*NOTE: This is not a recap or highlight of the ceremony. This is a discussion of the films that won isolated from the ceremony.
There is something to be said when the applicable films that won at Saturday's Independent Spirit Awards ended up being the big heroes at the Academy Awards. Unlike most years, there wasn't much of a race between anyone. Even from the moment that 12 Years a Slave hit the scene with its limited October release, there seemed to be an aura of predictability. At best, those who hoped that Gravity would be good would have a surprise by how openly acknowledged it became. Otherwise, as the race moved on, things became abundantly clear: it was the year of the front runners.
It is true that in the grand scheme of things, I did predict 21 of of the 24 categories correctly. This is the highest that I have ever done for any given ceremony. Of course, there was some hope that this wouldn't have been the case, as I wanted some potential upsets. Despite not really deserving much, American Hustle was a rumored threat to the point that I wanted it to happen. Most of all, I didn't want the ceremony to feel predictable and have some form of controversial hoopla. It has been a staple of every Oscar year, but the stars continually aligned with every awards show in its wake and began playing favorites.
We all wanted that mix-up just so that we could have a moment of controversy. There was nothing but popularity driving the winners. This doesn't necessarily make it a bad year for the ceremony, but until further removed, the predictability does feel a little dull. At best, the year's best narrative arc is around Matthew McConaughey's rise to respect after a decade of doldrums with his Best Actor win for Dallas Buyers Club. It was a phenomenal performance, but considering his competition, the idea of a rookie losing would have added fruitful conversation, especially with three of the five potential upsets being legitimately great performances.
Still, there was nothing more obvious than the technical fields and the set and costuming. Where last year had a tie in Best Sound Editing between Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall and Best Sound Mixing went to Les Miserables, there wasn't an opened arms approach to the technical categories this year. While Gravity is a technical feat and deserving of six of its seven wins, it didn't make the suspense all that great. Even the idea of Captain Phillips, a film that some considered could take the sound fields provided the opened arms approach was applicable, being an upset began to seem tempting. This is a problem with Gravity being so effective. It almost seems futile to even have other nominees.
Costuming was a little easier to swallow, as it seems odd that The Great Gatsby could win it all. That is, until you consider that Baz Luhrmann has always won in the costuming fields. The narratives may be problematic, but they always look lush and gorgeous. With The Great Gatsby, he struck a move that ended up paying off: flashy styles and period pieces:: two easy votes for the Academy. It is tough to say notably because it did seem like American Hustle could have sneaked a win in between The Great Gatsby's three, even if it looked modest by comparison. Also, it does seem rather impressive to note that The Great Gatsby, which was sort of reviled upon release, ended up winning more than The Wolf of Wall Street, which is far more acclaimed and had more nominations. While I like the former more, it is one of many factors that is amusing from this year's ceremony.
Then you get down to the overall nominees. Besides it being a predictable year for the top dogs, it is notable that every single one of the films in the Best Actor race opened late in the year. There wasn't anything before October. While this is considered the Oscar season, there have been a few nominees that seep out beforehand, such as last year's Beasts of the Southern Wild that was released in June. It makes things also a little more complicated, as it puts some films in limbo between theatrical and home video release, making it harder for regular audience members to have seen them all. It was also rather grating to note that December was a very congested month and that it was impossible to keep up with things.
Consider the following. These are the nine Best Picture nominees by the months that they were in their initial widest (Read: not limited) release:
OCTOBER: Captain Phillips, Gravity
NOVEMBER: 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Philomena
DECEMBER: American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street
This isn't to say that all of this year's nominees came out that late in the year, but with 6 of the 9 opening in the last two months and another in January, it does seem like the Academy didn't acknowledge all of the Best Pictures of the year. Admittedly, it wasn't the best year for films and what they did piece together was an excellent list, but it almost felt like these were selected on the basis that they were the most recent and thus relevant films to come out. It could contribute to why the recent Reuters pole stating that 2/3 of Americans haven't seen a single Best Picture nominee. With many people waiting until rentals nowadays, it does seem unfair.
Unlike last year's opened arms policy of spreading out all of the wins, it also felt like this year's other fault was not sharing enough. With Gravity sweeping technical, it was the top winner at seven. In fact, it is strange to consider that 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Great Gatsby all received three. Those alone make up 16 of the 24 winners. When you dissect the list, five of the nine Best Picture nominees walked away with nothing. In fact, American Hustle's losing streak of 0 for 10 places it in the books behind The Color Purple for most nominations without a single win. The "upset" that many, including myself, predicted now seems like hype and while it is great to see that the Jennifer Lawrence love bug didn't show up tonight, there was some wish that a voter made it win at least one for the sake of variety.
I cannot complain too much with the winners as a whole, as history will judge them as a pretty solid batch, save for the abysmal Frozen (Best Animated Feature) and its even more grating "Let It Go" (Best Original Song) winning over The Wind Rises. Again, this wasn't a night to bet on the underdogs, who were often better than the front runners. This was a moment in which every award before this, even the Spirit Awards, could tell you who would win. It is a disappointing year only in terms of diversity. But then again, history has been kind to The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and its sweep back in 2004. There's a good chance time will make this list look more assuring.
As it stands, I am very happy that 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture. It now currently ranks as one of my all time favorite winners in the category. I also feel like it comes with vibrant energy and significance that helps its longevity. People will remember this film. It isn't kitschy or niche like The Artist (my other favorite from the past few years) and instead reflects what the Academy went for in the 70's or 80's. This hearkens back to a time when the Academy's picks felt significant to a wider audience. Many of the winners are theoretically disposable when not viewed in a context of release, but 12 Years a Slave doesn't quite have that. It has a purpose and by doing this, no matter how predictable, the Oscars feel relevant despite a rocky track record in recent decades. Let's hope it continues with this upcoming year.