The 2024 Oscars Were the Best the Academy Awards Have Been in Years

The Oscars are back! Three years after the dreadful COVID Oscars ended on the self-inflicted thud of an absent Best Actor winner, and two years after the infamous Slap, we finally got a show worthy of the celebrated history of the Academy Awards. And just like the best and most debated parts of that history, the 2024 Oscars provided a memorable set of genuinely enjoyable moments and highly illuminating winners.

In his fourth time hosting, Jimmy Kimmel steered what was probably the best Oscar telecast of the past decade, maybe even longer. The monologue was snappy and funny (although the tired old jokes about the length of movies really have to go), and Kimmel also honored 2023’s major industry strikes in a deeply affecting way, bringing the telecast’s crew all out onstage for some well-deserved recognition that’s roughly 70 years overdue. The musical performances were all wonderful, and Ryan Gosling brought down the house with his effervescent Kenergy during a rousing performance of “I’m Just Ken.”

The presentations of the acting categories, with five previous winners coming out onstage together to talk about the nominees, also worked beautifully. (Even if some viewers pined for the customary clips showcasing powerful acting moments.) The Oscars tried this “Fab Five” approach a few times around 15 years ago and it worked well, but the idea was presumably cut amid the constant and misguided efforts to shorten the show. But with this year’s new earlier start time—something I’ve been openly begging for—the producers seemingly had the cushion they needed to bring this tradition back, and it had my wife crying about 40 seconds into the first award of the night. (It was when Lupita Nyong’o affectionately talked about her friend and Yale classmate, Da’Vine Joy Randolph.) The only major production choice that didn’t work was the In Memoriam segment, where the show producers seemed hopelessly confused about what viewers want to look at. Hint: it’s not singers or dancers, no matter how good they are.

The presenters were almost uniformly great (with one big exception), and numerous highlights were provided by John Cena, John Mulaney, Emily Blunt and Ryan Gosling, and a Twins reunion of Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The matchups of presenter-to-category didn’t always work, though; for as emotional as it was to watch Christopher Nolan receive a long-awaited Oscar from none other than Steven Spielberg, it was equally jarring to watch a film about the horrors of Auschwitz receive an Oscar from The Rock and Bad Bunny.

But the only true presenter problem was where you least want it: in the Best Picture category, where the trend of living legends presenting the final award has been a mixed bag. Jane Fonda, who awarded Best Picture to Parasite, was among the greatest presenters ever, and the knowing pause she gave before announcing the winner showed her understanding of the gravity of the moment in a way few people would’ve had the poise to recognize and act upon. At the opposite end of that spectrum are Faye Dunaway, who infamously blurted out the wrong winner in 2017’s La La Land/Moonlight debacle, and now Al Pacino, who didn’t seem fully together and partially spoiled the moment by confusingly reading the winner as though he was babbling to himself. Honoring their own history by bringing older Hollywood icons onto the stage is a meaningful Oscar tradition, but perhaps in the future they should be paired with younger presenters (as the show did with Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli a few years ago).

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Oppenheimer won the most and biggest awards of the night. But the 2024 version of “most” is a much smaller number than Oscars of times past. Awards juggernauts of yesteryear often went on true sweeps, culminating with The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King going 11 for 11 at the 2004 Oscars. Oppenheimer won seven of its 13 categories, which is a very good showing, but not a dominant one. And folks, that’s Oscar growth right there.

Maybe Return of the King really deserved every one of those wins, but the Academy of old often seemed to go on autopilot with the craft categories and just voted for the same frontrunner in every race. Not so, anymore. The Academy consciously tried to evolve their membership over the last decade, reinvigorating itself with a much larger, younger, more diverse, and more international voting body. And many of those voters seem determined to stop Oscar results from conforming to the same frustrating patterns they have so many times before.

This new votership has made itself known in several ways, and two major ones became apparent last night. First is how every craft category seems to be analyzed on its own merits. The obvious manifestation of this is in this year’s Best Sound winner, The Zone of Interest. In years past, it’s almost inconceivable that a Best Picture frontrunner like Oppenheimer, featuring a centerpiece scene of an atomic bomb detonating, would lose Best Sound to a subtitled arthouse drama. But The Zone of Interest created some of the most unique and technically impressive sound design in film history, and this new Academy rose to the moment and recognized it.

That represents obvious progress, but progress is a trickier word to apply to what happened in the Best Actress race. On the face of it, you hate to see what could have been one of the Academy’s most wonderful opportunities to recognize diversity—Lily Gladstone becoming the first Native American winner in the acting categories—slip away for the sake of giving a 35-year-old white woman a second Oscar. But there’s also a far less cynical way of looking at it.

For as long as the Oscars have existed, some of the greatest performances in film history have gone unrecognized, losing to sentimental favorites that were justified with the same old “they were due” reasoning. Al Pacino’s titanic performance in The Godfather Part II lost the 1975 Best Actor Oscar to Art Carney because Carney had the better narrative. And that snubbing of Pacino led, in turn, to an absolute war crime of a “makeup win” when he was awarded for 1992’s Scent of a Woman, beating out Denzel Washington’s career-best performance in Malcolm X.

The new Academy seems determined to stop these cases of all-time performances losing to sentimental favorites with a compelling narrative, and that illuminates a direct throughline in the three biggest acting category shockers of the last decade. Seven-time nominee Glenn Close was expected to finally win Best Actress for The Wife, but voters saw an all-time great performance from Olivia Colman in The Favourite that they couldn’t pass up. The tragically departed Chadwick Boseman was expected to win an emotional posthumous Oscar for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but voters simply couldn’t pass on the incredible performance from Anthony Hopkins in The Father. And Lily Gladstone was seen as this year’s frontrunner for her deeply poignant portrayal of an Osage woman losing her family to a series of racist murders, but voters viewed Emma Stone’s transformation in Poor Things as one for the ages.

In this small sample size of three examples, two people of color losing to two white actors who had already won before doesn’t look good, and any skepticism about those results is wholly understandable after decades of entrenched discrimination. But after the Academy’s reforms, those recent cases feel more like a revamped voting body ignoring the expected narrative when that narrative asks them to ignore an all-time great performance. Of course, the “narrative” is still important for some acting winners, as it was for Jamie Lee Curtis last year and Robert Downey Jr. this year. But those narrative wins are no longer coming at the expense of best-of-the-decade caliber performances, which is exactly how critics have been labeling Emma Stone’s Poor Things performance since the moment the film premiered at Venice last September. For the Oscars, this, too, is a type of progress.

When you only give out four acting awards a year, each race is disproportionately dissected, circumstantial conclusions are drawn, and the overall stats are painfully slow to change. But those stats are changing, and that representation is getting better. Unfortunately that’s not something that can be reflected in every result, all the time. Lily Gladstone gave an outstanding performance in Killers of the Flower Moon, and it should have a long-lasting impact on both her career and on the opportunities given to indigenous actors. Voters just found Emma Stone’s performance in Poor Things too powerful to ignore. Sometimes the least problematic explanation is also the most plausible one, and hopefully this is one of those times. As my therapist says, we should start by assuming good intent, and this new Academy has earned that assumption.

And finally, the show’s producers gave the Academy a telecast worthy of the great movies they were honoring. In a year with one of the best and most stylistically diverse Best Picture lineups of all time, that’s as welcome a change as we could ever want.

Daniel Joyaux is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Roger Ebert, Rotten Tomatoes, The Verge, and Cosmopolitan, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @Thirdmanmovies and on Letterboxd at Djoyaux.

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