The Oscars split their honors between history and spectacle Sunday night. “12 Years a Slave,” a searing period drama that confronted moviegoers anew with the cruelties of American slavery, won best picture at the 86th Academy Awards, while the outer-space suspense blockbuster “Gravity” won seven awards, including an Oscar to Alfonso Cuarón for best director.
With awards going as well to “12 Years” writer John Ridley, and supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o, the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemed intent on sending a message: In a year of strong, important movies, this was the strongest and the most important. Steve McQueen, who in a historic first becomes the first black director of a best picture winner, dedicated his movie’s award to “the 20 million people who still suffer slavery today,” and in an emotional acceptance speech said, “Everyone deserves to not only survive but live.”
“Gravity,” which created a dazzling science fiction journey on a small soundstage, won for director, film editing, cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing, visual effects, and original score. In his acceptance speech, Cuarón shared his win “with all those wise people who made this happen.”
The acting awards similarly honored a diverse field of performances. Capping a victory lap that seemed pre-ordained since “Blue Jasmine” was released to theaters last August, Cate Blanchett won best actress — her second Oscar, after a supporting statue for 2004’s “The Aviator” — for her stark portrayal of a pampered Wall Street widow afflicted with a bad case of the Blanche DuBoises. Blanchett honored her co-nominees and thanked Woody Allen, a vocal vote of support given the writer-director’s recent controversies.
Matthew McConaughey won best actor for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof, an HIV-infected Texan dealing in non-approved drugs in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Accepting the award, McConaughey thanked God, “who I look up to,” his family, “who I look forward to,” and signed off with his signature “All right, all right, all right.” About the only person he didn’t acknowledge was the late Woodroof.
“Dallas Buyers Club” was also honored when Jared Leto, playing Woodruff’s transgender friend and business partner, won best supporting actor. The win marked a return for Leto, who hadn’t acted in a movie in more than five years, but the bigger comeback was McConaughey’s. Five years ago, the actor seemed stuck in a career rut of uninspired romantic comedies. Coming after a spate of challenging roles in films like “Mud,” “Killer Joe,” and “Magic Mike,” “Dallas Buyers Club” became the crest in the wave of the “McConaissance.” After Ben Affleck’s best picture win for “Argo” last year, this seems like the new Hollywood career arc: a hunk’s progress from pop ridicule to podium triumph.
Nyong’o won best supporting actress for her “12 Years” portrayal of the tormented slave Patsey. The actress, who had been a charming and beautifully dressed presence on the Oscar campaign trail, dedicated her win to the spirit of the real Patsey, saying “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s.”
The 2014 Academy Awards honored an unusually diverse and strong slate of films. “Gravity” and “American Hustle,” David O. Russell’s farcical look at the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, led the field with 10 nominations apiece, including best picture, but while Cuaron’s film saw its Oscar bids concentrated in the craft-oriented categories — it is only the fifth movie in Academy history to be nominated in all seven technical categories — “Hustle” saw all four of its key players nominated in the acting categories.
In the end, though, “Hustle” came away empty-handed. The film was expected to at least win best original screenplay, but that award went to writer-director Spike Jonze for “Her,” a touching fable about future shock and digital romance.
The year’s other major Oscar contender, “12 Years a Slave,” won three awards out of nine nominations. Based closely on the 1853 memoirs of Solomon Northup (British-born actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) — a free black pressed into slavery — the film is impeccably crafted and intentionally tough to watch, and it sparked a new national conversation about the legacy of America’s “peculiar institution.”
The Oscar for best animated feature went to “Frozen,” the box-office hit about sisterly rivalry; the film also won best original song, for the soaring “Let It Go.” The awards represent a resurgence for Walt Disney Animation Studios after years of laboring in the shadow of corporate stable mate Pixar. That company has won seven best animated feature Oscars since the category debuted in 2000; this year, it didn’t even have a nomination. “Mr. Hublot,” a sprightly CGI fantasy about a mechanical man and his robot dog, won best animated short.
In a very competitive field, “20 Feet From Stardom” won best documentary feature. The feel-good film about the great back-up singers of pop music history was an audience favorite, if not of pundits who hoped for a win for “The Act of Killing,” about Indonesian mass killings; Darlene Love, one of the featured singers in “20 Feet From Stardom,” was brought up by director Morgan Neville, and belted out her thanks with gospel-styled joy.
The Oscar for documentary short went to “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” about Alice Herz-Sommer, a 110-year-old Holocaust survivor. Herz-Sommer passed away last week, and director Malcolm Clarke dedicated the win to her memory. Denmark’s “Helium,” a sentimental story of a dying boy soothed by fantasy, won best live-action short.
Catherine Martin won best costume design and, along with set designer Beverley Dunn, best production design for “The Great Gatsby,” marking the third and fourth time Martin has won an Oscar working on a film by her husband, director Baz Luhrmann. In addition to its acting wins, “Dallas Buyers Club” won best makeup and hairstyling, a foregone conclusion in a category whose other nominees were the critically maligned “Lone Ranger” and “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.”
“The Great Beauty” won the Academy Award for best foreign language film; the Felliniesque Italian film, exquisitely directed by Paolo Sorrentino, clearly struck a chord with Academy members, who cheered when its title was announced.
The ceremonies also seemed to mark an end to the fiddling in recent years with the Oscar night formula. The host, comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, seemed chosen as a likable low-key presence after the divisive performances of “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane last year and James Franco and Anne Hathaway in 2011.
The movie year’s breadth of intent was reflected as well in the six other nominees for best picture. “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “Philomena” were sharply acted dramas based on true stories; “Nebraska” was a wryly moving black-and-white drama about coming to terms with the past; and “Her” peered into the near future to mull over our relationships with technology. Finally, there was “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese’s grandly self-indulgent ode to Wall Street self-indulgence. This year, though, wretched excess did not seem to be on Oscar’s mind.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.