In a year with a number of great movies, The Oscars mostly went for comfort food over bold decisions, but what else is to be expected at this point? It’s hard to be upset with a voting block that has – time and time again – picked nice and safe and maybe a little political over most of the films that tend to matter. When you look back at 1999, who still thinks American Beauty was the best of that year? And so – as expected – The Artist won big.

It’s usually easier to see the times that the Academy gets it right (say, the first two Godfathers, Annie Hall, No Country for Old Men) as happy accidents than view their picks as in any way definitive. And it’s much easier to watch the awards as a pageant for the famous. Speaking of nice and safe, Billy Crystal only sparked discussion when he trotted out one of his old impressions (Sammy Davis Jr.) for a joke that would have been better if it was funny. But from the opening montage of Crystal appearing in a number of the nominated films, there was a sense of confusion about what to do or say with this year in cinema. That happens when your front runner (and winner) is a black and white silent film that’s only grossed $30 Million so far (which is less than the grosses for the remake of Arthur and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas), and the biggest films of the year were Harry Potter, Transformers, Twilight and Hangover sequels. Only one of the nominees had grossed over $100 Million domestic (The Help), so they went with a gay joke involving George Clooney and a motioned captured Crystal as Tintin.

Crystal returned to the jokes he’d done before as host – like the musical number – and watching Crystal’s heavily made up face served as a sad reminder of what fuels this town. It’s exactly what you liked before, only less so and covered in flop sweat. Still, for a ceremony that tends to go on and on, it should be said that the awards this year moved at a brisk clip.

It also started with one of the more notable upsets, as Robert Richardson won for Hugo – a prize that was supposedly going to go to either The Artist or Tree of Life. This gave a sense of hope that the Oscar prognosticators might have been wrong, and that The Artist was no longer the lock. And when The Girl With Dragon Tattoo won for editing, there was a hope that the metrics and analysis would also be off on some of the bigger prizes. Alas.

As with any year, there were the awards that seemed deserved, and there’s no arguing that A Separation is a worthy best foreign film winner. It’s hard to argue against Christopher Plummer getting the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award (and his work in Beginners was great), and Bret McKenzie’s win for his Muppets song made for one of the best moments of the night. And with these awards it’s good to enjoy those brief moments of good choices.

Though most of the presenters’ jokes fell flat (as is always the case), the videos had some good moments (though the montage of film seemed less focused than most youtube pastiches). Christopher Guest was commissioned to do a jokey sketch about test audiences from the past criticizing what happens in Wizard of Oz, and seeing his whole crew (Fred Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Bob Balaban and Jennifer Coolidge) making jokes about monkeys was a bright spot, as was Brad Pitt reminiscing about War of the Gargantuans.

But as the show progressed, it moved toward the inevitable and The Artist started picking up awards. The most obnoxious was Ludovic Bource’s win for best Score, if only because it used a huge chunk of Bernard Herrmann’s work for Vertigo, and the composer didn’t thank him. It was expected, but after the early upsets I was hoping for just one more.

The best speeches – it turned out – were by the people who said little to nothing. The sight of Octavia Spencer as a blubbering mess was more endearing than the list of people she reeled off, while Jim Rash won the night by striking a sexy pose in mockery of Angelina Jolie. Woody Allen – as has been his custom since he was first nominated – didn’t bother to come, which moved things along nicely.

Perhaps the biggest and most disappointing upset of the night was held nearly for last when Meryl Streep won for The Iron Lady over Viola Davis. Though it was in the cards, the downside to The Iron Lady‘s two wins mean that more people might actually see the movie. Like so many Oscar winners, Streep’s award seemed to be not for the movie itself so much as the idea of Streep.

But it also points out what is the most important part of winning Oscars now: Campaigning, and having Harvey Weinstein in your corner is worth more than greatness. His company was the biggest winner of the night, and it’s the only way to explain how Michel Hazanavicius won over such great directors as Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Alexander Payne and Woody Allen. It’s harder to be upset that Jean Dujardin triumphed over George Clooney – the only other “real” contender for best actor when it was evident that Gary Oldman never stood a chance. But when Natalie Portman addressed him you could hear the collective world thinking “oh yeah, The Professional” in response. Dujardin’s win seems to suggest he’ll show up in at least three American movies and then fade into a trivia question, but still – it was his night.

By the time The Artist was crowned best picture, all one could do is enjoy that James Cromwell had taken to the stage, and move on to something else. In year where cinema is quickly moving from 35mm film to digital, movie stars can’t open pictures, and the industry busies itself with sequels/prequels/reboots and board game adaptations, the academy chose to honor a film that tells the fake history of itself. Like Slumdog Millionaire or The King’s Speech before it, this win now anoints it as something that will be watched in the future only by people who like watching Oscar winners or film students.

What was your favorite win of the night?