Critics Debate the Best and the Worst of the 2016 Oscars

Three Variety critics sat down to discuss the winners and losers at last night’s 88th annual Academy Awards ceremony.

PETER DEBRUGE: During my first decade at Variety, I worked as an editor in what the paper calls its “Spotlight” section, and though we dedicated months of each year to in-depth coverage of the Academy Awards — as opposed to researching such Pulitzer-worthy subjects as the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals — it’s with no shortage of pride that I watched Tom McCarthy’s electrifying homage to serious journalism get its due at the Oscars this year. Instead of demonizing the predatory priests and the superiors who helped cover up their crimes, “Spotlight” valorized the team of Boston Globe reporters who broke the story, doing the entire profession proud in the process. The film may have won just two awards in a show that at times felt dominated by the anarchic spectacle (or spectacular anarchy?) of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but it fully merits best picture, being an ensemble-driven film that boasts exceptional if not especially groundbreaking contributions in all those below-the-line categories.

Oscar actually recognizes three other “best picture” prizes across the relatively ghettoized categories of animated feature, documentary and foreign-language film, and while I’d love to see these disciplines better represented for the top award in the future, I commend the Academy for its taste there, too. While cynics point out that the Academy has been predisposed to honoring Holocaust-themed films over the years, “Son of Saul” was for me the year’s most important film in any language, challenging audiences to identify with a morally conflicted Auschwitz prisoner in way that brings that experience to life. Pixar’s “Inside Out” is so out-there, taking place almost entirely inside an 11-year-old’s brain, that animation was the only medium that would enable such an original story. And Asif Kapadia’s “Amy,” while frustrating to me in form (I don’t understand why it’s told almost entirely in slow-motion), beautifully reveals the intimate side of a public tragedy.

As for the ceremony itself, it turns out the Oscars weren’t so white after all. Reacting to the outcry against an overwhelmingly Caucasian list of nominations — which ensured that white people would be accepting the overwhelming number of awards (the exceptions included Kapadia, “The Revenant” repeat winner Alejandro G. Inarritu and documentary-short winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy) — the Academy took the smart step of enlisting host Chris Rock and an impressive array of non-white presenters to remind the world just how diverse its talent pool actually goes. And unlike most Hollywood roles, which are cast with white guys, regardless of how they’re written, anyone can (and should be able to) read a teleprompter and open an envelope. While Twitter seemed to be on high alert for even the slightest trace of insensitivity (suffering a near-aneurysm when Rock reduced “Carol” to maybe the third-best “girl-on-girl movie” he’d seen this year), I appreciate the way his irreverent attitude broke through the show’s veneer of political correctness. As best adapted screenplay winner “The Big Short” demonstrates, uncomfortable satire is perhaps the best weapon we have for combating the status quo, and Rock’s routine is the trigger-happiest chuckle this side of Samuel L. Jackson’s “black dingus” monologue in “The Hateful Eight.”

GUY LODGE: Rock’s opening monologue largely pulled off the tricky balancing act of protesting the system from the inside, mocking both Hollywood’s non-inclusiveness and the #OscarSoWhite furor with one particularly blistering line: “When your grandmother’s hanging from a tree, it’s hard to care about best documentary foreign short.” It was an approach that was somehow corrosive and collusive at once; he could have played it more dangerously, alienating his hosts in the process, but probably brought the right amount of vinegar for a night that should be, first and foremost, a celebration of the art, not a dissection of its failings. Beyond this opening gambit, however, the ceremony’s political content was far spottier. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs spoke gracefully and tactfully on an industry still in social flux, and the range of races and nationalities represented in the roll call of presenters made its own tacit point: If it’s that easy to assemble such a team for Hollywood’s biggest night, how hard is it to do the same when casting ensembles?

But as the ceremony wore on, I can’t have been alone in wishing for a little more, well, diversity in the ceremony’s diversity agenda, as Rock’s gags — including two flatly misconceived Black History Month skits with Angela Bassett and, painfully, Stacey Dash — focused on black-white tensions to the exclusion of all else. The ceremony contained nary a mention of the Latino population, while a dated, labored child-accountant joke hinging on Asian and Jewish stereotypes — they’re good at math, don’t you know? — felt lifted from a far mustier script. “Hollywood is racist,” Rock had baldly declared earlier in the show; such missteps only proved his point to hypocritical effect. The absence of any content related to the industry’s gender imbalance felt like a further missed opportunity in the current climate. Tracy Morgan’s crassly funny “Danish Girl” bit notwithstanding, the LGBT community had to be content with Sam Smith — adding insult to injury after a grimly undeserved win for his damp, droning Bond theme — vacuously declaring himself the first openly gay person to win an Oscar. Pedro, Lance, Elton, others: We hardly knew ye.

I’m getting needlessly, and negatively, sidetracked, however. For aside from the aforementioned sore points — not to mention some markedly shoddy technical direction that reached its nadir during a bizarrely shot Lady Gaga performance — this was the most enjoyable Oscar ceremony I’ve seen in many a year. And most of its pleasures came, as they rightly should, from the final roster of winners: a stylistically rangy and judiciously balanced one, chock-full of welcome surprises. I actually whooped when Alex Garland’s ingenious sci-fi jewel “Ex Machina” overcame far buzzier, more expensive competition to take a well-deserved Oscar for its delicate, character-enhancing visual effects. As someone about evenly split on their performances, I was more quietly appreciative when Mark Rylance, among the greatest thespians on the planet, upset Sly Stallone to Best Supporting Actor, immediately assuaging any conceivable ill feeling with the night’s most elegantly generous speech. And, like just about everyone else, I jumped from my chair when “Spotlight” — maybe not my favorite best picture player, but a thoughtful and articulate nominee by an measure — upended the empty bombast of “The Revenant” to take the night’s final prize, several patient hours after taking its first.

It is categorically impossible for the Oscars to make everyone happy, but they came near as damn it yesterday. No supporter of Tom McCarthy’s quietly moving procedural, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s swaggering spectacle or the brilliantly deranged genre inversion of “Mad Max: Fury Road” — I’m running long, so I’ll let my fellow Furiosaphile Justin speak for me in cheering its half-dozen richly deserved victories — could feel they’d been shortchanged on a night that also saw major wins for films as disparate as “Room,” “The Big Short,” “Bridge of Spies” and “Son of Saul.” It may have been a mostly white list of winners, but as regards cinematic diversity, the voters did themselves proud.

JUSTIN CHANG: I echo you both in terms of feeling satisfied with most of last night’s winners, and would note that a history-making first competitive Oscar win for Ennio Morricone just about made up for Sam Smith’s “Whining on the Wall” or whatever it was. I was mostly impressed, too, with how the show confronted an enormously tricky and divisive issue, the responsibility for which, as we know, lies well beyond the Academy’s purview. But like you, Guy, I found the blistering force of Rock’s opening monologue blunted by his apparent obliviousness to the reality that diversity is more than a strictly black-and-white issue, and that terrible joke you cited — managing to reinforce Asian-accountant stereotypes and mock Chinese laborers in the same instance — struck an astonishingly sour note. If there’s been a purer recent example of how an Oscarcast can feel at once cautiously on-message and utterly clueless about what the message actually means, it’s not coming to mind.

Actually, maybe it is. I couldn’t help but reminded of the Academy Awards ceremony that took place exactly a decade ago, when the show’s celebration of its lofty progressive values came to a crashing halt with the awarding of best picture to “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain” — a horrific outcome that weirdly, if inadvertently, pitted the issues of race relations and LGBT acceptance against each other. This year, in some ways, we bore witness to a decade-later replay of that night’s clashing identity politics, and it’s safe to say that there have been many steps forward and backward in the interim.

That people could once applaud “Crash” as some sort of artistic and sociopolitical milestone is a joke that rings even more hollow in light of #OscarSoWhite, though at least the Academy is making a vigorous show of progress on that front. As far as the other front goes, I have no doubt that “Brokeback Mountain,” if released today, would reap its just rewards from an appreciably more open-minded voting body. Still, Mr. Smith’s historically dubious claim to precedence aside, last night was not a particularly edifying one for the many fine gay-themed movies the Academy could have honored and didn’t, the foolishly overlooked “Carol” and the un-nominated “Tangerine” and “Grandma” not least among them.

The Oscars indeed cannot make everyone happy, and I would add that it cannot make a representational stand for everything and everyone. A quick survey of last night’s winners and the acceptance speeches they occasioned produces a veritable laundry list of important yet disconnected talking points: sex abuse in the Catholic Church, Holocaust remembrance, LGBT recognition, discrimination and tribalism in general (a point on which Inarritu, tired as I am of him, was righteously eloquent), climate change (called out by Leonardo DiCaprio and “Mad Max: Fury Road” costume winner Jenny Beavan), and the importance of female solidarity — that latter point made by the Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, one of the most deserving winners of the night for her excellent documentary short “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.” The Academy could have taken its own stand on female solidarity, I suppose, by looking beyond purely technical achievements and handing “Fury Road” the across-the-board sweep it deserved, but hey, six Oscars is nothing to sneeze at. Certainly it gives me hope that, like all unexamined prejudices, the refusal to take genre seriously is something the industry might one day overcome, one Oscarcast at a time.

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