Monday, February 23, 2009

Why the Oscars were GOOD this year

I've always been a big fan of the Oscars (in no small part due to the heated Oscar pool I've participated in for the last seven years), but it's been tough to defend the ceremony itself the last several years because they've been so dreadfully dull. This year, the folks in charge of the Academy Awards (including Marvel board member and my main man Sid Ganis!) chose to make a change and hired the producing duo of Bill Condon and Laurence Mark to shake things up.

After four hours of chuckling, applauding and wiping a tear or two, I deem this "new era" for the Oscars a budding success. Here are a few reasons why:

Hugh Jackman
There were more than a few raised eyebrows when Condon and Mark tapped Mr. Jackman to host as opposed to the traditional snarky stand-up type, but it was a gamble that paid off in giving the show a different feel from the word go. Hugh's raw enthusiasm and charm in his quirky opening musical number was a nice change of pace from the usual "insult a bunch of people in the front row" humor of past years (hey, I laughed plenty at those monologues, but it's nice to see professionals appreciate one another as well). For past hosts, it really felt like they were just there picking up a handsome paycheck, but Jackman seemed genuinely thrilled and wide-eyed to be there. And hey, it sure doesn't hurt to have a Broadway-tested and award-wining singer on hand to kill some dead air belting showtunes as opposed to talking politics.

Quality Montages
Typically a glut of montages are what kills the Academy Awards, but this year, the visual tributes were creative and entertaining. I loved that they did the genre-specific highlight reels of 2008 and weren't stingy about including movies that were nowhere near sniffing distance of the Oscars but that people loved all the same. Who would have ever thought we'd see multiple clips from Rambo and Forgetting Sarah Marshall at the Oscars? The Best Picture montage splicing in thematically similar past winners with this year's nominees was both clever and well-executed.

Musical Mashups
Having Hugh Jackman and Beyonce duet on an ode to musicals-made-movies is a neat enough idea, but throwing in the High School Musical kids and some of the younger cast from Mama Mia gave the number an extra flare and yet another chance to acknowledge movies that wouldn't have been mentioned otherwise. Also, running the Best Song nominees in a free-flowing medley saved time, but having the Indian music of Slumdog Millionaire overlap with the Peter Gabriel jam from WALL-E created a unique and lovely musical moment.

Hiring/Utilizing Talented People
They could have gotten anybody to compose the aforementioned Jackman/Beyonce/jailbait song and dance-fest, but they got Baz Luhrman, which was pretty cool. Spicing up not-so-exciting categories like the Screenplay awards by having Tina Fey and Steve Martin riff off one another or letting Will Smith have fun with the Sound and Effects categories were a welcome departure from the "let's just bulldoze through these" mentality that grinded past shows to a halt. And of course I can't not love them letting Judd Apatow create a Pineapple Express mini-movie and plopping it in the middle of the show. Seeing James Franco and Seth Rogen crack up at The Reader or Franco watching himself make out with Sean Penn in Milk and then putting his arm around Rogen--classic.

The Acting Awards Presentations
Far and away the most dramatic change from past years but also without question the most impressive addition to this year's show was having the quintets of past recipients in the four Acting categories deliver speeches about each of this year's nominees rather than somebody just reading their names off a sheet of paper. For one thing, just seeing the likes of Robert De Niro, Sophia Loren, Christopher Walken, Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Kline, Shirley Maclaine, Anthony Hopkins, Halle Berry, Ben Kingsley, etc etc. up there again is a treat. What I really liked though is the feeling that every nominee, win or lose, got to at least be acknowledged by a respected peer. It was like watching a group of graduate students be acknowledged by their favorite professors. The process created 20 (give or take a couple duds) personal and emotional moments that you felt lucky to be a part of. And Cuba Cooding Jr. giving Robert Downey Jr. shit for "taking parts away from black actors" made me laugh.

The Little Things
Queen Latifah singing "I'll Be Seeing You" over the In Memoriam tribute as opposed to pre-recorded music being played. Tina Fey being allowed to make a scientology joke. Ben Stiller taking potshots at Joaquin Phoenix. Heath Ledger's family getting to be the ones who accepted his award. The preview of 2009 movies at the end. The traditional accountants info being read over the credits as opposed to during the show. Touches like these just made a good show that much better.

Of course, it wasn't perfect. There were lots of technical glitches. The choice to keep switching camera shots during the In Memoriam tribute was distracting. The "telling the story of a movie being made" throughline didn't really work. But hey, give me a fun show that's rough around the edges over a technically flawless but unentertaining one any year.

Looking forward to 2010.

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