The Oscars ended with one of the biggest shocks in its history: Moonlight was declared Best Picture only after the producers of La La Land accepted the award. Presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway biffed the presentation of the Oscar, with Beatty claiming only after team La La Land left the stage had they realized the envelope had been incorrectly filled with Emma Stone's name. (As it turned out, they had been handed the "Actress in a Leading Role" envelope by mistake.) It was a “what-if” that Oscar fans had speculated about for years—what would happen if the wrong name was read? But it had never actually seen until now, and it was quite uncomfortable.It was only through Moonlight director Barry Jenkins's graciousness in presenting the film's win not as an “us-vs-them” triumph but as a moment of sharing joy at the oddity of the situation. This was the culmination of what had begun unpromisingly but became one of the best Oscars in recent memory.
Opening with Justin Timberlake's performance felt like too much, or not enough. And yet the show followed the performance's trajectory—not of mindless celebration, but of freewheeling joy. The speakers, both those who won awards and those who presented awards, had their own roles and did them with enthusiasm. Production choices made the atmosphere seem big-hearted, especially with the pairing of stars: Seth Rogen spoke on behalf of Michael J. Fox, Charlize Theron for a witty Shirley MacLaine. (The most welcome addition to the stage may have been hidden-no-longer figure Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician played onscreen by Taraji P. Henson.) A segment about international cinema fans also made an elegant case for movies as a great American export and uniting force, from Young Frankenstein to- yes- Oscar-winning film Suicide Squad.
Obviously, the movie that most explicitly shouted out the power of cinema lost, in a result that would have been a genuine surprise had it been announced properly. But that disconcerting result came only after a set of winners who finally ditched the same-old surprise act: whatever message is delivered every year encouraging winners to avoid the same-old laundry list of credits read off a sheet of computer paper finally stuck. Kevin O'Connell, the sound engineer who won for the first time on his 21st nomination, delivered a heartfelt and real tribute to his late mother. Moonlight co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney shouted out "black and brown boys and non-gender-conforming," as well as his own mother, which were represented in his film's story of gradual redemption. And Iranian astronaut Anousheh Ansari, speaking on behalf of Best Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi, sounded a message about Farhadi's absence, decrying "the inhumane law" that had kept the Iranian auteur at home and declaring "dividing the world into the us and our enemies categories creates fear." It was crystal clear and well thought-out, which is why the moment was salvaged despite its strangeness.
The Oscars were a celebration of the best movies have to offer: not the campy recitation of what movies can do that would never live up to the real thing, but an open-hearted and unabashedly emotional evening. Why not celebrate one more twist, and do so with Jenkins's spirit so that it was not worth taking anything away from the other film? To be clear: This was an epic screw-up on the part of someone, embarrassing the La La Land producers and changing what could have been Moonlight’s moment. But Jenkins's spirit of conciliation was in keeping with the evening's tone.
It was unfortunate that host Jimmy Kimmel didn't seem to share the evening’s embrace of humanity, but, well, one can't have everything. Kimmel seemed to heavily borrow from other recent awards ceremonies—a monologue joke about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos hitting similar beats as Jimmy Fallon's Golden Globes (no role model), as well as a joke about winners for O.J. Simpson projects not thanking Simpson himself. Parachuted-in sweets (over and over, which got old) was a seemingly necessary callback to Ellen DeGeneres's Oscar pizza. What original beats he managed leaned towards dull and lazy. He referenced only one acting or directing nominee, Mel Gibson, before launching into a bit about his supposed nemesis Matt Damon, a bit from Jimmy Kimmel Live that might have packed more punch were it not taking up time that might have gone to something the show's broad audience had come here to see. There's willingness to deflate the big egos of Hollywood and then there's excessive insistence that the movies and people being celebrated are pointless. Kimmel argued that no one had seen various nominated movies (Elle, Moonlight) and, oddly, that no one has any idea what movies, really, even are. An ugly bit in which members of a Hollywood tour entered the auditorium to gawk and be gawked made this literal, but the attitude diffused into Kimmel's time onstage. "What is production design, by the way?" Kimmel ad-libbed as he took the stage after the Production Design Oscar was awarded. The act was tiresome in part because there seemed quite so much else being said.
Moonlight actor Mahershala Ali closed with a moving speech for Best Supporting Actor with a tribute to his newborn; Kimmel asked him what the child's name was. He seemed unprepared for Ali to respond. (Kimmel rebounded to continue his obsession with Ali's name and, later, to mock the name of a member of the star tour.) Kimmel also made a point in his monologue that he wasn’t afraid to dive into politics: his most notable nod to it was a small bit in which he tweeted at the President. This just seemed like dull-minded provocation, a reach for a headline that posed no risk of straining anyone.
However, his part in the ceremony won't be remembered in the way recent Oscar victims, from Anne Hathaway and James Franco to Seth MacFarlane, will be, because—and this is crucial—the ceremony was filled not with movies but with what movies can do. In the spirit of the evening, it's inappropriate to critique Kimmel any further to celebrate the bright, spirited winners. It's fruitless to pick apart someone basically uninterested in film or its audience when Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis, sounding a clarion call for film's power to illuminate lives less frequently celebrated on film, is so much more memorable—or when a director's work, in the rare instance of surprise feeling heartening, odd, and awake to possibility, is celebrated at the very last moment.