The Academy Awards have always been an exercise in the obvious, rarely hitting you with an out-of-leftfield surprise or shocking third-act plot twist. So much of the Oscars involves merely delaying the inevitable. It’s sort of like a wedding. You can dress it up in as much exotic, viral-video-worthy hooey as you like, but it’ll still end with two people making out at the top of a podium. But in spite of all of that, these things are still fun, still tense. For the ceremony’s 86th year, the biggest shocker was that everything was valid. There was no Crash beating Brokeback Mountain, no overpraising of bland crowd-pleasers, no weird inclusion of well-intentioned if shoddy movies. Instead, out of nowhere perhaps, it sort of felt… right.
Gravity and 12 Years a Slave were the night’s big winners, Gravity scooping six of the major technical awards (Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Effects and Score), along with a thorougly deserved Best Director win for the uber-talented Alfonso Cuarón. It’s unusual, sure, but Gravity didn’t win the Best Picture award along with it, though the reasoning is sound. Eventual winner 12 Years a Slave ticks all of the right boxes – historically accurate, biographical, socially relevant. But, more importantly, it’s a beautifully made film, dramatically compelling, emotionally engaging and masterminded by a true artist in the hands of British director Steve McQueen. Gravity, with its shaky script and arguably conventional narrative, isn’t a perfect film, but Cuarón directed with unprecedented scope, delivering unconventional, awe-inspiring visuals with such finesse that it would have just been wrong to snub him for Best Director. So the correct choices were made for the big two.
Her never stood a chance in Best Picture, but did deservedly take home the Best Original Screenplay award, Spike Jonze finally being rewarded for a career of mind-bending, experimental and forward-thinking filmmaking. John Ridley bagged the Best Adapted Screenplay win for 12 Years a Slave, in spite of tough competition in the form of the beautifully tender Philomena, the anarchic The Wolf of Wall Street, and heartwarming Before Midnight.
The acting winners were mostly expected, Matthew McConaughey completing his career rebirth with a win for his fantastically impactful performance in Dallas Buyers Club, his scene-stealing co-star Jared Leto opening the ceremony as winner of the Best Supporting Actor award, and Cate Blanchett taking home her own tiny golden man for her batten-down-the-hatches work in Blue Jasmine. All three acceptance speeches were rambling and charming in equal measure, though Blanchett’s ode to female-driven movies and Leto’s heartfelt salute to his mum were memorable highlights.
One of the few major question marks leading into the ceremony was whether Lupita Nyong’o or Jennifer Lawrence would take home the Best Supporting Actress trophy, whether the Academy would vote once more for an old Oscar favourite and last year’s Best Actress winner, or a rip-your-own-face-off-because-she’s-so-damn-beautiful newcomer who delivered one of the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking performances of the year. In the end, Nyong’o was called to the stage, delivering a characteristically charming acceptance speech as well as preventing Lawrence from an Anne Hathaway-style backlash of epic proportions.
Many fantastic films were snubbed, Alexander Payne’s gorgeously cinematic Nebraska and Martin Scorsese’s future-classic The Wolf of Wall Street both going home empty-handed, and American Hustle, despite its mainstream showiness and Oscar-friendly appeal, becoming the poor, abandoned baby of the night by failing to win any of the ten Oscars it was nominated for. But this was a year of unprecedented greatness, every nominated film otherwise deserving of significant acclaim. They just had the ill fortune of all being released within the same twelve months.
In the end, the winners managed to salvage what was a generally underwhelming show, with host Ellen DeGeneres turning in a reliably bland performance, charming and cute, but entirely lacking when it came to memorable zingers. She was always going to be a safe option for ceremony emcee, particularly after last year’s Seth MacFarlane experiment landed with a thud, but there were a significant lack of jokes here, an ordering-pizza-for-everyone skit dragged out far longer than it should have been, and the few actor-driven gags she made mostly backfiring (remarking that a noticeably jittery Liza Minnelli was in fact a male impersonator just came off a little mean). Similarly, the ‘heroes’ theme of the night felt lacking in context at best, annoyingly altruistic at best.
Yet the Oscars themselves somehow remain unsinkable. There’s always been something a little stiff about the yearly ceremony, especially in comparison to the loose, freewheeling Golden Globes (which has experienced an enormous reconnaissance of late with the regular hosting of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey), but it continues to be an exciting event, even more so when it every once in a while recognizes legitimately great movies. For such a fantastic year in cinema, the Academy actually got it right. And all the beautiful people in fancy outfits and the grand, majestic opulence of it all really is just the cherry on top.