Off the Carpet: A ‘Happy’ Oscar season draws to a close

At the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday afternoon, John Cassavetes Award winner (and former In Contention contributor) Chad Hartigan told me something I didn't know: He wouldn't have made “This is Martin Bonner” if it weren't for Steve McQueen's “Hunger.” He copped a few of the film's lines in his film, some of the camerawork, too. He was inspired, he said, by a filmmaker who could pull something that powerful off with such modest means, both financially and artistically.

That, to me, is McQueen's legend. That, to me, is the kind of thing that will endure. These nickel-plated notions of “importance” that people throw around during the Oscar season, straining to associate some arbitrary level meaning to the thing, they can frankly diminish the very fine achievement on display. “I fear all the talk about the historical importance of '12 Years a Slave' almost completely obscures its extraordinary artistic merit,” Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard Tweeted after the Oscars Sunday night, and that's sort of what I was getting at with my piece last week titled “On Oscars and the personal gravity of art.” The worst thing you can do is allow the Oscars to smother the movies.

So my hope in “12 Years a Slave” winning Best Picture at the 86th annual Academy Awards is that it is able to shrug off this whiff of politics, this notion of the Academy doing what they felt they probably should do rather than what they wanted to do. Because that's so demeaning, in a way, of what McQueen has accomplished in his short but powerful career in feature filmmaking. What lurks in the film is what endures, in the hearts of viewers, in the passion of those filmmakers like Chad who are inspired by the work. Not the Oscars.

All of that said, I'm very happy for Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner this morning. “12 Years a Slave” represents everything they care about as a production company, everything they want to put out into the world. It's interesting to see George Clooney winning Best Picture one year and Brad Pitt the next, and to see Leonardo DiCaprio also in the Best Picture mix as producer of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” These are celebrities who have used their movie star status to influence the status quo in Hollywood, to make great films that they're passionate about and aren't necessarily safe bets. So bravo to them, and congratulations to Pitt and his team for getting into business with McQueen.

I'm elated for “Gravity” and its seven wins. It seemed early on that the Best Film Editing victory was a tell-tale sign, but that didn't pan out. It's obvious the Academy was just as mesmerized by Alfonso Cuarón's epic, universal tale, and to see him with an Oscar in his hand – the first Latino director to win the award – was a real treat. He earned it. And he shares in the editing prize, too, joining James Cameron on the list of filmmakers to win Best Director and Best Film Editing for the same film.

Speaking of which, the last film to win Best Director and Best Film Editing but not Best Picture? “Traffic,” another film the Academy obviously wanted to award. The last film to win at least seven Oscars but not Best Picture? “Cabaret,” which like “Gravity,” lost to a film – “The Godfather” – that received just three Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay and an acting prize. In these terms, between these two films, it's fair to say the wealth was properly spread, despite a 7-3 split.

I'm happy for Fox Searchlight, which stuck to its classy campaign, never reached – even in that “It's Time” moment – and maintained an even keel. It's a team that deserves to be rewarded, frankly, and five years after “Slumdog Millionaire,” they're bringing another one home.

I'm happy, too, for Lupita Nyong'o, and I'm proud to say the first place her name appeared all season was in the predictions sidebar of In Contention way back in June of 2013. Once the film arrived at Telluride, her place in the season was a foregone conclusion. And when she arrived on the precursor circuit, a star was born.

I'm happy for Warner Bros., which dominated the spread not just with “Gravity's” seven wins but with the two design trophies for “The Great Gatsby” and Spike Jonze's Best Original Screenplay win for “Her.” Even as a detractor of Jonze's film, I was so pleased to see him holding an Oscar. His is a vital voice and with three nominations on the night, it was nice to see him walk away with one.

I'm ECSTATIC for Emmanuel Lubezki, finally an Academy Award winner after six nominations and undeniably so for a film like “Gravity.” He is a master of light and composition, and to see just how far he's come, read through his thoughts in our recent “Reality Bites” oral history. The man is a genius. Let's get one for Roger Deakins next, shall we? And then Thomas Newman. And then Greg P. Russell and Kevin O'Connell. These guys have been cranking out quality craft work for years and years.

I'm happy for Focus Features, sent off into the sunset with three wins for a film, “Dallas Buyers Club,” that is all about the philosophy they've maintained over the years, a fierce indie production that got there through sheer will and heart. I'm happy for Matthew McConaughey, having turned his career completely around. I'm happy for Jared Leto, back in the game when he thought he was out of it. I'm happy for makeup and hairstyling artists Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews, who did all of this on an absolute shoestring. Bravo.

I'm also happy for Bruce Dern, who got the ride this pony from Cannes to carpet. His a true mensch and though he was the longest of longshots in this category, I know he's had the time of his life on the circuit.

And if a 0-10 shut-out gets David O. Russell back to making interesting films, then I'm happy for him, too. “American Hustle” is by no means a bad film, but, at least to me, it felt like a pretender on the awards circuit. And “Silver Linings Playbook” before it was just so pedestrian for his talents. It's nice that he's brought his considerable prowess to material such as this, but I long for the passion of “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees.” Those movies seemed to have more of his heart than these last few did, but that's just an idle observation.

Finally, I'm frankly happy for the Academy. There was nothing embarrassing about this show or this list of winners, and that feels like a rarity as of late. Ellen DeGeneres was safe, maybe a touch bland, and that's okay. That's probably what they wanted after Seth MacFarlane rocked the boat last year, and while the selfie/Twitter culture is a bit much, it was nothing if not fun and loose. And the goal of diversifying the AMPAS' ranks seems to be paying off as, more and more (“Gravity's” craft dominance notwithstanding, since it's clearly a special case), sweeps feel a bit uncommon as the group finds a number of places to reward a number of films.

If it's not clear enough, I'm just pretty, well, happy with this Oscar season's outcome. I'm certainly not hung up on predictions this year; as noted in a previous column, everyone was pretty much guessing within the same range. 22/24 and 21/24 was the norm this year, which is typically a great year for anyone (my best was 21). Basically, if you didn't get at least 20 of these right, you were doing something drastically wrong. Over-thinking it, maybe.

There were illuminating spots, though. The win for “Mr. Hublot,” which was my initial gut instinct, might just prove that, even though the shorts categories are open to the entire Academy, that doesn't mean they'll simply vote for what's most familiar. Indeed, they may well skip them altogether if they haven't seen the films (which is something I was coming across here and there). That's not to say that the film doesn't appeal to a wider audience, but I do think it appeals to the kinds of people – animators – who would certainly bother voting here. It's interesting, that's all.

We can chew on all of these wins and what they mean in a generalizing sense if we want to, but let's not. We have the movies, and it was an amazing year for them. They will live on. The Oscars are already but a memory.

So goodbye to the 2013-2014 film awards season. It was a treat, if a long and drawn-out one thanks to the Olympics. But it was packed with tons of wonderful people who deserved the recognition, the kinds of people I truly enjoyed bumping into throughout the year. You can only hope that each season is so lovely. We'll see what next year has to offer in due time.

Relive all the ups and downs of the year at The Circuit, and then take a break from all of this. Watch a movie, perhaps. That's what it's all about, isn't it?