Skip to Content
Search Icon

The Oscars Are Over

On a slap.

Urban Hannon’s writing has appeared in First Things, Ethika Politika, and other publications. He currently studies theology in Rome.

I guess we have to start with the slap. Since no one watches the Academy Awards anymore, the viral clip of Will Smith assaulting Chris Rock is probably the only thing you’ve seen from last night’s broadcast. For those who missed even this: Chris Rock was vamping before presenting the award for Best Documentary, and when he made a G.I. Jane joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head (she has alopecia), Will Smith charged the stage, slapped Rock across the face, and shouted a bunch of expletives in defense of his wife’s honor. Now, you might think that a man passionately protecting his wife is the most normal thing ever to happen in Hollywood . . . until you remember that theirs is an open marriage anyway, so if you were searching for some sort of traditional family values, keep looking. Some cynical viewers wondered if this was all just a setup, a desperate attempt by the Academy to boost ratings and draw people in for the program’s last hour. But the painful combination of racial politics and toxic masculinity made it clear that no one there wanted this. It was also frankly just too interesting a moment for this Academy to have dreamed it up. (Minutes before this they had shown that their idea of must-see television is Wanda Sykes wandering around a memorabilia warehouse.) The slap was a total mess, which at least makes it a nice synecdoche for the night as a whole, and for the state of Hollywood in general.

I had planned to wake up this morning and write something to the effect of: “We Aren’t Just Watching the Decline of the Oscars. We’re Watching the End of the Movies.” Thankfully Ross Douthat did that for me this weekend. His piece is fantastic, and if you care about movies, read it. I don’t have anything to add to his meta-narrative, so now I get to stick to the fun job of criticizing the awards show and, more importantly, recommending some excellent films from last night’s slate that you probably have not seen, and that the show forgot to persuade you that you should.

The ninety-fourth Academy Awards was a disappointment from start to finish—not because of the awards themselves, but because the show wasn’t really about the awards, or indeed about the movies at all. That the Oscars is having an identity crisis became clear when the Academy announced a few weeks back that it would remove eight of the technical awards from the live broadcast, but that—“How do you do, fellow kids?”—this year’s presenters would include Shaun White and Tony Hawk and Shawn Mendes. I guess it never occurred to the Academy that, if they were worried about alienating potential viewers, it might not be the best idea to open with aggressive Mitch McConnell and Florida don’t-say-gay jokes in the show’s first five minutes. But no, no, you’re right Academy, the real deterrent for your audience would be seeing the incredible Dune craftsmen win awards for the only nominated film anyone actually saw this year. Good call.

The producers tried to bring the focus back to the movies with a collection of anniversary tributes, but these were executed so poorly that the whole thing just felt like tasteless nostalgia-baiting. This is the fiftieth anniversary of The Godfather, so I was thrilled to see Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on stage together. But the montage itself was rushed, and set to terrible club music that has nothing to do with The Godfather, and the pointless introduction to the thing by Shawn P. Diddy Combs lasted as long as Coppola’s speech afterwards. But hey, at least it was a fiftieth anniversary, so I’m glad they acknowledged it. Pulp Fiction, however, is celebrating its twenty-eighth anniversary (or not celebrating it, since why would you), so if they were going to force Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman and John Travolta to do bad self-parody of their iconic roles from one of the nineties’ best movies, it seems like that tedium at least could have waited until 2024. Whereas the other two films whose casts they reunited last night, White Men Can’t Jump and Juno, are movies I don’t think anyone had any particular desire to revisit anyway. The whole thing felt half-baked at best.

Maybe my biggest complaint of the night was about the musical performances. This was the year of West Side Story, and Ariana DeBose won for Best Supporting as Anita, and everyone knew she was going to. So why on earth did we not have them perform "America"? I get that it couldn’t be nominated for Best Original Song, for all the obvious reasons. But it’s better than anything that was, and it would have breathed such life and joy into the evening. Instead we got a prerecorded music video of Beyoncé, and a forgettable song by Reba McEntire from a movie I don’t believe actually exists. Billie Eilish and Finneas performed their Bond theme that ended up winning—not my thing. And then there were two different Encanto numbers, the Spanish ballad that was actually nominated, and the viral “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” It’s still strange to me, and I guess a testament to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s talent, that that song has become such a sensation, because there is absolutely nothing universal about it. This isn’t “I Dreamed a Dream” or “Let It Go.” It’s a hyper-specific exposition song from a way too large ensemble about their creepy magic uncle. But a sensation it is, and the Oscars couldn’t even leave well enough alone with that. They aired it super late in the show, after all the kids watching would have gone to bed anyway, and they removed the most beloved parts of the song in favor of a meta rap about the Oscars themselves by some woman I guess they assumed I would recognize.

It is especially unfortunate that the Academy Awards went so poorly this year, because—secondo me—it was actually a pretty great year for movies, and this would have been a good occasion to shine a light on them. Of course the movie theater industry was in bad shape even before lockdowns, and now it may never recover. But there are a lot of films this year that truly deserved theaters, and that, if you missed them there, are still worth checking out at home.

CODA is my top recommendation, and—credit where credit is due—the Academy’s as well, since the night finished with CODA taking home the prize for Best Picture. This movie is simply delightful. “CODA” is an acronym: “child of deaf adults,” and the movie’s protagonist is indeed the only “hearing person” in her family. It’s a small film—the first Sundance movie ever to win Best Picture, in fact—and it definitely feels more indie than Academy. There were a lot of this-isn’t-Cinema objections to its Oscars campaign, and in other years I might have been more open to that criticism. But given that its capital-C-Cinema competitor last night was The Power of the Dog, Netflix’s self-important gay Western that Sam Elliot scorned for its sodomy and Bill Simmons dubbed “The Power of the Nap,” I’m okay with honoring a movie this year that is beloved rather than just respected, even if it isn’t the highest artistic achievement. (Even the hosts last night joked that they had already watched The Power of the Dog three times . . . and were almost halfway through.) CODA is available on Apple TV+ which is just $4.99 a month, so if you subscribe and then cancel immediately it’s just the price of a rental. Its “Both Sides Now” is the scene of the decade for me so far. I really can’t recommend this one highly enough.

CODA is the movie I watched and immediately texted my mom about, but King Richard is the one I had to share with my dad. (It turned out he had beaten me to it, and had loved it as much as I expected him to.) I have to believe that security would have escorted Will Smith out of the theater last night after Slapgate, except that his Best Actor win hadn’t been announced yet, and it was by far the most anticipated event of the evening. King Richard stars Smith as Richard Williams, the controversial father of Venus and Serena, at the very beginning of the girls’ careers. The greatest praise I can give this movie is that it feels like it could have been made in the nineties. It’s a sports movie and a biopic, so if you don’t love those genres I guess you might not love this. But for anyone else, this is a huge crowd-pleaser. Smith is really going for it, but actually Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the girls’ mother Oracene, was my favorite part of the movie. This is another great family film. Available on HBO Max, or to rent or buy on VOD.

I’ve already mentioned West Side Story, but in the year of Stephen Sondheim’s passing, I need to give it a bit more space. This was my favorite theatrical experience of the year, and it is hands down the best thing Spielberg has done in decades. I thought he was smart in how he updated the original—a couple little woke details notwithstanding—and it was nice to have proof that movie musicals don’t all have to be terrible these days. Tony and Maria were not the highlight of this version, but then I don’t think they were the highlight of the 1961 original either, or of any staged production I’ve seen. If you like the original or musical theater generally, do not miss this remake. Catch it on Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, or, again, VOD.

Licorice Pizza is another one not to miss. Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age dramedy, set in 1970s Southern California, is a pleasantly light movie from a notoriously heavy director. It stars Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Alana Haim, who apparently is well known to women with Instagram but was an unknown quantity for me. For both actors it was their film debut, and Anderson directed them wonderfully, really leaning into their cinematic innocence. This one, unfortunately, is not available on any streaming platforms, but you can rent or buy it wherever you like.

I suspect readers of The Lamp don’t need me to convince them to go see Dune, but I do want to say something about it here because, honestly, I am so proud of this movie. Dune is massive in an age where massive movies seem impossible (outside the MCU). It is hugely ambitious, especially given the unwieldiness of the source material, and Denis Villeneuve basically pulled it off. It’s a shame he wasn’t recognized by the Academy—I really thought direction was Dune’s best hope at an above-the-line Oscar, though I was touched that all of the film’s tech award winners began their speeches acknowledging him by name, drawing attention to the Academy’s oversight. Timothée Chalamet did admirably too, and I think he’s the only person I could see who could have made it work. I also love that the two of them, Villeneuve and Chalamet, spoke to each other in French during filming, to preserve a sacrosanct little creative space amid the hordes of special effects people around them on set. The ensemble is strong, and Hans Zimmer’s score is impressive as well—he freaking invented instruments to create these sounds!—so his win last night was well deserved. All that said, as much as I want to applaud Dune for its ambition, I also have to admit that the finished product is a little flat for me. I like it, but I don’t love it. Some of that may just be due to the amount of exposition and world-building a part one requires. I look forward to the next installment.

The other Best Picture nominees are there for you if you want them too. Belfast was quite good, but was basically what the trailer promised: no more and no less. The family was great, though, and I was feeling with them the whole time (liberal neutrality notwithstanding). I’m glad Kenneth Branagh got some recognition for it last night, even if I don’t think it was actually anywhere near the Best Original Screenplay this year. Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a hard movie to categorize, and it never felt like a real awards contender, but I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, especially Bradley Cooper's performance. Drive My Car is a slow, quiet, three-hour Japanese film, and I think it worked more for others than it did for me (which is also true of the other international favorites this year: The Worst Person in the World and The Hand of God). But if you’re a cinephile, it’s worth the time. I’ve already told you what I think of The Power of the Dog. And I would prefer not even to mention Don’t Look Up, the worst movie ever nominated for this award, a film that could never find its tone, a feature-length illustration of The Left Can’t Meme. As one of the hosts said last night, “I guess the Academy voters don’t look up reviews.” Quite.

Outside the Best Picture race, The Lost Daughter is a tough watch, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Olivia Colman plays an “unnatural mother,” a mom who is not very good at being one, and who has to come to terms with the terrible decisions she made along the way. To be honest, that is the only Best Actress nominee I saw or wanted to see (it’s telling that there is zero overlap between that category and Best Picture). tick, tick...BOOM! is probably more appealing to theater kids than anyone else, and the musical source material is sometimes pretty weak. But Andrew Garfield’s performance is fantastic, and some expert editing leads to a nice overall effect. Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth was not my favorite Shakespeare adaptation—the mood is too cold and the cast is too old. But it’s visually striking, and well worth the price of admission just to see Kathryn Hunter as the witches.

The Oscars are in bad shape, and worse after last night, which does not bode well for the future of film. But for today, even if no one is seeing them, good movies are still being made. My advice is that we enjoy them while we have them.