By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Feb 29, 2016 at 2:56 PM

Last night, a bunch of famous people put on expensive clothes and a few even got rewarded with a tiny statue of a naked man.

Yes, it was the Oscars, and last night provided everything you would want – stars, snubs, surprises, celebrities eating Girl Scout cookies and searing Sam Smith-related outrage. "Spotlight" won the biggest award of the night, nabbing Best Picture (along with Best Original Screenplay), while "Mad Max: Fury Road" was the biggest overall winner, taking six trophies all shiny and chrome to Valhalla. And yes, Leo finally won. Vape away, Jack Dawson. Vape until you can vape no more.

But who actually won and lost last night (I certainly lost, only getting 16 of my 24 guesses right)? Here’s my take on the highs and lows of the 2016 Academy Awards. 


Chris Rock

Before the show started Sunday night, I assumed Chris Rock would come out, make a few sly jabs at the #OscarsSoWhite dilemma and move along. The relieved crowd would laugh the whole thing off, and the Academy would think all was well.

That didn’t happen. The Chris Rock that arrived was exactly the Chris Rock we hoped for: funny, sharp and political. His monologue started a little flimsy, seemingly trying to underplay the controversy and push it aside. But that was just breaking the ice, and after it was sufficiently cracked, he started splashing the cold reality hiding underneath all around the glamorous Oscar set. And he didn’t let up either; Rock’s segments throughout the night all poked and jabbed at the issue, smartly and humorously putting Hollywood’s race problem on blast. He even ended the night announcing "Black lives matter." If it was a John Oliver segment, we’d be using the word "eviscerated" a lot.

Nothing said last night is going to fix the Academy’s race problem, and considering this is an industry-wide issue – and, really, a nation-wide issue – nothing is going to be solved any time soon, either. Blunt racism is easy to call out; complicated, unconscious racial biases are much harder to solve, or even merely discuss. But last night, Rock kept the conversation going, kept it moving, brought in often unheard voices and, best of all, disguised it as really funny entertainment. Some wondered if he should stand down from being the host. Instead, he was exactly the host the show needed.


Anybody who says that "Spotlight" winning last night was a surprise wasn’t paying attention. Sure, "The Revenant" had most of the buzz and awards hype coming in, but everybody following the race knew it was a three-dog fight with the outcome completely up in the air. Maybe "Spotlight" was a surprise, but only because pretty much any outcome last night would’ve been a surprise.

If we are calling this win a surprise, though, it’s a most welcome one. I was concerned "Spotlight" would be the "Boyhood" of this year, a movie too modest and unflashy to really capture people’s appreciation and love. Its cinematic pleasures are simple: just a great important story well told, fueled by good characters, strong performances and a smart script. No, it’s not fancy or pushing the art, but sometimes simple and strong filmmaking is just what a particular story needs to bring out its best. That was the case with "Spotlight." It’s nice to see that was enough for the Academy. 


It may seem odd to say nuance won when the movie with the most awards was a two-hour explosion-a-thon with a flamethrower guitarist, but throughout the night, the Academy surprisingly bypassed the kind of showy, obvious theatrics they usually love to award in favor of smaller, smarter, quieter work.

The two biggest surprises of the night were both for films and performances that did a lot without rubbing the audience’s face in it. Mark Rylance won Best Supporting Actor for his quiet, subtle work in "Bridge of Spies," and then "Ex Machina" shocked "Star Wars" for Best Special Effects – basically a three-person $15 million indie championed over the ultimate blockbuster monolith. And while "Star Wars" certainly looked great, "Ex Machina" did more detailed work and, in the end, contributed more crucial work for the story’s whole. Finally, for the biggest award of the night, you had the unremarkably remarkable "Spotlight," a movie whose most exotic locale is a dark records basement with a dead rat in the corner, come out on top over the oppressively impressive "The Revenant."

With an Academy infamous for going with the easy, the blunt and the obvious choices, it was a nice change of pace to see awards truly going toward the best acting and filmmaking, not simply the most.

Leonardo DiCaprio

The man who launched a million memes finally got his gold last night. And as much as I don’t particularly care for the role that finally landed him the trophy, it’s close to impossible not to feel good for the guy. The Oscars are supposed to be in the business of honoring our best actors, and for about a decade now, DiCaprio has certainly qualified. It’s like when a beloved but aged-out veteran player goes to a great team solely for a chance to finally win a championship. Sure, he’s not winning for his best work, but it’d seem more wrong if he never got one at all.

Also: Props to him for a good speech that clearly the orchestra had no interest in playing off (one of the few, apparently). 

"Mad Max: Fury Road"

WITNESS! No, "Angry Maxwell: Grumpy Boulevard" didn’t win any of the big awards, but it was never going to. The fact that a movie this brain-searingly crazy and out of control was nominated for Best Picture is an incredible, notable feat in its own right. But it was awesome to see "Fury Road" conquer so many of the technical categories – and deservedly so, because it’s a technical marvel on every level.

For a moment, somewhere between its fourth or fifth win in a row, I almost thought maybe – just maybe – it might creep away with one of the big prizes, but that bubble of irrational optimism was quickly popped. Still, last night was a fitting bow for a great movie – especially for those normally anonymous people behind the camera who helped make the results in front of it so remarkable. "Spotlight" may have won Best Picture and "The Revenant" snatched director, but "Mad Max" won the most awards last night with six, and I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted that a year ago.

Jacob Tremblay

His "Room" co-star may have won an Oscar last night, but it’s been Tremblay who’s been winning hearts over this entire awards season, reaching its peak last night. The pre-show shots of him with his family were predictably adorable as heck, while his craning to see the "Star Wars" bots on stage managed to steal the show from the actual "Star Wars" bots. Even when he wasn’t speaking loud enough for mic while he presented an award, the snafu somehow made him even more adorable and charming. Tip for next year’s show: less Minions and more Tremblay.

My new squad! #squadgoals #oscars #starwars #roomthemovie

A photo posted by Jacob Tremblay (@jacobtremblay) on

The new generation of actresses

I could lament the rough state of the male categories this year, how Best Actor, in particular, was a field weaker than wet paper. But instead, I want to focus on the positive: the new generation of strong, young actresses starting to bloom in Hollywood. Both the big female acting awards went to relatively new faces to the A-list – Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander – and they were surrounded by equally great rising stars like Saoirse Ronan and Rooney Mara, who will win plenty in their long careers ahead.

Add in Daisy Ridley of "The Force Awakens," who presented an award, and those deserving actresses not nominated (Bel Powley, Greta Gerwig, Tessa Thompson, Maika Monroe, Kristen Stewart), and you’ve got an incredible cast of young talent. The hunt for the next generation of good, young male actors has been a struggle for Hollywood, but when it comes to actresses, the future has arrived. Now Hollywood just needs to make sure they write some decent roles for them.

Emmanuel Lubezki

Even the biggest detractors to "The Revenant" can’t deny Lubezki’s win was deserved. Last night’s victory marked his third in a row – the first two for "Gravity" and "Birdman" – and, really, he should probably even have a couple more ("Children of Men" comes to mind). 

Lady Gaga

Even when she’s down to earth, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from Stefani Germanotta. She crushed her Super Bowl national anthem performance, but that was followed up with a Bowie tribute at the Grammys that landed on the wrong side of excitable.

Her performance of "Til It Happens To You" last night, however, swiftly swung the pendulum back toward the positive. It was a beautifully performed and staged number, wonderfully sung and powerfully delivered. In a night loaded with big social and political statements, her song landed with one of the strongest impacts. When the VP came out to introduce the number, a Gaga win seemed inevitable. After she finished, it seemed more than deserved, as well. Shame the Academy didn’t get the memo. 

The show in general

The controversial lead-up for the Oscars was certainly not what the Academy had in mind, but the resulting show was one of the best they’ve had in a while. Chris Rock proved to be the perfect salt and salve for the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, while the rest of the show’s nods toward social and political issues were handled with grace, power and meaning.

Gone were many of the useless "Love of Movies" montages that just remind you, hey, I think these here talkies got a future. Gone were most of the bad, overly long presenter skits, and the ones that remained were mostly harmless. New were technical categories freshened up with a pop-up book effect staging and clips, especially in the sound categories, that actually tried to showcase the work being done.

Overall, it was an entertaining night, running not horrifically long – though still LONG – with good winners and interesting surprises and just a dash of outrage to remind you that, yes, these are still the same dumb, technically useless Oscars. The Oscars will never be the Grammys or the Tonys. Those shows can put their work live on stage. But some years, the Oscars are a chore to watch. These weren’t.

"By The Sea"

Safe to say that’s not how Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt intended "By The Sea" to be mentioned at the Oscars when they made their unseen indie drama. But hey, they found the one person who really likes it! That was their own personal Oscar last night. 


Sam Smith

It was all going so well. "Mad Max" was winning a whole bunch of awards. Chris Rock was funny and on-point. And then … this. This sickening thud. This win didn’t just suck the air out of the room; it replaced all of the room’s air with concrete and then dropped the room to the bottom of the ocean, lost forever into the deep, black, uncaring depths, never to be seen again. It was a brutal reminder that the Oscars, even on a good night, can still manage to be the most wrong.

Whatever, his performance was poor; I can cope with that. But actually winning for "Writing’s On The Wall," a bad song from a bleh Bond movie? After you set up Gaga’s performance with the freaking Vice President of the United States? And after said performance was incredible? Add in the fact that Smith misquoted Ian McKellen in his acceptance speech and pretty much claimed to be the first openly gay man to win an Oscar – which, nope – and I’m impressed there was a single, unbroken TV set left in America. Calling his night pitchy would be understatement, as I would’ve preferred if merely my ear drums were offended.

The entire Best Song category

It’d be easy to think there were only three Best Song nominees last night: Lady Gaga’s "Til It Happens to You," The Weeknd’s "Earned It" and Sam Smith’s auditory war crime. But no! There were two other contenders, "Simple Song #3" from "Youth" and "Manta Ray" from "Racing Extinction," that went unperformed during the ceremony because, pretty much, the performers weren’t famous enough.

I understand the two numbers from mostly unheralded movies would’ve added to the show’s runtime, but come on. You either bring enough performance time for the whole class, or nobody gets to perform at all. And considering two of the three numbers were pretty sleepy, the latter option wouldn’t have been the worst.

And while we're on the topic of music, who made the Brie Larson's walk-up music for her "Room" win a very cheerful rendition of "Big Rock Candy Mountain"? Does this person know what the movie is about?

The speech scroll

In theory, the newly implemented speech scroll seems like a good idea. Instead of wasting speech time thanking agents, allow the winners to say something a little more meaningful and heartfelt while still giving their loved ones and critical behind-the-scenes compatriots some shine.

From the first winning speech, however, it seemed that the idea was going to need some tweaking. The scroll itself was barely noticeable, hurriedly popping up at the very bottom of the screen immediately after the winner was announced so that it was gone by the time the person actually made it to the stage. The speeches didn’t seem to change much either, still taking time to thank friends, family and collaborators. Worst of all, they still got played off – or not played off, in Inarritu’s case – making winners seem more stressed for time than usual, constrained both by the scroll and the orchestra.

There’s a decent idea here, but it needs a lot of work. Or maybe, during the biggest moment of these people’s lives, you should just let them say what they want to say.   

Animated characters giving awards

Animated creations presenting awards is always bizarre. I can never forget that, while we’re seeing goofy characters interact, the live audience is looking at an empty stage with a screen. But last night was a new level of odd.

When "Minions" deservedly missed out on a Best Animated Film nomination, it seemed we’d have an evening free of the chirpy little Twinkies. Alas, nope. The tiny, growingly tiresome trio showed up to throw each other around and present an award – something the Oscars were really excited about considering the several times they happily teased their arrival. Then Buzz and Woody showed up (yay!) to present an award to a fellow Pixar movie (self-congratulatory and weird!). Awards shows may be fake and useless, but I still prefer real people to hand them out. 

Sylvester Stallone

There’s no way of telling why Stallone went from front-runner for Best Supporting Actor to heading home empty-handed. Maybe giving him the win seemed touchy after "Creed" got caught up in the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Maybe the rough patches in Stallone’s career scared voters off or the rumors of him being an unpleasant Hollywood figure came to roost. Maybe voters really didn’t see "Creed" (would explain a lot!) and if they did, they thought he was just playing himself, just like when Mickey Rourke surprisingly lost for "The Wrestler." Whatever the case, Stallone likely just lost his last opportunity – one of his most deserving ones, too – at winning an Oscar.

The people who selected the Oscar clips

It seemed like there were more nominee clips played last night than usual, something that typically gets my full support. Many audience members haven’t seen these movies, so the clips provide a glimpse at why they were nominated and why people should see the rest of the movie.

That is, unless the clips are bizarrely chosen and, in some cases, spoil the movie.

Neither "Carol" nor "Brooklyn" are movies that could be particularly spoiled … but their clips last night tried their best, revealing key scenes during the ceremony. The screenwriting clips thankfully didn’t contain any spoilers, but they also didn’t do much to show off the actual screenwriting. Choosing Christian Bale’s pounding-on-drums scene in "The Big Short" over an example of the movie's quick-witted explanations of dense economic talk? That doesn’t speak to what made the screenwriting special – and eventually worthy of a win.

Next year, Oscars, be as thoughtful about what clips you choose as the people who made them in the first place. They – and we – will appreciate it.

Alejandro G. Inarritu

Inarritu may have won last night, becoming the first director since Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949 and 1950 to win in back-to-back years, but come on, dude, did you have to come off as joyless and pretentious as your movies?

First, he stonefaced the bear gag; then he was caught in a sulk as costume designer Jenny Beavan walked past to collect her award for "Mad Max: Fury Road" (though, to be fair, the whole aisle of dudes doesn’t come off particularly supportive). He topped off the night with a speech that outlasted the play-off, attempting to frame "The Revenant" as some profound and important statement on race. A fine message – but also a fine summation of Inarritu’s movies: going on too long and assuming more meaning than they really possess. 

"The Boss"

When it comes to jokes about Girl Scouts aggressively selling cookies, Chris Rock’s gag set the bar for Melissa McCarthy’s upcoming comedy.

The Stacey Dash joke

Bringing Stacey Dash, who made headlines back when the nominations first arrived for speaking out against Black History Month and BET on Fox News, onto the stage jokingly as "Director of Minority Outreach" seems like a funny idea. But the joke seemed to fly over most people’s heads, drawing an awkward silence from those in attendance and those watching at home.

Roger Deakins

13 nominations. 13 losses. Next to being old, white and male, Deakins getting passed over is the Oscar’s most tragic tradition. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.