Review: The 86th Annual Academy Awards

The 86th Annual Academy Awards have come, and they have gone, and as usual I suspect many will say the proceedings were dull, overlong, and hardly good television. Because they say that every single year, and every single year – with the exception of the admittedly awful James Franco/Anne Hathaway ceremony – they’ve been too hard on a show that is, by its very nature, bound to dull, overlong and hardly good television.

What are the Oscars? Forget the romanticism about celebrating the best in film, look at what they really are: a comedian tells a few jokes, two celebrities read a list of names, they announce one name is the best of all of them, and the bearer of that name comes on stage and thanks people that the TV audience has never heard of. That cannot possibly be “good television” by any reasonable standard. The Oscars only work if you’re inclined to be invested in that sort of thing in the first place, and if you’re not, why the hell would you watch them – and then of all things review them?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Why would you watch them? To see the biggest stars in the word gathered together to have fun, tell jokes, and maybe have a genuine emotional moment, of course. The Oscars are about more than honoring the best films of the year (which are rarely even nominated anyway), they’re about establishing a yearly rapport between the people who make films and the people who watch them. They’re about putting a face on the people behind the scenes – yes, even the sound mixers – who are responsible for entertaining people all over the planet.

Although this year’s host, Ellen Degeneres, may not have told the funniest jokes, or have had the most nuanced sketches, but she invited audiences into the party. The repeated jokes about selfies with the stars were a little tedious for those who don’t care about that kind of thing, but for many the kindhearted charms of seeing Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Spacey, Julia Roberts and Jared Leto get excited about taking a goofy photograph together made for a humanizing and endearing moment. That Degeneres shared that tweet almost immediately with the world, and that – as of writing – it has already been retweeted over 2 million times speaks volumes about how much people cared about the attention she paid to bring home audiences directly into the Oscar audience.

The show was not without its disappointments, for both the viewers at home and the players on stage. One expects that the Oscar programmers thought it would be a really good idea to have Angelina Jolie and Sidney Poitier announce the winner for Best Director, strongly favored by many to go to Steve McQueen. It would have been a nearly perfect moment: the first black “Best Director” accepting the award from both the first black “Best Actor” and the wife of Brad Pitt, who produced McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The award went instead to Alfonso Cuaron, the first Latin American director to win the award; still a dramatic moment, but perhaps not the one they so carefully tried to construct. (Also, Jolie turned down Gravity, so one imagines a little moment of eye contact between them as Cuaron took the stage.)

The musical performances were better than usual, with Pharrell performing a lively if homogenized version of the already homogenized “Happy” from Despicable Me 2, Karen O performing a sweet (and short) rendition of “The Moon Song” from Her, and U2 capably crooning “Ordinary Love,” their theme from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The producers saved the expected showstopper for last, with Edina Menzel entering an icy stage to perform “Let It Go” from Frozen. But Menzel, an enormously talented performer, cracked that last big note, and tried to play it off with a flourish. I hope she’s not too hard on herself: if you really belt it out, “Let It Go” is a really demanding song by anyone’s standards. Maybe she was distracted by John Travolta’s mangling over her name during the introduction. “Adele Dazeen?” Is that what he said?

The less said about Bette Midler’s showstopping – as in, it stopped the show cold – rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” the better. Suffice it to say, watching Midler sing the entire song after this year’s Memoriam montage was tedious and distracted attention away from the real focus of the moment: the talent we lost this year. Why they couldn’t have at least let her sing beneath the montage – or not at all (was this really necessary?) – is a question that somebody really needs to ask at the AMPAS home office.

The awards themselves (which were announced live by CraveOnline), went mostly as predicted, with the supposedly closer races usually going to the supposed favorite. Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress over Jennifer Lawrence, despite Lawrence’s late entry into the race as a heavily touted spoiler. The Great Gatsby was declared a probable Best Costume Design winner when it premiered in May, but the widespread adoration of the styles in American Hustle had many – including myself – believing that the 70’s would trump the Roaring 20’s when the award was finally handed out. Gatsby won, and Hustle lost.

In fact, Hustle lost hard. David O. Russell’s critically acclaimed caper earned 10 nominations but went home completely empty-handed. Gravity fared better, earning awards for seven of its ten nominations, including the coveted Best Director trophy. 12 Years a Slave was completely overlooked in the technical categories but earned Oscars for Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. It’s the latest in a blotchy trend of Best Picture winners with only a few awards to their credit overall: Argo only won three Oscars total, The King’s Speech won four, The Artist won five.

Dallas Buyers Club won three Oscars, for Matthew MccConaughey’s lead performance, Jared Leto’s supporting role and Makeup & Hairstyling. Frozen followed with two awards, for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. The Great Gatsby won both Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. Her took home a single prize, for Best Original Screenplay, and Blue Jasmine won Best Actress for Cate Blanchett, as predicted by many.

But it was still a night for firsts. The first Latin American to win Best Director, the first Oscars for Brad Pitt (for producing 12 Years a Slave) and MTV alumnus Spike Jonze (for the Her screenplay). This year’s ceremony also gave us a brand new EGOT – a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony – via Frozen songwriter Robert Lopez.

Lupita Nyong’o brought the house down with her impassioned acceptance speech. Cate Blanchett and Matthew McConaughey proved their star power once again with funny, thoughtful and entertaining speeches of their own.

As for the winners themselves, we all have our opinions. I liked 20 Feet from Stardom just fine, but The Act of Killing is the documentary that people will still be discussing decades from now. (But credit still goes to Darlene Love for a powerful impromptu performance at the podium.) I also maintain that The Great Beauty is severely overrated, and it speaks volumes that the filmmakers expressed their debt to Fellini. The Great Beauty is the most Federico Fellini movie that Federico Fellini never made. It’s sad to think that Fellini never won a competitive Oscar, but that an explicit homage to his work would woo the Academy so strongly instead.

Also, if you’ve seen all the Oscar-nominated Live-Action Shorts and you actually think Helium is a better movie than Just Before Losing Everything, then I simply don’t understand you. In any way.

But the producers don’t – or at least, by all rights they shouldn’t – have any control over who wins, and it’s unfair to judge the show based on the votes of Academy members who, likewise, shouldn’t be voting based on the potential for TV ratings. The show that they put together for the 86th Annual Academy Awards was a relaxed and likable one, endearing to everyone involved. Absolutely charming, although not nearly as slick or as clever as many would have probably liked. It was a smart decision to emphasize the casual charms of the talent in attendance over glossily produced sketch material and contrived gags. Watching Harvey Weinstein get bilked for pizza money is a lot funnier than yet another elaborate montage of Billy Crystal Forrest Gumped into one movie after another.

Although next year, one rule: do away with the damned montages. Was there even a point to them in 2014? “Heroes?” Practically every movie has a hero. What did you really promote to audiences? What movies or moments did you introduce the young to for the very first time? What element of movie production, storytelling or magic did you bring to light? The fact that Mr. Incredible was in a movie once? That was pandering of the highest order. A damned low in the middle of an otherwise nicely elevated plane, with a few noteworthy peaks worth remembering for at least a few years to come.

[Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to correct the awards counts for both Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club, which were originally one short.]

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.


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