Max: Fury Road” sound editors Mark Mangini, left, and David White, right, pose with actor Chris Evans, who presented the award.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
“Mad Max: Fury Road” makeup and hairstyling winners Damian Martin, second from left, Lesley Vanderwalt and Elka Wardega stand with the awards presenters, actors Margot Robbie and Jared Leto.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
“Mad Max: Fury Road” costume designer Jenny Beavan holds her Academy Award. She is photographed with Cate Blanchett, who presented the award.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
“The Big Short’s” writers Adam McKay, left, and writer Charles Randolph win the adapted screenplay category. McKay also directed the film.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
“Spotlight” writers Josh Singer, left, and Tom McCarthy win for original screenplay. McCarthy also directed.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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.”
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.
The cast of Best Picture winner “Spotlight” takes a selfie backstage at the 88th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Actress Stacey Dash speaks onstage during the 88th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on Feb. 28, 2016.(Kevin Winter / Getty Images)
Michael Keaton and the cast and producers of “Spotlight” celebrate after winning the Oscar for best picture.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The production team and cast of Spotlight celebrate the award for best picture.(Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images)
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, winner of Best Director with Tom Hardy(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Whoopi Goldberg(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Mark Rylance thanks Steven Spielberg before accepting his Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Adam McKay, front, and Charles Randolph with their Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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 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.