One Last Pat on the Back

First off, congrats to Best Films of Our Lives contributor Elaine Teng, who claimed victory in the Outguess Ethan 2014 contest! This was an exceptionally close year, as what seemed like an unpredictable year actually solidified into an incredibly predictable one (more on that later). So, despite nailing a personal record of 21 out of 24 categories, I couldn’t fend you all off in total points – in addition to Elaine edging me by one measly point, shout-out to Dana Kaufman (last year’s victor) for tying with me as well. Next year, I figure, I will finally predict Original Screenplay correctly – and then promptly lose every single other category.

As regards last night’s ceremony, there’s actually not much left to say regarding the winners. The logic that I used back in my predictions for the most part seemed to carry itself out – while the extraordinary technical elements of “Gravity” swept through the craft categories, the staggering weight and artistic achievement of “12 Years a Slave” was just too much to ignore when it came down to the big prize. And so “Gravity” walked away with the second-most wins ever for a film that did NOT win Best Picture (that somewhat dubious record still belonging to the eight trophies on the shelf of “Cabaret”), while “12 Years a Slave” became the first movie directed by a black man to take the top prize. Honestly, I consider that a relatively fair split between two incredible films with entirely different objectives. And after a few years of lighter, more crowd-pleasing films taking Best Picture, I believe the Academy’s affirmation of “12 Years a Slave” will go down as one of their most tasteful, foresightful picks – for all the cracks about “pandering” or “obvious” subject matter for an Oscar film, McQueen’s film is bold, challenging filmmaking, and I’m not just talking about the blunt depiction of horrific violence and cruelty. “12 Years a Slave” is a silent scream of a movie, a furious, painful open welt conveyed (rather than contained) by impeccable craft. On rare occasions, the combination of message and directorial achievement is sharp enough that not even the Academy can ignore it.

And again, say what you will about the Academy, but this year’s winners did indicate a major industry organization stumbling its way toward diversity. Alfonso Cuarón became the first Hispanic to win Best Director. Lupita Nyong’o, in far and away the best speech of the night, earned an instant standing ovation, and not because of the tokenism that seemed to hover over the wins of some past black actors – the force of her performance simply couldn’t be denied, no matter how you sliced it. 2 actors (straight, yes) won for a film about the early days of the AIDS crisis – perhaps not that revelatory to the world at large, but this is a group that couldn’t quite get with “Brokeback Mountain” less than ten years ago. John Ridley quietly became the second African-American to win one of the screenplay categories. Robert Lopez, for co-writing Original Song winner “Let It Go” with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, became the 12th person to accomplish Tracy Jordan’s legendary EGOT perfecta. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s first black and female president, came out to declaim the organization’s bold plans for the Academy Museum, due to open in 2017.

I’m not trying to say that the game is over and there isn’t plenty of social injustice left to fight in Hollywood – Cate Blanchett, in another of the night’s frequently terrific speeches, made an impassioned call to arms for women in Hollywood, and we can only hope more producers pay attention. But in crowning, “12 Years a Slave,” Nyong’o, Ridley and Cuarón, as well as films like “Gravity” and “Her,” the Oscars, at least temporarily, seemed to be looking forward as well as backward. The selections played like a nice cross-section of what Hollywood film has been and could be.

Now, strictly in terms of the telecast, the Oscars are often in trouble when they have to rely on the awards themselves to provide the emotion and entertainment. They lucked out this year with winners both eloquent (Nyong’o, Blanchett, McQueen’s Best Picture acceptance, Spike Jonze) and humorously baffling (all right all right all right, Matthew McConaughey), but really the watchability of this year’s ceremony was no thanks whatsoever to producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The pair seemed to think that high-energy and touching performances of all four Original Song nominees (Pharrell in particular got the night off to a great start with the infectious “Happy,” almost stealing my personal vote for a minute there) gave them permission to completely check out on the rest of the ceremony. The “tribute” to “The Wizard of Oz” turned out to be nothing but a capable and trying-her-best Pink belting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – a nice display of the pop singer’s not-inconsiderable vocal talents, but it hardly illuminated the film’s legacy or justified the wasted time. Likewise Bette Midler’s rendition of “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” which was bafflingly placed after the In Memoriam montage rather than concurrent with it, stretching that section out to interminable length and stomping on whatever energy was left in the already-dragging show. And I will defend clip packages and montages to the death (I was enthused that performance clips returned to the supporting categories this year), but they require a MUCH better theme than “Heroes,” an incredibly vague and lazy idea that resulted in the editors basically slapping together every movie from the past twenty years that had a protagonist in it.

Ellen DeGeneres wasn’t a lot of help either, unfortunately. I love Ellen to pieces, and I generally think her low-key, relaxed approach to hosting works. It makes the stars in the audience comfortable, and it’s always a good idea to get them as involved as possible – it gives us great unscripted moments like Leonardo DiCaprio’s face when offered a slice of pizza, or Lupita Nyong’o’s brother half-blocking Angelina Jolie out of a star-studded selfie. But it felt like she was short at least three bits for the night – both the pizza and Twitter running gags were mildly clever to begin with, and way overstayed their welcome. I know she’s not really the song-and-dance type, but a peppy lip-synch routine (a la the great trailer for this year’s ceremony) or something similar could’ve gone a long way to keeping the show’s pace up.

In the end, it was basically business as usual for the Oscars – an up and down ceremony, an industry dancing the line between laudatory and smug, and enough great moments to make us think, let’s do that again next year. Until then!

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