Once upon a time, the Academy Awards, called the Oscars, were given to Hollywood's big productions. What the Academy thought was the best picture often didn't coincide with what the critics thought were best pictures.
While this is true today, it's not nearly as bad. In general, a film needs to have certainly minimal production values so it doesn't look truly indie, and it must not be too out-there strange, i.e., defying the usual conventions people expect out of films. And it needs to be in English. Given that criteria, the films picked are generally critically well received.
Despite the glamor and glitz of Oscar night, many people choose to skip it. It's shown on a Sunday night, the ceremony runs 3 hours, and it's as much tribute and performance as it is giving out awards. The ceremony would be done in half the time if awards were the only thing presented.
Hollywood feels the need to glitz things up when presenting the awards.
Due to slipping ratings, they tried something different this year. Instead of getting a comedian to host the Oscars (previous years include Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, John Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres), they had Australian Hugh Jackman, noted actor, but also big Broadway star, sing many of the numbers.
They also hired comedians to help present, and spice up the normally boring segments where awards are given out to the various winners.
This year's Oscars were mostly not about quality but about charity, for lack of a better word. Slumdog Millionaire, a good but not great film, reveals the Bollywood world to us, and in particular, focuses on the slums of India, a topic that has only been discussed in small documentaries (Born into Brothels) or smaller indie fare (Salaam Bombay). Made on a shoestring budget, this film had built up steam in December until it became the prohibitive favorite to win it all.
Another difference was to put all the nominees up in the front row rather than have them distributed in various spots so any time the camera panned down, you could see everyone.
They also chose to use previous winners of awards as presenters. They had five actors announcing the five best actor nominations, and the same for the five actresses. Steven Spielberg presented best picture.
Although the show ended at midnight, which is not much different from other years, it did feel like it moved along at a better clip.
The upset of the evening was Sean Penn for his role as Harvey Milk. Mickey Rourke was considered the prohibitive favorite to win this mostly because of how his real life mirrors the role he plays. This was due, in part, to the elections where Proposition 8 (which banned same sex marriages in California) was passed. This choice reflected a desire by the Academy to show its support for this issue.
This isn't to say Penn did a bad job, but that most people felt Rourke did a tremendous job. Even Penn was a bit surprised at his selection and gave due credit to Rourke (who has won a bunch of other awards for the role so he's not lacking in that department).
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