Monday, March 3, 2014

Oscar Wrap-Up 2014

The ceremony ran a little longer than average, hitting the three-and-a-half hour mark, but it was a remarkably painless evening at the Academy Awards. Ellen Degeneres was a good host, avoiding big production numbers and scripted segments, but doing several running bits with her audience of celebrities that came off very well. The hosting choices of recent years have been a very mixed bag, and I can see the Academy latching on to Ellen for the long term. Her humor's on the gentler side, but she can still land a good "You're all racists" zing once in a while. There were too many random montages and perfunctory appearances, but all the musical performances were pretty strong. Poor Idina Menzel stumbled with "Let it Go," but John Travolta has been getting more flak the morning after for mangling her name.

The awards themselves offered few surprises. Ever since the guild awards became more high profile and the prognosticators ramped up their game, all the suspense is gone. So "Gravity" won all the technical awards, there was a Director and Picture split, and Lupita Nyong'o beat out Jennifer Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress, exactly as everyone predicted. The only remotely surprising outcome came in Documentary Feature, where "20 Feet From Stardom" beat out "The Act of Killing," and it wasn't hard to figure out why in a crowd of entertainment industry insiders. Fortunately we had a good crop of heartfelt, well-delivered acceptance speeches this year. Darlene Love sang. The Lopezes rhymed. Spike Jonze brought imaginary people. Lupita Nyong'o was sobering and eloquent. Matthew McConaughey couldn't have been more charming.

I'm far from convinced that the right people won, but I wasn't too bothered by the ones who did. It actually helped that the choices were pretty much a foregone conclusion by this point and there weren't any major upsets. In spite of "Gravity" getting the lion's share of the trophies, totaling seven, nearly every film I liked came away with something. "12 Years a Slave" got Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress. "Her" got Best Original Screenplay. It bothered me that "American Hustle" racked up so many nominations at the expense of much better films, but it came away the biggest loser last night. Zero for ten, which has got to hurt. There were an awful lot of shutouts last night, including "Nebraska," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Captain Phillips," and "Philomena." With the expanded Best Picture field, I suppose it as inevitable.

The telecast never runs smoothly, and this year had its share of flubbed intros, weird cutaways, and technical glitches. However, the whole thing looked considerably more modern and well considered this year. The nomination graphics had a decidedly Web 2.0 design sensibility, with the final run of Best Picture hopefuls depicted in a flash animated segment instead of the usual montage of clips. The set design was unobtrusive, the musical cues only stuck out in a few cases, and I didn't catch a single instance of the orchestra drowning out a speech as a winner was played off stage. There were definitely some changes made to streamline the ceremony - no accountants, no prefilmed opening segment, and Ellen Degeneres did most of the intros for presenters instead of a generic announcer, which also gave her a chance to do more schtick - but the event's organizers seemed less worried about the time crunch this year, so everything felt more relaxed.

What I think made the most difference this year was that there was a lot more spontaneous interaction with the celebrities in attendance. Pharrell got Lupita Nyong'o, Amy Adams, and even Meryl Streep to dance with him during his performance of "Happy." Ellen seemed to be in the aisles as much as she was onstage, with her multi-part pizza gag and the epic selfie. Brad Pitt passing out paper plates and Jared Leto racing over to be in the picture are things that you just can't script. Harrison Ford was a lot more entertaining getting pizza in his seat than he was awkwardly reciting bland copy from the teleprompter. It gave the whole event a warmer, more personal, collegiate atmosphere. The appearance of people having fun counted for a lot.

I was glad to see that Sarah Jones was acknowledged, that the performance clips were in, that interpretive dance sequences were out, that Bill Murray got a chance to give a shout-out to Harold Ramis, and that Kevin Spacey brought his Frank Underwood drawl along for presenting duties. I have no idea what that animation "heroes" montage was about and the proliferation of older actresses sporting botox was disheartening, but these are minor quibbles. Yes, the Oscars were a little boring this year, but they were also much more watchable, pleasant, and enjoyable than they've been in some time.

Until next year, award show fans.

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