#OscarsSoGood

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A recap of the 89th annual Academy Awards.

“All you people out there who feel like there’s no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected: The Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back and over the next four years we will not leave you alone. We will not forget you.”Barry Jenkins

WOW!

This just feels like the only appropriate way to start an Oscars recap piece in 2017. It was quite a night indeed! As the entire planet (and some who live on the moon) know by now, Barry Jenkins’ stunning Moonlight, the little artful movie that could, won Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards in a shocking upset. What a win that was, staggeringly marked by a mix-up that will be forever known as one of the oddest occurrences in the history of the Oscars. Here is how it all went down, if anyone needs a refresher: during the show’s most crucial moment, veteran actors and Bonnie & Clyde co-stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope (which turned out to be a duplicate one for Best Actress) by PwC (who has thus far issued two apology statements) in a scandalous error that is now known as the #EnvelopeGate. And in perhaps the most bizarre turn of events at a live Oscars telecast ever, the cast and crew of the wrong film enjoyed a moment of glory on stage before the correct winner was announced.

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was the film the majority of Oscar experts and pundits predicted to win Best Picture (including us here at Film School Rejects). When Faye Dunaway announced it as the winner of the top prize that caps off a prolonged, arduous, half-a-year-long campaigning, no one raised suspicious eyebrows, not even with Warren Beatty’s clearly confused state at the sight of the words on the card. The producers, and the cast and crew of La La Land went up on the stage, only to hand over the Oscar statues to their rightful owners minutes later. Following a few moments of chaos, the now infamous La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz held up the correct envelope and told everyone it was not a joke, and Moonlight had indeed won Best Picture. The rest is now Oscar history: the Moonlight team, including the visibly stunned Barry Jenkins and producer Adele Romanski, made their way to the stage in a state of complete shock (and dare I say, even terror). There were tears, screams and plenty of Oh-My-Gods to go around.

Set aside their glorious victory for a second; you can’t not feel terrible for the Moonlight team. A win isn’t supposed to unfold this way on Oscar night. They never experienced that pure moment of suspense, followed by relief and joy when winners normally hear their name read from an envelope. And you can’t not feel terrible for the La La Land team either. I mean, just imagine how hard it must be to be in their shoes and to realize their win wasn’t real. The #EnvelopeGate is of course selfishly fun (for lack of a better word) for those of us watching from home, and will give us a lifetime supply of gifs, memes, hot-takes and trivia surely. But I really wish it didn’t happen this way.

On the other hand, maybe it was a freakish, fortuitous force of nature that made it happen this way. For months now, La La Land has been fiercely dividing audiences. The Venice Film Festival opener (which later on played at Telluride) has been the clear frontrunner for quite some time and it was getting the “evil frontrunner” treatment from many ends (a sadly inevitable fate for many Oscar frontrunners every year.) The Moonlight vs. La La Land debate, as if a person can’t love both movies at the same time (I certainly do), reached an unimaginably tense level online. (It needs to be noted that Barry Jenkins has been one of the most gracious defenders of La La Land throughout the season). La La Land was perceived as typical white Hollywood escapism against Moonlight’s themes of acceptance and empathy through the story of a gay, black man’s journey. While neither film is explicitly political (or political at all), being surrounded by the politics of our time in a way pit them against each other in unexpected ways. So after all that, there was something magical and profound in seeing the filmmakers of both films uniting around their love, respect and appreciation of one and other on live TV. Handshakes, hugs and tears were shared and exchanged. Awards switched hands and were held up by their rightful owners. After several months of spending time together, but ultimately running against each other through an exhausting process (hey, it’s the nature of the awards season), artists united around mutual support and grace while the whole world was watching. (You were watching ‘Film Twitter’, right?) It was heartbreaking at first; but joyous and beautiful eventually on an Oscar night that was for the books.

Here are some notes and takeaways from Sunday’s historic night in Hollywood.

Moonlight’s win is unprecedented.

This is the first time in Academy history that a film about the black experience with an all-black cast has been handed the top prize. This is also the first time in Academy history that a film about an openly queer character in the lead has been named Best Picture. (We can perhaps count Midnight Cowboy too, but not sure if it’s quite the same thing.) Moonlight was made for just $1.5 Million: it is the lowest budgeted film to ever win Best Picture. And that’s not all. Moonlight, in a lot of ways, is the exact opposite of your typical Best Picture winner. It’s small and quiet, untraditional in its structure, charged by its artful, somber atmosphere as opposed to flashy crafts and visuals, and lacks a conventional plot. Moonlight is an exceptional film. But in a lot of ways, it’s not necessarily an “Academy film” (take note: I am not suggesting those two things are mutually exclusive.) Lastly, the precursors in the industry were not pointing towards its victory. It didn’t win at the BAFTAs. It didn’t win the SAG Ensemble award (usually one of the safest indicators of a Best Picture win, which the mostly two-hander La La Land was notably not even nominated for.) It didn’t win at the DGA Awards. But it won big at the Oscars.

This is a new Academy.

AMPAS has been under fire for some time. After two straight years of the “Oscars so White” controversy (during which there were no acting nominees of color), The Academy took some drastic measures, made changes to voting eligibility and more importantly, invited a record number of 683 new members last June: a demographically diverse, international group. According to a Variety report, the inclusion of the new class made the Academy 27% female and 11% people of color. Before, the percentages were 25% and 8%, respectively. Sure, the preferential ballot could have been at work with Moonlight’s win. It was, after all, a broadly liked film whereas La La Land was divisive (more so than any one of us could have seen coming.) But the Academy’s slowly changing face might also have made a significant impact on Moonlight’s unprecedented win.

AMPAS’ work is far from done in addressing its diversity issues. But as I have repeatedly said in the past, Hollywood at large has to change too, and keep giving us diverse prestige pictures like Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight for the Academy to follow suit. The true success of “Oscars so White” should be measured with the kinds of films studios and decision makers choose to green-light. But in the meantime, AMPAS leading the pack in these efforts is needed and vital. It looks like Oscar experts and pundits will have their work cut out for them moving forward. AMPAS will continue expanding and diversifying its membership. Who knows? Stats we can usually rely on might mean less in the future and we might just need to get used to surprises like this more often.

Telluride Film Festival is the good luck charm. Or, it’s more than that.

In the last 5years, the small and laid-back film festival Telluride has screened all of the eventual Best Picture winners and became an unofficial awards launch-pad of sorts. These winners either had their world premieres there (like Moonlight and 12 Years A Slave did), or took an impossible journey to the mountains of Colorado right after the Venice Film Festival for their North American premieres (like Birdman). Technically, Telluride doesn’t have premieres. There are no carpets, awards or press lines. But it’s an infinitely influential stop at the top of the awards season stretch that gently whispers early praises of contenders into the ears of its patrons and audiences (among which are surely some Academy members), and key influencers of the industry. The festival’s last edition also screened Arrival and La La Land right after their Venice premieres, which landed 8 and 14 nominations respectively. Even Sundance-hailer Manchester by the Sea (6 nominations) made a stop at Telluride to build on the praise it received in Park City in January. That’s 4 out of 9 Best Picture nominees right there.

The show…was pretty great!

It’s not cool to admit, but I always find a way to have a good time watching the Oscars, and “the show was boring”-type reports usually take me by surprise. But this year, a lot of people genuinely seemed to have enjoyed themselves. Opening the telecast with Justin Timberlake singing the nominated song “Can’t Stop the Feeling” (Trolls) was a smart move and an immediate icebreaker that made everyone look good and exuberant on camera. Most of the jokes in Jimmy Kimmell’s opening monologue landed in the way they should. His routine of repeatedly going after Damon was entertaining. Apart from the time he tweeted at Trump (after calling his twitter behavior “a 5am bowel movement” earlier), he was sparse but effective on political humor. Overall, he was a pretty good host and somehow didn’t become the most hated man in America overnight (as it usually happens to Oscar hosts – it’s a thankless job.) From the candy/snack rain to the gorgeous art deco set with crystal Oscars, everything looked polished and tasteful. I was glad to see Kimmell making an appearance periodically. In some of the past ceremonies, I recall missing the host for long periods of time. This wasn’t one of those Oscars. He kept coming back briefly, centering the evening like a host should do. The biggest right Oscars did this year was perhaps enriching their segments of celebration of cinema and conveying a sense of pride in Oscar history. Clips of past winners and artists reflecting on films they love were lovely and reminded me of what AMPAS used to do right with their telecasts in the 90s. More of it please.

Winners were wonderful, too!

Politics in acceptance speeches weren’t as pronounced as many expected, but we got a mostly great set of winners on Sunday. I know what you’re thinking: “But Suicide Squad is now an Oscar winner. But Hacksaw Ridge now has two Oscars.” Well I can’t help you with your Suicide Squad disappointment, as I haven’t seen the film. But I will defend the below-the-line work in Hacksaw Ridge until the end. It very much deserved its film editing award with complex battle scenes, as well as its Sound Mixing Oscar. This was Sound Mixer Kevin O’Connell’s 21st nomination and 1st Oscar win, and his thank you speech, which he dedicated to his mother, was one of the night’s loveliest moments. Best Documentary Short winner White Helmets, which follows rescue works in Aleppo, also signed a memorable moment when its filmmakers quoted Quran: “To save one life is to save all of humanity.” Arrival’s inspired (and deserved) Sound Editing award made or broke many ballots, keeping the night interesting.

This year, voters clearly wanted to spread the love. When La La Land lost Sound Mixing and Film Editing to Hacksaw, it became clear that there was not going to be a record-breaking sweep. Predictably, the lovely Emma Stone won Best Actress although some predicted (or hoped for) an Isabelle Huppert upset (reminding me of theories that Emmanuelle Riva, Charlotte Rampling or Julie Christie would upset in the past years – none happened.) Even though I don’t like Elle, I agree – it would have been glorious to see the veteran French actress with an Oscar. Well, Oscar’s gonna Oscar sometimes. And Emma Stone was simply magnetic in La La Land. I can’t not feel happy for her. As for Best Actor, Casey Affleck delivered my favorite performance of 2016 in Manchester by the Sea. I was rooting for him and glad he won.

Many detest this practice, but I quite liked the Picture-Director split between Moonlight and La La Land (split in these top categories has been happening routinely in the recent years.) Both films richly deserved either award, but Moonlight walking away with top honors and the infinitely talented Damien Chazelle becoming the youngest Best Director winner ever were notable positives for me. For screenplays, I can’t image a pair of more deserving winners than Barry Jenkins/Moonlight for Adapted and Kenneth Lonergan/Manchester by the Sea for Original. Music Oscars went to the beloved musical as expected (and again, deserved). Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali (the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar) continued upon their season-long accolades as expected, received their Oscars and delivered two of the night’s best speeches. And during one of the night’s most surprising turns (before the Best Picture mix up, that is), legendary costumer Colleen Atwood picked up her 4th Oscar with her dizzying craftsmanship in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This was one of my Oscar wishes that came true. If only I had stuck with my gut and predicted it too.

As I was saying, #OscarsSoGood this year. Until next time…

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.