Oscars: How '12 Years' Pulled Off Best Picture and Other Winners Triumphed (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg dissects the 86th Oscar results, the telecast itself and his own final forecast, while offering a few thank-yous as well.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Lupita Nyong'o

As you are presumably aware, the 2013-14 awards season -- the longest and most competitive in the 13 years I've been covering this stuff -- came to an end Sunday night at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood. Because I've been spouting Oscar opinions, analysis and predictions on this blog ever since the Cannes Film Festival in May, I think that it's only right to now provide you with a full and candid postmortem of the results, my predictions and the show itself. And to share a few thank-yous.

There were nine nominees for best picture, three of which had a real shot of winning: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and Gravity. Unlike a lot of high-profile pundits, who somehow concluded that the preferential ballot would play to the advantage of Gravity -- I never understood their reasoning, since Gravity is at least as love-hate as 12 Years -- I never really wavered on 12 Years since seeing it for the first time at its Telluride Film Festival world premiere back in September. Why? Because it is an extremely well-made, well-acted, powerful film, derived from revered source material about historical subject matter that still applies to the world in which we live today. In short, it is "important." And that description can be applied to a lot more best picture winners than "3D sci-fi movie" or "period piece dramedy." (There has never been an instance of the former, and the last instance of the latter came 36 years ago, when Woody Allen was the new kid on the block.)

Oscar Winners: Complete List

This argument is not intended to diminish in any way Gravity, which was my favorite film of 2013, or American Hustle, which was made by the most exciting writer-director working today and a killer cast. It is just a reflection of reality. Gravity was this year's Avatar, Hugo or, most aptly, Life of Pi, another 3D, effects-driven epic that dominated the tech categories and grabbed best director but ultimately lacked the gravitas necessary to bag the top prize. And American Hustle was this year's Silver Linings Playbook -- a fun film that scored almost all of the major noms it could have hoped for and had its best shot at recognition in a performance by Jennifer Lawrence and a script by David O. Russell. Last year people fell in love with J-Law, so she won, and Russell came up a little short. This year they fell in love with  Lupita Nyong'o -- as I'm relieved I recognized before it was too late -- so she won, and Russell came up a little short again. Zero-for-10 is not a fate this film deserved, topped -- or bottomed? -- only by The Turning Point (1977) and The Color Purple (1985), which both went 0-for-11.

But back to 12 Years a Slave. Too many wannabe psychoanalysts labeled the Academy -- because its members are predominantly old white men, and because some didn't wish to subject themselves to an extremely upsetting moviegoing experience -- as racist. That's BS. Hollywood hasn't attracted the ire of conservatives for nothing: It's a town that has always had a real social conscience that has been ahead of most of the rest of American society when it comes to difficult social issues. I'm sorry, but just because Brokeback Mountain didn't win the best picture Oscar eight years ago doesn't mean that isn't the case. (It lost to Crash, for God's sake.)

As was universally expected, Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron did top 12 Years' Steve McQueen in the best director contest, largely because he bit off the most of any of the nominees and managed to chew it very well. Consequently, we have now had back-to-back best picture/best director "splits" for the first time since the Oscars honoring the films of 1951 and then 1952 -- but that's just a statistical fluke. Splits aren't nearly as rare as some have insinuated; in 24 of the 86 years of Oscar history -- 28 percent of the time -- the prizes have gone to different films.

Meanwhile, Dallas Buyers Club -- thanks to the performances and sheer likability of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who won everywhere this year except at the BAFTA Awards -- became only the fifth film to ever claim both the best actor and best supporting actor Oscars. They join some pretty impressive company: best picture winners Going My Way (1944), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben Hur (1959), plus fellow best picture nominee Mystic River (2003). Interestingly, Dallas Buyers is the only one of those five films that did not also receive a best director nomination -- although its director, Jean-Marc Vallee, was nominated for best film editing (under the pseudonym "John Mac McMurphy"), which none of the other four can claim.

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It's a shame that Leonardo DiCaprio, who gave a performance for the ages in The Wolf of Wall Street, lost for the fourth time in 20 years and remains Oscar-less. But Leo has already established himself as one of the all-time greats, and I have no doubt that he will be back in "the game" -- and win it -- before long. He's just gotta pick better years in which to be -- to borrow Paramount's great promotional keyword -- "awesome." So far he's come up against the steamrollers that were Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive (1993), Jamie Foxx for Ray (2004), Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland (2006) and now McConaughey. That's just rough.

As expected, Cate Blanchett won best actress for Blue Jasmine, probably in a walk, and now joins the elite club of actresses who have won more than one Oscar: Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Jodie Foster, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Glenda Jackson, Jessica Lange, Vivien Leigh, Luise Rainer, Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, Elizabeth Taylor, Dianne Wiest and Shelley Winters. That's a hell of a group -- and I don't know anyone who would argue that she doesn't belong in it.

For all the reasons I explained when I posted my final Oscar predictions, I was not surprised that Frozen won best animated feature, 20 Feet from Stardom won best documentary feature and Italy's The Great Beauty won best foreign language film. The first was a juggernaut, and the second and third were crowd-pleasers that benefited from the recent democratization of the voting process in their respective categories. (Fun fact: 20 Feet from Stardom is the second film about backup singers to win the best documentary feature Oscar in the last 22 years. The other: the widely forgotten In the Shadow of the Stars.)

In the end, I went 19 for 24 with my predictions this year, down from 21 for 24 last year, but a figure I can live with. I thought voters would toss American Hustle -- and specifically Russell -- an Oscar for best original screenplay, rather than Spike Jonze's Her, which I'd gathered was a little too quirky for some, but that did not prove to be the case. I should have had more faith in the precursor awards that suggested that Catherine Martin, who won the best costume design and best production design Oscars years ago for Moulin Rouge!, would repeat in both races this year for another of her husband's films, The Great Gatsby, but I doubted that enough voters had seen or liked the film. I should have had less faith in the ACE Eddie Award outcome that suggested that Captain Phillips editor Christopher Rouse, a previous winner for fast-paced cutting (The Bourne Ultimatum), could divert Gravity's coattails in that Oscar category. And, while I got two of the three shorts categories correct this year -- documentary short The Lady in Number 6 was a no-brainer, but live-action short Helium was not -- I blew it on the animated short, siding with the Disney behemoth Get a Horse!, because it had played in front of Frozen, rather than going with Mr. Hublot, which deserved to win and did. C'est la vie.

PHOTOS: 2014 Oscar Winners

I have no major quibbles about any of the winners -- how can you not be happy that great artists like McQueen (now the first black producer to win the best picture Oscar), Cuaron (now the first Latino to win the best director Oscar), Jonze (not the first hipster to win the best original screenplay Oscar), Emmanuel Lubezki and Brad Pitt now have Academy Awards to their names?

I did, however, have a few issues with the show itself -- stipulating that I was absolutely thrilled to be in the audience for the third time and that the music performances all played tremendously well in the room (except for the extremely low-key "The Moon Song"). I thought that Ellen DeGeneres seemed flat and unprepared -- which is understandable, in a way, considering that she has a day job that requires a lot of her attention. I found her "You are all racists" quip ill-advised (if 12 Years had lost, many viewers would have actually believed that), the pizza routine weak and the Liza Minnelli "Sir" reference offensive. Also, the idea of a "theme" for the show is sort of ridiculous; the theme for every Oscars should be "great movies." This year's was "Movie Heroes," but Philomena Lee (Philomena), Marcus Luttrell (Lone Survivor), Capt. Richard Phillips (Captain Phillips), the Freedom Riders (Lee Daniels' The Butler), the mother of Oscar Grant (Fruitvale Station), the widow of Jackie Robinson (42) and the daughters of Nelson Mandela (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) never even stepped onto the stage. Having them take a bow would have been much more enjoyable than several of the silly montages. Heck, little Miles Scott, aka "Batkid," would have gotten a standing ovation if he took a lap around the stage -- and Christian Bale was in the room!

Here's a bright idea for next year, ABC: Ask your own guy, Jimmy Kimmel, to host!

Anyway, everyone's a critic.

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The most important thing I want to do with this post, which will bring a close to my coverage of the 2013-14 awards season, is say thank you. Thank you to my terrific boss (Janice Min), publisher (Lynne Segall), editors (especially Gregg Kilday, Matt Belloni, Mark Miller, Amelie Cherlin, Will Lee and everyone at THR.com), colleagues and competitors at other Oscar blogs for pushing and helping me to do my best work. Thank you to the publicists, agents, managers and filmmakers alongside whom I do it. Thank you to my friends and family for giving me the love and support that I need to do it, in spite of the fact that I can be a pain in the ass. And thank you to you, my readers, for your interest and enthusiasm. Without all of you, I would be nowhere, instead of living my dream. I'm a very lucky guy.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg