There was an Oscars last night. So I am told, anyway; though I very clearly remember spending three and a half hours in front of a television, the ceremony pretty much glided right in and right back out of my brain without leaving more than a trace impression. More on that anon.
Meanwhile, the house-keeping: I went 14/24 in my predictions, an absolutely hideous record in a year that nobody had an excuse for hitting below 15 (13 of mine + Adapted Screenplay and Foreign), and 17 should have been pretty much a given for anybody paying attention (those + any 2 of Hugo's craft nods that I missed). The one and only thing I get to be even a little proud of is getting "The Shore" for Live Action Short. What can you do?
I have no Lubezki rant: of course he lost. He lost for a more overtly pretty film in a less competitive field with The New World; he lost for a technical masterpiece in a field that couldn't be strong enough to trump it with Children of Men. He is not going to win; him and Deakins, the two best living cinematographers, hanging out and having only the acclaim of everybody who knows anything about filmmaking. He's got a further two films on the "maybe" pile for 2012, one for Terrence Malick and one for Alfonso Cuarón, both of which are going to be gorgeous; and they are going to be gorgeous whether they get nominated for and then proceed to lose an award or not.
As for the winners: to be honest, the instant that Malick was nominated for Best Director and The Tree of Life was nominated for Best Picture, I stopped caring. I knew that was as far as that film would go, and it was farther than I'd hoped for, and I got to be content. The rest was just a bunch of noise. I still like The Artist; I still like Hugo; I would necessarily have given them all or even most of the awards they picked up, but in general, if Best Picture is going to go to a nice film, I'd rather it go to a nice film that is charmingly Gallic, rather than one that is soberly British. And let's please keep things in perspective: Crash and A Beautiful Mind are not so far in the past that I care to take for granted that a film I truly enjoyed dancing away with the top award. Weirdly, I am feeling more of a personal backlash against tech-sweeper Hugo than big winner The Artist; I think it is because The Artist's wins, on balance, did not fuck up my predictions, and Hugo's wins, on balance, did.
Meryl Streep: now, I have not attempted to hide, and to some degree have broadcasted, my limited interest in her work as an actor (in dramatic roles, anyway; I am almost uniformly delighted with her comic turns). I don't begrudge her the win, anyway, which was for a better performance than her other two, from where I'm standing. I am only sad for Viola Davis, who was outstanding, and will probably not ever be back here; Streep herself, having won, I expect to see only once more, for August: Osage County (I've been saying for years that her nominations would dry up once she finally took statue #3, but her part in August is too baity), which should still leave her with an unbeatable nomination record.
As for the night's one surprise (Streep was more of a shock than a surprise, and no, I don't know what distinction I'm drawing there, either), the Baxter/Wall win for editing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was history-making - no editor has ever won two years in a row - deserved (it was the only one of the nominees that I cared for the editing in any active way at all), and weird as hell. How on earth did The Artist win in the crowded and competitive Best Costume Design, and then lose in a category that practically comes with the Best Picture winner's name pre-inked? Of note: it has been seven years since it was last true, as it is now, that the last five ceremonies resulted in a minority of films winning both awards.
And: A Separation. Ironically, I saw In Darkness just the day before the awards, and was immediately convinced that the Iranian film had no prayer, but it's so gratifying to be wrong: it's been more than a decade since a film even comparable in quality took the Foreign Language award, and I am generally in favor of good movies winning more Oscars than bad movies.
Now, about that ceremony: ye Christ. It's not that anything about it was "bad" - nothing about it was much of anything at all. The whole thing had a worn out, "let's please get this over with" feel, and Billy Crystal, wearing a thick enough veneer of makeup to seem though he was auditioning for Armie Hammer's role in J. Edgar 2: J. Edgarer, did exactly what Billy Crystal does: make shticky jokes that fall somewhere on the positive side of Jay Leno on the "gags to make middle-aged women chuckle" meter. I am certain he said one thing that made me laugh out loud, but I do not now remember what it was.
The conceptual hook of, in essence, "since the two big winners are going to be a pair of movies about old movies, let's pretend that this is old movies!" did not work at all, not from the very first second; it felt kind of cheesy, in fact. But that was, perhaps, the order of the night.
I will confess to being a bit annoyed by how Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction - the two most visual categories in this awards ceremony celebrating a visual medium -were both sort of thrown out without any comment at the very start, like the director realised about 20 minutes before going live that they'd forgotten to schedule them in.
The speeches were drab across the board: of the biggies, only Christopher Plummer's was particularly elegant or deep, I thought. Octavia Spencer did that "I have to leave before I start bawling" thing that I always find charming, while Meryl Streep, after a really terrific opening gambit that smacked down her haters in the most charming way conceivable, sort of fizzled into "I love the people that I love" boilerplate, and Dujardin - one of the worst speeches of the night - started fumbling the second he got on stage; my impression is that he had something silly and comic and French planned, and then the minute he got to the podium, the Gravity of the Proceedings hit him like a wall, and he choked.
Below that, it was a lot of nice, routine, and dull speeches; I will confess to finding the whole matter of the Descendants screenwriter's acceptance to be as smugly self-congratulatory as the film itself, mostly because Jim Rash was making fun of Angelina Jolie's admittedly strange stance for absolutely no good reason. I was delighted by how obviously stunned Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall were for their Editing win; and Bret McKenzie's Best Song speech was the only genuinely fun, light moment of the night, including what I choose to believe, perhaps without evidence, was a gentle slam against the peculiarity of that category this year, thanking Disney for making movies that have songs in them.
The best speech of the night, though, had to be Ashgar Farhadi using his Foreign Film win to briefly remind everybody that there is a world out there, and it has issues bigger than what wins or doesn't win a metal man covered in gold leaf. It was politically charged without being confrontational, and the one and only moment in 24 awards where it actually felt like the movies maybe can be about more than just watching things and being entertained until you leave.
Other than that, it was as bland an Oscar night as I've seen in 21 years of watching them. Which is, to be fair, a huge step in the right direction from the embarrassing fiasco of having your host visibly stoned and not even a little bit interested in doing the work of Oscaring. And that, at least, is a promising sign. Now just bring back Hugh Jackman and all is well.
A last thought: while The Tree of Life was shut out, so was Rio. There is a little justice, anyway.