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It Happened Last Night... Surprises and Yawns at the Oscars 2014

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Another over-long, self-aggrandizing paean to itself is over, and today we're blearily cleaning up after last night's party, washing dishes still thick with themed leftovers (12 Years a Beer, Filotomena, Star Trek into Meatloaf), wondering what actually happened. And why.

More people thanked God than usual, Lupita Nyong'o gave the speech of the night, and Ellen broke Twitter. Let's get to the surprises:

Surprises

Ellen Was Okay!

I was skeptical that Ellen's brand of humor would translate well to the Oscars broadcast, but my stance softened within minutes of her opening speech. She got big bonus points for avoiding the awkward, brutally unfunny opening montage (remember Billy Crystal in blackface?) and generally kept things moving along at a decent clip (a la very few Oscar hosts). But she flubbed introductions, occasionally seemed lost when jokes fell flat, and didn't mind pandering for Samsung (even if she redeemed the shoehorned product placement by briefly shutting down Twitter with the most celebrities ever fit into a "selfie").

There Weren't Many Surprises

Probably I'm cheating my own system here, but I came in expecting to be wrong in more of my major award predictions. I half-expected Gravity to come from behind while 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle battled for Best Picture votes -- especially given reports that some older Academy voters refused to see 12 Years due to its graphic violence and uncomfortable subject. Thankfully, that either wasn't the case, or it wasn't enough to dislodge Steve McQueen's excellent biopic from the top slot.

Steve McQueen Can Really Jump

Pure joy can make a man reach incredible heights, apparently, as the director of 12 Years a Slave leaped on stage when Best Picture was announced. Huge kudos to the director for winning. I was rooting for this one, since I actually had the guts to see it.

20 Feet from Stardom

The pundits seemed to think Best Documentary was either going to Netflix's first-ever nomination, The Square" or my own pick, Joshua Oppenheimer's brilliant, weird, and uncomfortable The Act of Killing. But 20 Feet prevailed -- somebody up there loves Darlene Love!

Bette Midler

The Divine Miss M looked and sounded great, but why oh why would they ruin an otherwise solid "In Memoriam" tribute by following it with Bette belting "Wind Beneath My Wings," backed by those '80s synthesizers? It went from tasteful to schmaltz in seconds.

Totally Expected

3 1/2 Hours Is Too Damn Much

After the 82nd montage of cartoon characters (and why the hell were they almost all men?!?), I was ready to kick everyone out of our Oscars party to burn down my house in frustration. Last night's so-called theme -- "heroes" -- was incredibly vague and completely extraneous. Why not make the theme "The Oscars"? The Academy should lose all of these montages (with the exception of "In Memoriam") -- that'll save at least 20 minutes. I won't hold my breath on this recommendation, however -- more filler means more sellable commercial time. I may sound cynical, but friends, I speak the truth.

The Red Carpet

Look, I recognize I'm not the target audience for this excruciating pre-game exercise. I get that many people find it important, even vital to learn which celebrity is "wearing" which designer. But does it have to be so self-satisfied, so false? It's downright bizarre when a celebrity puts on the "regular person" act one moment, and the next moment, she's telling Ryan Seacrest about wearing an Atelier Versace diamond-studded dress. Something about that collision of pretension and preening seems so forced. I tried to watch this year, but would have needed six martinis to make it through without stabbing myself in the eyes. And I need to see to do my job.

Matthew McConaughey

Yes, seemingly everyone got the Best Actor category right in their office Oscar ballot pick-em. If I were picking for money, I would've gone with McConaughey. If I were an Academy judge, however, my vote would have gone to Bruce Dern for his outstanding, fearless performance in Nebraska. Besides all of the normal reasons (chiefly, Dern really got under my skin), I suspect that McConaughey will get a few more chances to stroll up those steps and accept an award. I hope the same is true for Dern, but age makes losers of us all, eventually.

Lupitia Nyong'o

Though I was pulling for my underdog pick for Supporting Actress, June Squibb, it was worth getting it wrong to hear Lupitia Nyong'o give the speech of the night. (Wouldn't you know that a total newcomer would steal the show?) I could sit here for days writing and still not come close to creating something as coherent, emotional, and powerful as Lupitia's apparently off-the-cuff speech. I predict big things from Ms. Nyong'o.

Wrapping It All Up

Overall, it was a fairly by-the-numbers Oscar night. Is that a good thing to the Academy? One begins to hope for a major shake-up. Whether that's by inviting a totally unexpected host (like the Golden Globes managed with Ricky Gervais a few years back -- very unlikely), or some top-to-bottom transformation of the Academy's structure (completely unlikely), the Oscars could use a re-imagining. Given the Academy's historical resistance to change, however, we're more likely to get Billy Crystal in blackface again.

But to quote Shawshank Redemption, the multiple-Oscar-nominated film that was ridiculously shut out of wins, "Remember Red, hope is good."

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