The 96th Oscars Were More Than Kenough to Celebrate a Banner Year in Moviemaking: TV Review

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In some ways, the 96th Academy Awards had the hardest part of the job done for them. 2023 saw an abundance of films that were both creatively and commercially successful — the Holy Grail of a ceremony that aims to celebrate an embattled art form to the largest possible audience. Before anyone stepped foot in the Dolby Theater for Sunday’s celebration, producers had already been handed the gift of phenomena like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” plus surprising crossover hits (“Godzilla Minus One”) and stone-cold masterpieces (“The Zone of Interest,” in this critic’s opinion). All the telecast producers had to do, one could argue, was uplift the honorees’ accomplishments without getting in their own way.

There wasn’t much suspense around the ultimate winners of major awards, including best picture. (Presenter Al Pacino dispensed with the formalities and simply announced “Oppenheimer” without listing its fellow nominees.) Yet the show delivered entertainment and emotion in spades, if not surprise. Host Jimmy Kimmel set the tone for the evening: reprising his role for the fourth time in eight years, the comedian couldn’t offer novelty; instead, he deployed confident professionalism in the service of largely sincere tributes, “Madame Web” excepted — including to Hollywood’s below-the-line unions amid their ongoing contract negotiations. Kimmel’s signature style as an MC is unobtrusive competence, facilitating the flow of the night without becoming the main event. This fit the evening’s brief to a T.

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The first award, for supporting actress, introduced a once-retired, now-resurrected format in which five former winners gave an ode to a specific nominee. In lieu of clips, we got Rita Moreno addressing America Ferrera, who shares a name with Moreno’s famous number for “West Side Story,” and Jamie Lee Curtis shouting out her “bestie” Jodie Foster. With the show scheduled to start an hour earlier than usual, though slightly delayed by street protests, production could afford the extra time spent on these individualized acts of praise. The tradeoff proved more than worth it, and not just because the Oscars ended up wrapping a few minutes ahead of schedule regardless. Such pairings of legends with ingenues and peers with friends are what the Academy Awards are supposed to be about: artists explaining artistry as only they can understand it, in combinations that can only be found at an event of this caliber. Where else could you find Nicolas Cage telling Paul Giamatti he, too, would absolutely blind himself in one eye for the sake of a role — a textbook example of game recognizing game?

Staples like presenter banter (Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer) and scripted bits (John Cena “streaking”) made an appearance, but the night felt dominated by the winners themselves, to whom it should belong. Beginning with Da’Vine Joy Randolph, the first half of the show featured first-time winners who were visibly overcome with emotion. Screenwriter Cord Jefferson urged the industry to invest in more creative risks; the “Godzilla Minus One” crew, led by director Takashi Yamazaki, brought a miniature replica of their title character to accept their surprise win for best visual effects. “Oppenheimer” may have led in nominations and, eventually, wins, but the prizes managed to spread the wealth among a variety of titles, from “The Zone of Interest” to “Anatomy of a Fall” to “Poor Things,” that showed the breadth of last year’s accomplishments. Trophy distribution isn’t the kind of thing producers can plan for with certainty, but the end result was to add variety to a night that otherwise had an air of inevitability.

“Barbie,” the biggest box office draw of the Best Picture nominees, took home only a single Oscar, for Billie Eilish’s original song “What Was I Made For?” Ryan Gosling nonetheless ensured the film’s impact was felt with a rendition of “I’m Just Ken,” donning a sequined pink suit to riff with Slash and crowd-surf among a sea of cutout Barbie heads. It’s hard to believe Gosling’s performance wasn’t a sure thing as recently as a couple weeks ago. A maximalist, infectiously goofy singalong was the ideal way to channel the feel-good energy of an Oscars where none of the bonhomie felt forced, as it often can.

This was the rare awards season to feel like it was missing a villain — an overdog with success that seemed undeserved, or at least came at the expense of more deserving competitors. Heavy favorites, including the entire “Oppenheimer” contingent, helped place their success in context. Robert Downey Jr. was one of many winners to train a spotlight on his personal team, singling out his lawyer who helped get him insured alongside his stylist. In accepting his widely predicted best director award from Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan came off as humbled to be seen as contributing to the advancement of a medium he deeply cares about, centering the past and future of cinema over himself. And for every disappointment, like a complete shutout for “Killers of the Flower Moon” from any potentially history-making wins, there were pleasing upsets like a victory for “The Zone of Interest” in best sound, a category often led by noisy blockbusters rather than artful explorations of irrepressible horror intruding on a domestic idyll.

These Oscars didn’t have much in the way of fireworks. (And thank goodness for that; no one wants the next Slap to happen on their watch, though Pacino’s fumble triggered PTSD flashbacks to the Great Envelope Mixup of 2017.) They won’t be remembered for the specifics of the broadcast so much as the overall feeling they helped to sustain: one of gratitude that, for all the strikes and mergers and pandemic-related shutdowns, Hollywood is still capable of producing stories that innovate and inspire. Note the lack of time-sucking montages that invoke achievements from decades prior. They weren’t necessary; this time, the Academy Awards had more than enough happening in the present tense.

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