Oscar Recap: 'Argo,' 'Life of Pi,' and 'Lincoln' Dominate an Uneven Show

Despite its best efforts to shake off the dusty formulas of a show that reliably never lives up to the annual buildup of breathless hype, the 2013 Academy Awards broadcast played out a little like Ben Affleck’s career: It started out strong with a jolt of exuberant adrenaline then petered out into a hodgepodge of formulaic dreck and ended with a surprise twist, tastefully mixing politics and Hollywood.

During the three-plus hours before Michelle Obama beamed in from the White House to announce "Argo" as the Best Picture winner followed by Affleck’s eloquent and candid acceptance speech (has anyone ever admitted marriage was “hard work” while accepting their award?), it looked like this year’s Oscars would be written off as a low-light reel of head-scratching musical numbers, predictable thank-you laundry lists and an overall exercise in is-it-over-yet clock watching. After host Seth MacFarlane’s Shatner-ific meta montage anticipating his own bad reviews and Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-pool spoiling win for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, the show played out like a long series of opportunities to grab another beer and replenish the snack supply.

In other words, the Oscars show peaked early and redeemed itself with seconds to spare. The blame doesn’t rest solely on MacFarlane’s shoulders. Moments of authenticity, heartfelt speeches, or Jack Palance-like impetuous wackiness or Michael Moore-like political agitprop were few and far between. Rarely have the presenters and even the winners -- we’re talking to you, Anne Hathaway (Best Supporting Actress) and Ang Lee (Best Director) -- been such slaves to the teleprompter, rattling off lists of nominees and thank-yous as if they were reading from the phone book. It came as a huge relief when Jennifer Lawrence tripped en route to the podium; it was the most human moment of the evening. Unfortunately her speech was so perfunctory Robert De Niro looked like he was going to fall asleep and she regrettably forgot to give writer-director David O. Russell his due thanks.

On the plus side, this was a sweep-less year in which the wins were spread democratically across a wide array of worthy contenders, many of literary origin. “Life of Pi,” based on Yann Martel’s bestselling novel, collected trophies for best cinematography, visual effects, and director. “Les Miserables,” adapted from the Victor Hugo opus, took home awards for supporting actress and makeup. “Lincoln,” loosely derived from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, produced a pair of wins for production design and best actor. Daniel Day-Lewis’ speech for the latter deserves a separate award for delivering the night’s best acceptance speech, highlighted by a hilarious off-the-cuff bit about how Meryl Streep was actually Steven Spielberg’s first choice to play Lincoln and he was originally slated to play Margaret Thatcher, before crediting his wife, Rebecca Miller (the director and daughter of Arthur Miller) for being the “perfect companion” to the rogues gallery of characters he brought home with him.

However, this was a big year for adaptations and not all of them were duly recognized. Joe Wright’s ponderous but audacious rendering of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” racked up a sole prize for best costume design. While one of the year’s most worthwhile and watchable films, “Silver Linings Playbook,” which swept yesterday’s Independent Spirit Awards, only converted one of its eight nominations into a win with Lawrence’s award for best actress.

In light of this year’s preponderance of the superb work that went unrewarded, it was fitting that the show itself ended with MacFarlane’s most inspired addition to the show: a musical tribute to the night’s losers. In the end, it was a fitting finale to underwhelming ceremony capturing a truly superlative year in filmmaking.