Oscars

Last night ended the Oscar season in perhaps the best way possible. After months of hype, backlash, and then the modest waves of backlash to the backlash, the ceremonies concluded with mostly good choices, which is always (pleasantly) surprising.

David O. Russell‘s presumptive winner American Hustle was shut out in every category, but then again, so was The Wolf of Wall Street (it’s funny these films are back to paralleling each other). For The Wolf, the nominations were supposedly the win, but who knew that was the case for Hustle as well? Hustle has made nearly $150 Million at the box office, and everyone involved came off well, but it seems like that if voting had taken place back in January the film would have won. The film was all sizzle and no steak.

As for the ceremony, Ellen DeGeneres came back for a second time, and — perhaps because of the backlash to Seth MacFarlane‘s hosting job the year previous — was even safer than normal. Opening with a joke about the rain in Los Angeles, the comedy went downhill from there. At her best, her bits (like holding a guitar but not playing it, or ordering the pizza, or taking the photo above) came across like Andy Kaufman on Ritalin. There was an edge of something subversive and strange that was mostly sanded off. She was genial without ever being funny, and if MacFarlane’s joke across as written for twelve year old boys, Degeneres’ felt like they were written for Highlights magazine.

As for the show itself, it had about two gears: old, and old pretending to be with it. The presenters on average were stars who had been around for ages, from Harrison Ford and John Travolta, to Kim Novak and Sidney Poitier. As for Miss Novak, my viewing party couldn’t tell who it was (because of our chatter) that was standing besides Matthew McConaughey, and if it weren’t for the Vertigo music cue, I wouldn’t have had an idea. That’s no comment on her various surgeries over the years so much as it’s evident she had them. For greater insight into the actress, it’s best to read this. That said, considering the focus on people who can collect social security, the ceremony could have been sponsored by Viagra. As is often the case with the ceremonies, you wait for something that feels unrehearsed, and that’s mostly in the mistakes, which besides Travolta’s wholesale invention of a name for Idina Menzel, they were kept to talented people struggling with their cue cards/prompters. Maybe there’s just something about awards ceremonies that make it hard to sell enthusiasm for other people’s art. But from Ford’s blustery stumbling through three best picture nominees, to Tyler Perry’s mostly monotone delivery, to Whoopi Goldberg’s introduction of The Wizard of Oz, barely competent seemed the way of the presenters, with the always charming Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx rising slightly above the fray.

But if the ceremony wasn’t all that memorable or good, this years montages deserve more abuse for being especially egregious. Thematically, they were terrible, and it’s hard to tell if they were cut by people pandering to young audiences, or cut by someone ignorant of cinema history. The animation montage featured repeated clips of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, and it’s hard to suggests they even spotlight classic moments from those films. Perhaps they showed up because Warner Brothers mostly made shorts (but then why weren’t they honored? Okay, whatever) and the Oscars didn’t want it to be majority Disney, but then why show two clips from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And then there was a montage about real heroes until it obviously wasn’t.  In all those pieces, it seemed to reflect that cinema history has crossed the point where people are supposed to know about over a hundred years of cinema history. Now it’s just about “remember this one?”

As for the wins, yes, Jared Leto won an Oscar, but in a nice bit of timing, he won it early and all of the contentious races were saved for later. I watched it with a room full of film fans in a hipster area of town and it’s safe to say the room exploded when Spike Jonze won for Her. Legitimately exploded. Whereas there was a sense of relief when 12 Years a Slave won as there was still a lingering fear that Hustle might pull through, and after the last couple years of lighter, more frivolous films winning the main prize, 12 Years felt like a breath of the right air for the Oscars.

Otherwise, it was mostly as predicted. Matthew McConaughey gave a much weirder speech than anyone had in years, and was one of the first actors in a long time to directly mention God, which used to be a standard thanks. Lupita Nyong’o was predictably adorable, Cate Blanchett gave a great funny speech, Alfonso Cuaron was the right choice, and most of the tech awards went where they seemed likely to go (though I was a little bummed that Bad Grandpa lost), and then it all wrapped up with Steve McQueen acting highly gif-able, which is a great way to end.

Being a best picture Oscar winner means you’re automatically at least a footnote in cinema history, though I’ll always associate it with going to the video store. By the time of Blockbuster and Hollywood, every chain store had an Oscar section, and though no film fan takes the winners that seriously, it was still a section of movies that had to be watched and analyzed. But in watching the Oscar movies, you come to realize that the times when the best picture of a year lines up with the Best Picture winner are rare. Winning can also work against a film, something we’ve seen a lot of since Shakespeare in Love. American Beauty, The King’s Speech, and on and on, these are films that will be remembered not as great moments in cinema history, but pictures that somehow won the main prize. And the great thing about 12 Years is that it can handle that weight as it is important. It is a great movie. I may prefer The Wolf of Wall Street or the not nominated Short Term 12, but you can’t argue with the decision. And considering the “important” issue films that have won previously, 12 Years is one of the best, and also finally got Brad Pitt an Oscar.

It’s funny in the year 12 Years won best picture, the ceremony acknowledged the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. What it didn’t do is acknowledge the same anniversary for Gone with the Wind, which — while not being exactly pro-slavery — also dealt with the South’s troubling history, albeit with much more empathy for the slave owners. It won ten awards and is still one of the most successful films of all time. But these days it’s out of fashion, a fate unlikely for 12 Years a Slave.

What did you think of the Oscars this year?