Monday, March 3, 2014

The Problem with Liking the Oscars Too Much

I love the Oscars. Always have, always will. I love staring dumbfounded at the random montages. I love rolling my eyes at the lame jokes. I love the giddy anticipation right before the show begins (in my movie-freaked world, the final countdown to the Oscar telecast is infinitely more thrilling than watching the ball drop every New Year’s Eve.) But you know what I love most? That inexplicable joy as I watch a completely astonished, newly victorious Oscar winner take the stage to collect their award. An award that no one saw coming.

It’s the thrill of the surprise. Selfishly, it’s the thrill of having your greatest hope of the night come true. Your Best Actor pick won. Your favorite film won. Unselfishly, it’s the thrill of watching someone’s life literally change before your eyes. They gasp for breath, they stammer through their speech; they don’t read from small pieces of paper, or crack jokes that have clearly been rehearsed. They’re surprised, and it is delightful to watch.
Cate Blanchett, a well deserved but painfully early lock
That’s what’s been missing from the Oscars these past few years – that unique thrill. And the bitch of it is, it’s (mostly) my fault. Sure, I can blame the internet. I can say that social media and film blogs that are edited by people who get paid (up to six figures) to predict Oscar winners have ruined any sense of awards spontaneity. And while the market for Oscar predictors has grown humorously oversaturated, no one forces me to read those blogs. No one forces me to scan my Twitter timeline, eyeing that Tweet from that Oscar insider who says so and so is a lock for Best Supporting Actress. No one forces me, but it’s worth noting that it didn’t always used to be this way. Before Twitter, before blogs, before the internet was as much a part of every second of every day as it is now, there was a time when the Oscars could stun me.

Jump back to early 2003. My internet usage consisted of flirting with girls on AIM, updating my Netflix queue (they sent me DVDs… in the actual mail!), scanning SparkNotes for explanations as to what the hell “Animal Farm” was all about, flirting with girls on AIM, trying to find an animated film version of Animal Farm to add to my Netflix queue. No social media. No movie blogs. By the time Oscar night rolled around, the only predications I had to go on are previous awards given out that year (Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTAs), historical statistics, Entertainment Weekly’s predications from two weeks earlier, and my own intuition.

As the night went on, my family and I eagerly guessed which veteran actor was about to win Best Actor. Would Jack Nicholson become the first man in history to win three Best Actor Oscars (for his performance in About Schmidt), or would Daniel Day-Lewis’ work in Gangs of New York win out? Halle Berry opened the envelope, smiled, took a long pause, and read Adrien Brody’s name. The people sitting in my small living room went as nuts as the attendees in the Kodak Theater. Shock. Surprise. Thrill. Moments later, Eminem won an Oscar (which I still can’t believe), Ronald Harwood’s script for The Pianist beat the heavily favored scripts for Chicago and The Hours, Roman Polanski upset Martin Scorsese. More shocks. More surprises. More thrills.
The thrill of victory, as experienced by Adrien Brody
Perhaps that year’s Oscars is a poor example, simply because it was so damn shocking. But my point is, that level of surprise rarely happens on Oscar night anymore, because those who want to pay attention almost always see it coming. Again, I am fully aware that it is my fault for seeking these predications out, but at this point, I’ve immersed my internet consumption so deeply in movie related material that it would be impossible to fully remove myself from Oscar chatter. Pundits start predicting Oscars winners as early as September, and to assume I can avoid the internet for five months is simply unrealistic.

But I’m not mad. Having the Oscars be a foregone conclusion doesn’t anger me, it just takes some of the fun out of it. Let’s go back a mere two days, to the evening of the Film Independent Spirit Awards. That telecast rarely attracts a wide audience, so allow me to list off some of the winners: 12 Years a Slave, Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey, Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto, 20 Feet From Stardom. Notice any similarities? And this is not to fault the Spirit Awards. (Although those awards used to highlight independent films that never really had a shot at an Oscar, and now act as a practice session for the following evening’s future Oscar winners. But that’s cause for another essay.) The Spirit Awards were simply the last leg of yet another tirelessly predictable Oscar season.
Jared Leto accepts his Spirit Award 24 hours before his Oscar win
Perhaps the most entertaining part of this Oscar year was watching many of those six figure-pulling Oscar bloggers exclaim that this was, “One of the closest Oscar races in years!” Was it? Really? Blanchett, McConaughey, and Leto were inevitable conclusions months ago. As was Alfonso Cuarón for director. Best Picture was a race between two (of nine) films, I wrote the Screenplay awards off in early January, and so on. The only real exciting moment last night was Best Supporting Actress, but even Lupita Nyong’o was one of two (not five) women vying for the win.

What’s important to note here is that, for the first time in a long, long time, I actually loved every film and performance that won a major award last night. Truly. Some of them weren’t my personal choices to win, yet I genuinely enjoyed them all. But, despite my appreciation for those eventual winners, wouldn’t it have been great to see a surprise thrown in there? I’m not talking about a Shakespeare in Love or Crash-style shock (i.e. ones that feel bought or wildly unearned), I’m talking about an Adrien Brody. A Marion Cotillard. A Geoffrey Fletcher. A Hilary Swank (circa 1999). Whether I’m blaming myself, or the internet, or the voters who so diligently feed into our expectations, the point is that if the Oscars manage to throw in just one surprise, then the night is forever remembered as something thrilling. As good as Jared Leto was, the game would’ve literally been changed if Barkhad Abdi won last night. Think about that. 

52 comments:

  1. Two words: I agree.

    Not much more I can say than that.

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  2. The day before Oscars, I was actually wondering if it was the first time Independent Spirit awards feel like so much of mock for Oscars?

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    1. That was easily the most sadly predictable Spirit Awards I’ve ever seen. I really thought they’d thrown in a curve ball or two, which is what they’re known for. Sadly, no.

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  3. I thought the same thing in that it would have been nice to see a surprise thrown in there but you can't really begrudge any of the winners, they were all pretty deserving. I think it does come down to those who have a passion for film, even a small one, can accurately guess who's probably going to win, but that doesn't mean they aren't deserving. Lupita Nyong'o was absolutely over the moon and that was brilliant to see, even if some of the others didn't seem quite so surprised.

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    1. Oh I can't begrudge any of the winners at all, which I mentioned in my post. I liked all of the major winners, and I was happy that they won. But much of the fun for me is being a little surprised, and knowing fairly early on that everyone who was predicted to win was going to win made for a very dull viewing experience. It's all about what you hope to get out of the Oscars, you know?

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  4. Spot on, man! Great post... Dido what I said about the Emmys in your last post ha

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    1. Thanks man! Yep, you were on point with that Emmys comment.

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  5. Great observations, Alex! I'm sorta on the opposite end of the spectrum where I don't read many award show predictions. The rumors will reach me here and there through blogs, but I try not to pay too much attention to them. The feelings are still the same as yours - I wish there was more surprises or at least acceptance speeches that aren't a rambling mess of names. BAFTAs seemed to be the most surprising of the award show season, especially with Barkhad Abdi. I love watching the Oscars but the winners become so routine by the end that it becomes repetitive. (I believe this attributed to the major backlash for Anne Hathaway last year...)

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    1. Thanks Katy! And that’s all it is for me, the dullness of the constant repetition. I think that’s why I love to watch the Golden Globes every year, because that’s really our FIRST (somewhat) true evidence into who will win. But it’s a long and tireless road from the Globes to the Oscars. And by the time the Oscars roll around, it’s just a shame that most of us know who is going to win it. Locks aren’t very fun, is all.

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  6. Good article but I can't possibly agree - I wouldn't even nominate Abdi, while Hill is my win and I don't think Leto fully deserves it,at least not as much as the other 3 actors who won, at least it was a good performance, worthy of winning. And that is what Oscars should primarily be about- not a surprise, but giving the awards to people who deserve them. There is still so much joy and excitement - like when Dujardin won 2 years back, I don't care if he was in predictions - he himself was shocked and that was an awesome moment.

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    1. “And that is what Oscars should primarily be about- not a surprise, but giving the awards to people who deserve them.”

      Yes, of course, certainly. I fully agree with that statement and have been a steadfast proponent of that for years. But who deserves to win and who is predicated to win are really two different conversations. Rarely do the Oscars give awards to who should win. That’s cause for another essay/argument altogether. My point was that, should win or shouldn’t, a surprise every so often would keep the show interesting.

      Best Supporting Actor, since we’re focusing there, is a great example. If I ranked those nominees, my picks from best to least would be: Fassbender, Hill, Abdi, Leto, and Cooper. Did I want Fassbender to win above all else? Hell yes. Did I think that was a remote possibility? God no. Why? Because Jared Leto was a foregone conclusion. Giving the award to anyone but Leto would’ve been a surprise, and a fun one at that. Also, my argument wasn’t being made against every category in every year. I’m not asking every major category to deliver a surprise every single year, but one a year would be beneficial. But don’t get me wrong, there is most certainly a comfort in having your desired lock (Dujardin for you) actually win. I really wanted Cate Blanchett to win this year, but was it fun knowing, since August, that she was a lock? Nah.

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  7. What's really bad is how early critical consensus builds. It feels like we knew the eventual winners in October or November, and had a pretty good inkling about the heavy hitters as early as May. There doesn't seem to be much room for surprise anymore.

    And shouldn't the Indie Spirits be awarding films made independently -- not the ones who were assured major distribution from early in their development? As much as I love 12 Years a Slave, the fact is it had a $20+ million budget and the backing of Brad Pitt. Compare that to the sub-$100K feat of Upstream Color or the sub-$1M Short Term 12, which struggled to nab even a couple nominations.

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    1. There is almost no room for surprise anymore, which is exactly my biggest issue. The Spirit Awards… man, don’t even get me started. I go to bat for that show every year, and this year was just a wash. I LOVED 12 Years a Slave as well, but, yes, that show used to be about the Upstream Colors and the Short Term 12s (and the Frances Has, the All is Losts, the Before Midnights) and so on. Really a bummer this year.

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  8. I see where you're coming from, and yet I still thought that Sunday was a nail biter simply because Best Picture was a questionmark. It honestly could have gone one of three ways (although the minute AH lost Screenplay it was obvious it was one of two ways).

    But I'm with you...I want more variety...I want more shock!

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    1. It was cool that Best Picture was at least somewhat close, which is not the case most years. But still, wouldn't it be more fun if it was close between more than just TWO films? Why nominate 9 when more than half don't even stand a chance?

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  9. I enjoyed most of the films nominated. I didn't think 'American Hustle' was best pic worthy, but like you I still can't get over previous best pic wins, like 'Shakespear in Love.' I mean, come on. I'm glad it was '12 Years,' although I was rooting for 'Gravity.'

    Jared was great, but he really needs a haircut. Hippy chic has been out of style for a while now. It was cool in the 90s, as a teen in the 90s, I can attest to this. But unless you're in a rock band, cut your hair, at least shoulder length.

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    1. Ha, you're comment made me laugh. But when I reread it, I wasn't sure if you were being sarcastic or not. You know Jared Leto is a rock star, right? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Seconds_to_Mars

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    2. yes, I was being sarcastic ;) I know about his boy band. I still think he needs to cut his hair tho.

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    3. Haha okay, I thought you knew that!

      I literally laughed out loud at "I know about his boy band." Hilarious.

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  10. Nice post! I agree, the last time I think I was truly shocked by the Oscars was when Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain. (Then Laura Linney getting nominated for The Savages over Angelina Jolie for A Mighty Heart) Otherwise I either guess right, or my 2nd guess is right. I still have a good time watching though. I think Twitter makes it even more enjoyable because I get to see everyone's reactions in real time. I do hope the Oscars eventually shock us again. Maybe as all these old predictable voters get phased out.

    Also LOL to Spark Notes. I couldn't have "read" The Scarlett Letter without that site!

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    1. Thanks! I definitely have a good time watching too, I just wish the competition was more of a factor, you know? And yeah, scrolling Twitter throughout the show is, nowadays, much of the fun.

      SparkNotes saved my life so many times. Ha.

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  11. Well said. While some surprises would be nice, I don't mind the predictability as long as the show is entertaining. I thought this year's show was the best in a while, and I really enjoyed most of the performers/films that won as well.

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    1. Thanks Eric. Yeah man, I really enjoyed much of the show as well, and I dug most all of the winners. But throughout the show, I kept wondering why I wasn't enjoying it more, and then it hit me: I know who's going to win everything. Which, you know, should be a large part of the fun.

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  12. "Tirelessly predictable" sums it up nicely. Having seen only a handful of nominated films, I guessed correctly on 75% of the awards given. Of the "important" awards (Picture, Director, Actor/Actress, Supporting, Original and Adapted Screenplay, and Foreign Language), I missed only on Foreign Language. Kind of a letdown in that respect. When someone who goes to the theater only a handful of times a year (I saw three in theaters in 2013) can guess that many right, it's way too predictable.

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    1. Exactly! I just wish it wasn't so easy to assume the winners. Whether you go to the theater a lot or not, it feels nice to be surprised on Oscar night.

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  13. I really agree with this post - it is frustrating to sit through a ceremony that is what, 4 hours long and already have a pretty clear idea in your head of who is going to win. I miss the surprises and I really hoped the Academy would be a bit different to the Globes/SAGs etc. Like you said, it really wasn't fun knowing that Cate Blanchett was a dead cert (although I really wasn't impressed with the Best Actress category this year so the choice was a little limited) and as soon as Leto picked up his award it was pretty clear which way the other awards were going to go. It's a real shame.

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    1. Glad you agree with the post! And yeah, when Leto's name was called so early on, I knew we had a predictable night ahead of us. I genuinely don't meanto take anything away from the winners. I think they all deserved their awards. But throw in some variety!

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  14. I never tried to pick the winners prior to four years ago and I was always surprised. I took a stab back then and got 16 right. The two years after that I did as much homework as I could and I regressed to 14 and 13 right. This year I didn't bother to do the homework and I got 17 right.

    What this says for me is that paying attention to the prior awards shows and buzz actually made me less capable of predicting the winner so I guess I am the opposite of you.

    And you've already solved your own problem multiple times in your post - don't read up on the nominees ahead of time. If I don't want to be spoiled on a film I don't go to the IMDB boards for it, nor do I read articles about it. I wait until I've seen it first then I go back to those. Just do the same for the Oscars and you will be all set.

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    1. My friend, I only wish it were that easy. I'd say 92% of my internet consumption is movie related. To avoid ALL Oscar talk beginning in October (or September, or August...) isn't really possible for me. It's easy for me to avoid specific chatter about a film that hasn't been released yet (which I always do), but avoiding the Oscars is definitely a different beast. But hell, maybe it's worth a shot. Come October I'll quit Twitter, stop reading friend's blogs, stop writing on my blog, stop scrolling "professional" movie sites, avoid the Globes, Guilds, Indies, BAFTAs, Critics' Choice-- nah, can't do it. Shit.

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  15. There’s a lot that I agree with you here. Marion Cotillard’s win is one of my absolute favorite wins I’ve seen, not only because I felt she was the odds-on runaway best of that year, but because her victory defied crazy odds—unknown French actress in a small French biopic about a French singer probably generally unknown to the American public, somehow managing to beat a revered English speaking veteran actress…that was thrilling! And I’ve yet to be surprised on that scale since.

    But I think much of the lack of surprises nowadays are also due to there being so many precursors that seem to act as prognosticators of the Oscars. Critic’s Choice, Globes, SAGs, BAFTAs, Indies, not to mention what seems to be a hundred critics group prizes in December—have really desensitized the excitement of who’s going to win Oscars. I am to blame of course, as I’m salivating the entire season trying to get cues on who’s got the momentum over whom, but it’s gotten to the point where I get more thrills seeing who gets nominated as opposed to who wins. That said, I suppose I prefer Blanchett's default win as opposed to say, an Adams upset, just because I'd rather see a deserving performance win over an invigorating surprise.

    Anyways, that's my big 'ol spiel. Love your blog btw, been reading it for a while now!

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    1. Thanks man! I really appreciate you stopping by and checking out my site! Cool of you to comment as well.

      "I am to blame of course, as I’m salivating the entire season trying to get cues on who’s got the momentum over whom, but it’s gotten to the point where I get more thrills seeing who gets nominated as opposed to who wins."

      Yes, yes, yes. Exactly. It's definitely our fault, but all of the prior awards make it so EASY for us to cave and handicap the competition.

      And to your final point: No, I would never want a surprise to take place just for the sake of being a surprise (like Shakespeare in Love and Crash). Whoever wins (lock or otherwise), what's most important is that they deserved it.

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  16. The Adrien Brody example you cite is such a good one. I remember feeling like you did. And then I remember reading the next day how certain film insiders had heard "rumblings" that he might actually win. Of course, you never really heard "rumblings" in those days (by which I mean, 10 years ago). Now you hear "rumblings" constantly on the account of the endless build-up, like you point out, and that siphons out all the shock.

    I've made peace with the fact that the Oscars really aren't going to surprise me much anymore. I love your opening paragraph because that's how I feel too. The thrill, the anticipation, and anymore I glean joy from them in the random moments amidst the telecast and the good acceptance speeches. I think there's always plenty of good stuff there, no matter how far the show goes over its time limit or is mostly boring or unsurprising.

    But really, the Oscars are best when you personally have a legitimate rooting interest. Kate Winslet had probably become lock by the time the Oscars aired in 2009 but, man, when they opened that envelope, in that moment before they said her name, being a lock didn't matter. The pit of my stomach DROPPED. "What if they don't say her name?!" But they did. And, man, did I feel a rush of joy. Yeah, I'll always love the Oscars.

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    1. I'm on my way to making peace with their predictability, I'm sure I'd be much better of for it. But you are so right, the Oscars are at their best when YOU are dying for that one actor (or director) to win it. I typically have one of those a year (I suppose it was Lupita this year), and it really doesn't matter if they're a lock or not, you just want them to nab it by any means.

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  17. With the exception of the Best Documentary, Editing, and Production Design, I had most of my predictions pretty much spot-on. I was happy that Chivo won and in some of the picks that I had chosen. Yet, I do agree with you that the lack of surprise has made the show less interesting. Why do we need to waste 4 hours to hear people who are likely to win make some grand speech and such? That's not fun.

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    1. It definitely isn't very fun. But maybe my problem is that I'm expecting the Oscars to be fun, when I should just expect them to be, if that makes sense. I was thrilled that Chivo won. About damn time.

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  18. Great post, when I was reading it I immediately thought of the song "the thrill is gone" by BB King. It's a great paradox that the internet is an incredibly helpful and rewarding space for cinema lovers but also something that as you say (and I totally agree with) is removing the thrill from events that used to be really fun, such as the oscars. I think it even extends to the trailer saturation that comes with just about any film that is released nowadays. It used to be that trailers would be shown at cinemas and on VHS/DVD and it was a small event before the film would start where one could get excited for upcoming releases. Now we have teaser trailers, trailers and 'extended trailers' as well as tv spots and so on. I guess it's true that everyone can take some blame, I mean I did stay up until some ungodly hour (in Australia) for the Dark Knight Rises teaser trailer...
    anyway keep up the good work, this is a really great blog.

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    1. Thanks so much, Andrey! I really appreciate your comment and kind words. I agree, while there is definitely an over saturation of most everything film related, we are somewhat at fault for exposing ourselves to it. (Even though some of it is nearly impossible to ignore). A paradox indeed!

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  19. I'm right with you, Alex. I keep expecting something unpredictable to happen at the Oscars. I haven't really followed the Oscar run-up that close, yet I still was right on for pretty much all the major awards. It still was a fun show, and there were some moving speeches, but the awards are pretty much just confirming predictions at this point.

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    1. And because they pretty much just exist to confirm predictions, it is nice to take notice of other things, like you mentioned. Moving speeches are definitely a highlight. I adored Lupita's speech.

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  20. Oh my god, I love this post. I wrote something like this in my own post. This was my least favourite thing about this year's Oscars. Not the winners but just how terribly obvious everything was. I don't know if it's because I'm getting more internet/blogging obsessed or what but I do want some excitement.

    I really feel Oscars should change its airdate. Do it before all these millions of precursors, or at least half of them before it becomes *this* obvious.

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    1. Thanks Nik! Really glad you like the post. Changing the air date is an interesting idea. They used to air in late March, but they moved them up a month because, well, who knows. I've always thought it would be interesting to delay them a year. Would letting the movies sit that long make voters vote for the better quality film? Hell, who knows. I mean, I'd probably go crazy waiting a year haha. But something needs to change about the process.

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  21. I agree with you entirely! This was one of the most predictable Oscars I have ever watched. This is the best write-up I've read of the Oscars yet :) Good job!

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    1. Wow, thanks so much, Angela! I really appreciate you checking out the post and commenting. Despite me appreciating most all of the winners, it really was a very predictable year.

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  22. I agree with everything you wrote, but the days of the surprise in just about anything that generates fairly wide interest is gone. Politics and sports (the news part of it) suffer the same affliction. We're in an age where people crave knowing what's going to happen before it does. All the Oscar pundits just feed that beast. To be honest, even Lupita Nyong’o's win felt like a formality. Everything I'd read, or heard said she would win for weeks, if not months, leading up to the actual ceremony. I'm just glad it was a lively ceremony. I thought Ellen did a damn good job hosting and a few of the winners gave some very nice speeches. In other words, it didn't surprise me one bit, but it entertained me so I'm cool with that.

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    1. "We're in an age where people crave knowing what's going to happen before it does."

      Yep, you're so right about that. Sports, politics - it applies to everything.

      I really liked Ellen this year too, so I also agree with you: the Oscars didn't surprise me this year, but I did have fun with them.

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  23. Great write-up man! I long for shocks on Oscar night, but they rarely ever happen. I actually predicted Crash's and Marion Cotillard's wins, so even those didn't surprise me. One day we're bound to have another Adrien Brody or Roman Polanski win, though. I can't wait for it!

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    1. Thanks buddy! Wow, I can't believe you called Crash's win. That's great insight on your part. One day we're set for a Brody/Polanski-type shot. One. Day.

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  24. I was looking through some Oscar articles about this year's nominations, and I came across this write-up. I found it odd that I hadn't seen it before, but then I realised that you published it before I found your site. So, after reading this great-write up, I can say that I definitely agree with everything you say. I was very young when Brody won, and my Oscar interest only took hold when Slumdog came around, so I don't know of any surprises before that. However, I would add that I think it would be interesting to see if the dates for voting for the Oscars changed, maybe before all of the precursors.

    I also have a question for you, which is: what is your reaction when people who aren't familiar with the Oscars or only know the basics come and criticise the Oscars and the people who watch them (basically the entire frenzied film community)? Do you think it's fine that they express their opinion, or do you think that it would be better if they found out more about the Oscars and why we take so much interest and are so passionate about this whole madcap awards season, and then talk about it? Sorry if the questions are a little long-winded.

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    1. Oh I understand your question. And honestly, your question can be applied to most any life situation. Really, what you're asking is: Is it okay to express an ill-informed opinion, or should people research and learn facts before chiming in? Obviously, I think the second choice is always best, but that sadly isn't the world we live in.

      So whether it's the Oscars or politics or the economy or slain kids in the streets, (some) people are going to speak up as quickly as they can, just because they can, history and facts be damned. That's why I don't engage this type of film/Oscar vitriol on Twitter, because some people clearly don't know their facts, and thereby do not know what they're talking about. Very difficult to reason with someone like that, you know?

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