Spotlight vs. The Big Short: The Best Picture Case for Each

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Photo: Plan B Entertainment, First Look Media

In a little over three weeks, one of the most down-to-the-wire Best Picture contests in Oscar history will finally conclude: Will the big winner be Tom McCarthy's subtle journalism drama Spotlight, or Adam McKay's surging financial comedy The Big Short? Based on how both movies have performed during this awards season, you could make a strong case for each of them, and below, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Which of these fact-based contenders will prevail? Let’s see if you can make up your mind.

Spotlight was nominated for more Oscars …
Nabbing six Oscar nods puts Spotlight in a better position than The Big Short, which earned five. Over the last 15 years, only one movie has won Best Picture with just five nominations to its credit: 2006’s The Departed.

… But The Big Short did better with BAFTA.
There is a notable British contingent within the Academy, so pundits take the nominations for the British Academy Film Awards — the across-the-pond equivalent of the Oscars — quite seriously. There, The Big Short earned five BAFTA nominations to Spotlight’s three, and two of those were crucial bellwether nods that Spotlight failed to nab: Best Director and Best Editing.

Spotlight has the edge with critics …
Spotlight dominated the year-end kudos circuit of regional critics’ groups and has a sterling Rotten Tomatoes score — 96 percent, topping The Big Short’s 88 percent.

… But The Big Short won the top PGA prize.
The last eight Best Picture winners also took top honors with the Producers Guild of America, and that organization uses the same preferential ballot that the Academy does (and has a notable membership overlap, too). Spotlight may be the consensus pick with critics, but critics don’t vote for the Oscars.

Spotlight scored with the Screen Actors Guild …
Actors make up the biggest voting body in the Academy, and at their own awards show, they gave Spotlight the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture — SAG’s equivalent to Best Picture. (Ten of the last 20 films to win that prize went on to triumph with Oscar.) SAG rival The Big Short, nominated for the same award, went home empty-handed.

… But The Big Short has made over $60 million.
That’s almost double what Spotlight has grossed, and while Best Picture winners don’t necessarily need to be box-office blockbusters — as recent, medium-size victors like Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, and The Artist have proven — Spotlight would still be the least lucrative Best Picture winner since The Hurt Locker if it keeps up its current pace.

Spotlight got two Oscar nominations for its cast …
While The Big Short’s deep ensemble produced just one nod for supporting actor Christian Bale, Spotlight managed two, giving Bale a competitor in Mark Ruffalo and scoring a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Rachel McAdams. The latter is especially notable: Given that McAdams prevailed over far flashier contenders, it’s indicative of just how much Oscar voters liked her movie.

…But The Big Short's editing strength may be even more crucial
Oscar pundits know how important a Best Editing nomination is if you want to win Best Picture: Aside from the gimmicky outlier Birdman, every Best Picture victor since 1981 has also gotten an editing nod. Both Spotlight and The Big Short broke into the editing category this year, but only Spotlight was snubbed from the American Cinema Editors' own guild nominations, suggesting that The Big Short's distinctive cutting may have the edge here. If a film's editing is often thought of by voters as a referendum on the film itself, that's a big gain for The Big Short.