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A Great Movie Year Deserved a Better Oscars

When judging whether a particular year’s Oscars are “good” or “bad,” you should break down your response into separate criteria. Were you happy with what won? Did you like the speeches? Were there memorable unscripted moments? How was the host? But perhaps the most important question to most people is: How long was it? There is an annoying tendency among commentators—both in terms of the Oscars and the movies they celebrate—to complain that they go on forever. “Why can’t it be shorter?,” they whine. “Doesn’t the show know it’s boring us? We’re busy people—get a move on.”

So let the record show that, at three hours and 23 minutes, the 96th Academy Awards was among the shortest in recent years. Moving along briskly, with startlingly few speeches leaving much of an impression, the evening was all smooth efficiency and frictionless forward momentum. There were no controversies, no big gaffes—poor Da’Vine Joy Randolph going to all that trouble mentioning her publicist and then forgetting to actually say the person’s name—and also no winners that felt like major upsets. It was a perfectly fine Oscars. But to honor the movie year it was meant to commemorate, it deserved to be greater—for the films and also for us.

There is no shortage of anxieties currently bedeviling Hollywood. Surviving two major labor stoppages in 2023 thanks to writers and actors standing up for fair compensation and better rights, the industry is now preparing for what could be contentious talks with the invaluable crews that make productions run. (Good on fourth-time host Jimmy Kimmel to acknowledge these invisible workers in his opening monologue, one of the best moments in an otherwise so-so performance.) In addition, theaters are still fighting to regain their pre-Covid footing, not to mention the ongoing concerns about the future of streaming, the disappearance of the mid-budget studio picture, and the very real superhero-film fatigue that has capsized several recent releases. 

In the recent past, such worries have resulted in Oscar ceremonies that felt defensive, with A-list luminaries and Academy executives solemnly extolling the virtues of seeing movies on the big screen. Even for those of us who have devoted our lives to film—we special few who get moony about the communal theatrical experience—those shows could be a little depressing. (C’mon, folks, have some self-respect: You’re movie stars!) As far as I’m concerned, the Oscars shouldn’t have to feel self-conscious about anything, whether it’s being too long or taking the art form too seriously. I’m as interested in hearing someone moan about the length (or grandeur) of the Academy Awards as I am interested in hearing someone moan about the length (or grandeur) of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” My advice to the Academy: Don’t worry about appealing to people who don’t care about movies—just be yourselves.

But this year’s show had the potential to meet a historic moment. Such judgements are subjective, of course, but I’m in agreement with the general consensus that these 10 Best Picture nominees are among the strongest collection of candidates we’ve had in quite a while. And the odds-on favorite, “Oppenheimer,” was hardly a traditional Oscar-bait biopic. What remains remarkable about Christopher Nolan’s three-hour epic is how little it actually feels like a biopic, weaving in elements of the thriller, the heist film and the courtroom drama. In addition, it’s a genuinely disquieting film about our ability to destroy ourselves—a fear that has not subsided all these years later. (This isn’t one of those feel-good Best Picture winners that assures you everything is better now.) It’s a gutsy, somber, despairing movie about the shadow of war that still hangs over everything. That it also happens to be incredibly entertaining undercuts none of the dark urgency of that message.

Pair that with what is going on in the world—and also outside the Dolby Theatre, which hosts the Oscars. As the Academy Awards were getting close to air—as the pre-show red carpet programming was in full swing—pro-Palestinian protestors were taking to the streets, blocking traffic and trying to raise awareness for a long conflict that only intensified after October 7th. With many in the Dolby wearing red pins symbolizing a call for a cease-fire in the region, it seemed likely that some of the winners would mention the war. After all, such comments had been made recently from podiums at critics awards, the Indie Spirits and elsewhere—why doubt that, on such a big stage as the Oscars, a few wouldn’t want to express themselves?

Unfortunately, in both regards—the quality of the films and the uncertainty raging in the world—this year’s Oscars too often felt perfunctory, neither acknowledging what made these movies so special nor grappling with the anxieties all over the news. There were exceptions, and those moments were quite moving. But they got drowned out by a businesslike tone that lacked much of a personality. It’s what happens when you just want to keep the damn thing moving.

I could hardly fault who won. I jumped from my couch and yelped with joy when “The Zone of Interest”’s Tarn Willers and Johnnie Burn won for Best Sound, their groundbreaking work beating out the formidable craft of “Oppenheimer.” While I slightly prefer “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” the Academy’s honoring of Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” demonstrated that the voters don’t just factor in box office—being a living legend counts for something, too. In my ideal world, “The Zone of Interest” and “Past Lives” would have been the night’s champs, but I approved of all the acting wins, and “Oppenheimer” (which collected seven Oscars) is a sweeping, brilliant, flawed, but stirring achievement. “20 Days in Mariupol” may not be quite as great as “Four Daughters,” but they’re both superb, so who cares? 

But if I was pleased with the names that were called to the stage, I kept wishing that the winners would have a little more oomph in their speeches. It’s easy (and lazy) to describe acceptance speeches as just a list of thank-yous to agents and managers, but even the thanking of spouses, parents and children started to take on a dutiful air. Sometimes, Oscar prognosticators make their final predictions in tight categories based on who they think voters will imagine would give the best speech—by that logic, they vote for the memorable, only-at-the-Oscars moment they want to see. Emma Stone’s clearly stunned reaction to winning Best Actress for “Poor Things”—combined with her worry that her dress had broken—energized her flustered, endearing, emotional remarks. By contrast, Cillian Murphy—cool, calm and collected as always—was one of the few winners to actually address the content of his film in his speech, paying tribute to “the peacemakers” after noting that we’re still living in the dangerous world that his character J. Robert Oppenheimer created. In her Best Song win for “What Was I Made For?,” Billie Eilish talked about the fans who had been moved and empowered by “Barbie.” (She also cheekily shouted out the childhood teacher who didn’t like her but was still good at her job.)

But such moments felt rare. For every Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who took home the evening’s first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for “The Holdovers,” getting choked up remembering being the only Black woman in her acting class, there were drab, generic comments about “incredible” collaborators and going on “incredible” journeys and so on and so forth. Winners didn’t feel especially moved to be up there. They felt too composed, too stiff, too formal. They felt like it was one last awards show they had to go to before they could finally head home. 

What helped elevate the show—as is often the case—were the winners in the so-called smaller categories. As someone who loves the pageantry and the elegance of the Oscars, I despised the decision in 2022 not to air all the categories live, resenting how the Academy seemed to be diminishing some crafts, placing them as secondary to others. The unfortunate truth is that, so often, the less-flashy prizes end up among the most powerful during the night. Ukrainian war correspondent and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov, director of “20 Days in Mariupol,” which harrowingly chronicled Russia’s invasion of the Ukrainian city, spoke forcefully about how he wished he hadn’t had to make the movie—and therefore wouldn’t have won the Oscar—if it had meant his people had been spared Vladimir Putin’s cruel war. It was a moment of conscience in a night that needed more—not just red pins but real words. 

Thankfully, those came from Jonathan Glazer, writer-director of “The Zone of Interest,” which took home Best International Film. The filmmaker behind “Birth” and “Under the Skin,” and his producing partner James Wilson, who are both Jewish, have spoken out about the conflict in Gaza in interviews and previous awards shows, but never with the firm clarity that Glazer brought tonight. 

Reading from a prepared statement, Glazer said, “All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present, not to say, ‘Look what they did then’—rather, ‘Look what we do now.’ Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It’s shaped all of our past and present. Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza—all the victims of this dehumanization. How do we resist?” In a fairly apolitical night, his comments were the most direct—the ones that most pierced the night’s ho-hum efficiency to get to something real, troubling and unresolved. Glazer, like his extraordinary film, offers no answers, instead questioning us to reflect and take a self-inventory. I was pleased “Oppenheimer” won Best Picture, but I’d have wept if a movie as incisive and haunting and challenging as “The Zone of Interest” could have pulled off the upset.

But the Oscars aren’t just about speaking out—it’s also a night for fun and celebrating. Sadly, that was also in short supply. Kimmel remains an adequate host—genial but also a tad anonymous—and only a few of the presenters popped. John Mulaney will no doubt be greeted with a lot of “He should host next year!” hosannas for his amusing presentation of Best Sound, which somehow turned into a riff on the plot inconsistencies of “Field of Dreams.” Emily Blunt and Ryan Gosling put Barbenheimer to bed with a clever back-and-forth ribbing of one another, all in service of paying tribute to stunt performers. (They’ll be appearing in “The Fall Guy” this summer, natch.) Best of all, though, was John Cena’s pitch-perfect “nude” presentation of Best Costume Design—although a close second was Gosling’s much-anticipated, very enjoyable performance of the “Barbie” song “I’m Just Ken,” which had the showmanship and infectious sense of humor that was largely missing elsewhere. It was the only time that this Oscars felt like a legitimate event—the sort of thing that Oscar-lovers like me tune in for every year.

Running clips of all 10 Best Picture nominees throughout the night, and bringing on past acting winners to laud this year’s nominees, gave the evening the regal glow that you can’t manufacture. It’s the Oscars playing to their strengths, leaning on the greatness of acclaimed movies and the pleasure of seeing big stars talking about other stars, and it was catnip to longtime fans of movies and the Academy Awards. Plus, it gave the 16 acting nominees who were not going to win a chance to get a moment in the sun, which they seemed to treasure. (Regina King’s glowing words to “The Color Purple” Best Supporting Actress nominee Danielle Brooks seemed to light up her from within.) 

Anyone who loves the Oscars—anyone who knows that they can be silly and strained and embarrassing but doesn’t care because, damn it, they’re the Oscars—had plenty to enjoy tonight. For all the talk that he makes unemotional movies and is rather chilly himself—both accusations foolish, by the way—it was deeply cheering to see Christopher Nolan, finally winning his first Oscar, for Best Director, get just a bit teary-eyed during his speech. Likewise, the love shown to “Oppenheimer” producer Emma Thomas (who is also Nolan’s wife) by the film’s many winners was a reminder that “Barbie” and “Poor Things” aren’t the only positive stories of empowered female heroes we have. (Which is not to say Hollywood’s gender disparity doesn’t remain hugely upsetting.) And the show’s big winner was a risky blockbuster made with exquisite technique, nuance and artistry. How often do those take home the top prize? 

But the bright spots had to fight for space amidst the mundane and the underwhelming. It was telling that Kimmel’s great Trump joke at the end of the broadcast had more teeth than just about anything else during the show. For that brief moment, the Oscars seemed to acknowledge the world outside the multiplex—the one that scares a lot of us. Movies can be escapism, but so many of this year’s nominees offered more than that, from “Barbie’s” feminism to “American Fiction’s” attacks on racism to “Killers of the Flower Moon’s” grim view of exploitation and greed to “Zone’s” unblinking look at moral darkness. These films, and others, were about something, managing to be provocative and compelling (and, sometimes, even really funny) all at once. 

Those achievements were worth honoring on Hollywood’s biggest night, reflecting how cinema can both entertain and challenge. Alas, for all its flashes of pizzazz and passion, this Oscars played it too safe. The best movies of the year were bold and vibrant, proof positive that this art form remains creatively fertile, whatever the challenges ahead. I wish the Academy Awards had been similarly resonant and engaged.

For a full list of winners, click here.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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