Academy Awards: The good, the bad, the ugly

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was a strange beast. Equal parts funny, annoying and brilliant, it defined both the great and the not-so-hot of live television. As Oscar telecasts go, it was quite good.


Ellen DeGeneres was a major highlight of this year’s sometimes stuffy, sometimes spontaneous ceremony.

What worked in this year’s ceremony? For better or worse, host Ellen DeGeneres was a big reason why the show worked. Several bits should go down as some of the best in history, including the pizza delivery and the selfie seen around the world. Ellen was relaxed and jovial, working the audience and having some great fun with the stars. She’s a pro at making hilarious moments out of painfully awkward situations (as opposed to being just painfully awkward, like another recent hosting duo I could name). I thought Seth McFarlane was an edgy breath of fresh air, but Ellen is perfectly delicious Oscar comfort food. As Cinema Blend put it, she was “the Oscar host we needed AND the one we deserved.

It was also a banner year for Oscar winners and their speeches. Jared Leto thanked his mother, Matthew McConaughey thanked God AND his mother (and his drunken angel father—seriously, that was weird), and the stunning Lupita Nyong’o paid tribute to the dreamer in all of us. They were three of my all-time favorite Oscar speeches.

I also thought it was a good year for the actual awards. Almost every winner was deserving, though some categories were so stacked that it was impossible for people not to be disappointed. Gravity took home a whopping seven awards, sweeping the technical categories and garnering a win for director Alfonso Cuaron (the first Latin American to win that award; though it’s crazy to think Pedro Almodovar has never gotten one). But, in a neck-and-neck Oscar race, the top prize went to the richly deserving 12 Years a Slave, which has got to be the best movie to win that award since…let’s just say it’s been a long time.

The not-so-good? What about this year’s Oscar “theme?” It was supposed to be a salute to movie “heroes,” but the presentation was so disjointed, it ended up feeling like no more than a padded, unnecessary afterthought. And, speaking of padding, this ceremony was long; it clocked in around 3 ½ hours. It seems ABC doesn’t mind going over running time; there were surprisingly few infamous musical “playoffs” for overlong speeches, even one’s like Jared Leto’s that went on for minutes. But, other than those “heroes” sections, the show really didn’t seem to drag. Even the “In Memoriam” segment was streamlined (causing some criticism), and the Best Picture centerpiece presentations were clustered in groups of three. And the musical numbers from this year’s Best Original Song candidates were particularly good.

The night’s biggest downer was its predictability. The major awards went to the intended suspects, and there were really no left-field wins (although some surprises in the documentary and animated short races shook things up). Remember the crazy insanity that was the Golden Globes? I mean, those speeches were bonkers (Jacqueline Bisset, anyone?) At the Oscars, everyone seemed cordial and no one seemed drunk. That made the ceremony feel classy and a little dull.

“Safe” is probably a better word. The Academy was concerned over the backlash from last year’s show; so they decided to do what was expected of them. And it worked really well (those ratings don’t lie) and not much more. That’s fine with me. It’s hard to complain about this year’s Academy show; it was classy, breezy fun. More importantly, there were some potentially historic Oscar moments to round out the package.

I leave you with pizza. Hope you’re hungry!

Oscar Watch: 12 Years a Slave

In this series, I look at the major Oscar nominated films and their chances of taking home gold. It is more an analysis of the Awards than it is the film’s quality, though some commentary on that is also included. Enjoy! 

 The term “instant classic,” is one that should almost never be used in the world of film. After all, doesn’t the very definition of “classic” imply that something must stand the test of time? Nonetheless, it’s fun to forecast the future and see whether any particular Oscar-winning meet that standard. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is probably a classic. Chicago? Not so much.

If one movie will be remembered as a great film in 20 years from this year’s race, my vote goes to 12 Years a Slave (along with documentary The Act of Killing, but that’s for another post). It is difficult to imagine a film about American slavery that feels less like a history lesson, but more like actual lived experience. I’m not sure how director Steve McQueen and company did it, but the results are to be celebrated.


12 Years a Slave will very likely take home Oscar’s top prize.

There’s been a strange backlash against the film in the movie going community; people say it’s flawed and overrated. No movie is perfect, but I can’t find any glaring flaws in the movie the way some have. It has some boring stretches and needed better editing? So did Citizen Kane.

People also say that 12 Years is the kind of movie that should win Best Picture, which is somehow different from the movie that deserves it. I think the argument is that the film’s subject matter trumps any arguments about its quality. As an Academy voter told Entertainment Weekly, “It was by far not my favorite picture, but choosing 12 Years validates the idea that the film should exist.” Wait…what?

The movie should win Best Picture not because it’s a movie about slavery, but because it is the movie about slavery. It’s also the best movie of the year. Why does it need to be anything else?

12 Years seems to be in a dead heat with Gravity, but, as I’ve said before, the populist choice always loses to the prestige picture. I think 12 Years will squeak by with the night’s big prize.

Of course, the film is nominated for 8 other Oscars, and should take home several of them. Not the least is Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning supporting performance as tortured slave Patsy.She gave a performance every bit as brutally physically and emotionally wrenching as Sandra Bullock did in Gravity; under the banner of “supporting,” she really carried a good chunk of the movie.

I’ve said so much about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s lead performance as Solomon Northrup, all I can really add is that he should win, but won’t. That Oscar has Matthew McConaughey’s name on it.

Same goes for Michael Fassbender’s searing supporting performance as the cruel slave owner Edwin Epps. He’s richly deserving, but will lose to Jared Leto, which some say is because of the fact that Leto played a transgender woman, rather than the performance itself. It’s a stacked category, and I loved Leto, but Fassbender’s is my favorite performance of the bunch.

12 Years will likely lose the directing and editing prizes to Gravity, making it one of those strange years when the Best Picture winner does not actually win that many awards. The costume and production design are good but not good enough.

The only seeming certainty in 12 Years’ crystal ball is the award for adapted screenplay. As rottentomatoes points out, Best Picture winners also win the Best Screenplay award. Of course, given that Gravity’s screenplay isn’t even nominated, even that is not a sure thing this year. Nonetheless, John Ridley’s script tells a harrowing life story without preaching or speechifying, and is in every way a triumphant adaptation of Northup’s own letters.

Despite its fate on Oscar Sunday, I truly believe 12 Years will stand the test of time as a masterpiece. Then again, I think the same thing about Lincoln, and that only won two awards despite 12 nominations during the 2013 show.

Oscar Watch: American Hustle

American Hustle seems to be in an odd position in this year’s Oscar race. While it has been seen as a dark horse candidate for some big awards (including Best Picture), passions for the movie seem to have cooled a bit.

It is, by all accounts, a very good movie. It was one of my favorites of 2013, and a much better “fun” awards contender than Wolf of Wall Street. David O. Russell doing a Scorsese-an crime caper that actually outdid Scorsese himself is something we all wanted to see. And O. Russell pulled it off flawlessly.


American Hustle, nominated for 10 Oscars, will pick up a few, but go home empty-handed in most major categories.

But it’s far from perfect, and I’m not even sure it’s as good as the director’s brilliant romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook. But Hustle has too many strong elements to be ignored. And, nominated for 10 Oscars, the Academy sure seems to have taken a shine to it.

Just look at the actors in the film. You’ve got Christian Bale (Best Actor), Amy Adams (Best Actress), Jennifer Lawrence (Best Supporting Actress) and Bradley Cooper (Best Supporting Actor). How often is a film nominated in all four acting categories? The last time it happened, appropriately, was last year’s Silver Linings Playbook. But before that, it was Warren Beatty’s Reds in 1981.

All the actors here are brilliant, but they’re up against some tough competition. The general consensus is that Christian Bale is out, and Lawrence is up against frontrunner Lupita Nyong’o, but some Academy voters have expressed that they are voting for both. There is no contest for Amy Adams; she will lose to Cate Blanchett, and the consideration for Bradley Cooper seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

That leaves room for Hustle to sweep up in its other categories, though I believe it will lose out to Gravity in most of those, that film will take home the largest number of total statues. Michael Wilkinson’s costume design seems like a given; the film is a glorious gallery of sequins, plunging necklines and standout toupees. The costumes add significantly to the film’s unique character.

O.Russell’s editing team did a brilliant job with Playbook, and Hustle is even more breathtakingly cut than that. But its tough to imagine it beating out Gravity; the way that film ties its cutting directly into its thematic episodes is too impressive to ignore.

Hustle’s other big enemy is actually The Great Gatsby. There’s no way Catherine Martin’s lavish production design, which made an okay movie significantly better, is losing even to a movie as snazzy as Hustle.

I’d love to see David O. Russell win a Best Director award someday, but this is not his year. That award easily goes to Alfonso Cuaron. I’m really rooting for O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s original screenplay, which was funny and twisty and all-around brilliant. But Spike Jonze’s Her is the very definition of “original;” funny, insightful, and very, very quirky. That seems to be the frontrunner here.

Hustle was a dark horse Best Picture contender, but that seems less likely now. It’s seems a distant third to Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Could a lavishly nominated period piece go home empty-handed on Sunday? It certainly has happened before. But I’m willing to be this infectious crime caper will pick up at least a few Oscars.