In a contest between films that touched the heart and movies that swaggered with craft, the Oscars went for craft: Alejandro Iñárritu's "Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" won best picture of 2014 at the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday night. The film, a fantastical black comedy about a has-been Hollywood actor trying to make a comeback on Broadway, also took home awards for director, original screenplay, and cinematography.
Referring to last year's best director winner, Alfonso Cuarón of "Gravity," Iñárritu joked "Two Mexicans in a row? That's suspicious," before thanking all the people who helped him realize "this crazy idea." The crowded stage included star Michael Keaton, who many thought would take home the best actor statue.
Instead, Eddie Redmayne won best actor for his physically and emotionally taxing performance as physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." "I am fully aware I am a lucky, lucky man," said the British actor, who did a jig of delight before dedicating his award to those suffering from ALS, Hawking, and his family.
The best actress Oscar went to Julianne Moore for her portrayal of a woman struggling with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in "Still Alice." "There's no such thing as 'best actress,' as is evidenced by the performances of my fellow nominees," said a breathless Moore before thanking her co-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, the latter of whom is battling ALS.
The ceremonies, hosted by actor and perpetual emcee Neil Patrick Harris and held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, were a mix of glitz, class, awkwardness, genuine weirdness — Lady Gaga singing a medley of songs from "The Sound of Music," approved by Julie Andrews herself? — and more than the usual touch of politics. Patricia Arquette won best supporting actress for Richard Linklater's much-loved "Boyhood" (the film's one win out of six nominations), in which she plays the mother of the main character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane). Accepting her award, a refreshingly down-to-earth Arquette made a heartfelt plea for women's rights and wage equality.
Perhaps the evening's most poignant topical moment came with the win for best song for "Glory," from "Selma," which was sung earlier in the ceremonies in a version that reduced the assembled glitterati to tears. "Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is now. . . . March on," said John Legend, who performed the song with Common, in accepting the award.
The Oscar for best supporting actor was won by J.K. Simmons for his portrayal of a mesmerizingly manipulative music professor in "Whiplash." The victory was expected and much anticipated — cheers rang through the theater as Simmons took the stage — and it represented a rare trophy for one of the movie business's least-acknowledged, hardest-working subsets, the character actors.
Accepting the award, Simmons thanked "the most wonderful person I know, my wife, Michelle Schumacher" and their "above-average children" before urging the audience and everyone watching to call their parents immediately.
In terms of numbers, the evening's big winner, besides "Birdman," was Wes Anderson's meticulous Mittel-European comedy-drama "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which also won four Oscars out of nine nominations. That film's awards came for production design, original score, costume design, and makeup and hairstyling. The costume Oscar marked the fourth win for Milena Canonero, whose first Academy Award was for Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" in 1975. The original score win for Alexandre Desplat is the prolific composer's first victory in eight nominations; this year, he even competed against himself with his score for "The Imitation Game."
"Citizenfour," directed by Massachusetts native Laura Poitras, won the Oscar for documentary feature, an expected triumph that did little to mitigate the importance of the film's message. Thanking her film's subject, Edward Snowden, and others like him for their courage, Poitras said, "The disclosures that Edward Snowden revealed don't only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy as well."
Perhaps the most unpredictable Oscar category this year was animated feature. Early in the awards season, "The LEGO Movie" was widely viewed as the front-runner but wasn't even nominated. Dreamworks' "How to Train Your Dragon 2" was nominated and was predicted by many to be the likely winner — but Disney's "Big Hero 6" ended up taking the prize. It was a good night for the Mouse House: The Oscar for animated short was won by "Feast," a charming Disney cartoon that hearkens back to the studio's glory days.
One notable aspect of this year's Academy Awards has been the large number of nominated films that in previous years would have been considered too out of the mainstream. Linklater and Anderson have each been working for two decades and have audiences that are larger than cult-size, yet their appearance in the best picture and director categories still came as a shock. (Iñárritu has been there before, but only once, for 2007's "Babel.") "Whiplash," from the 30-year-old Harvard graduate Damien Chazelle, was a Sundance sensation that was nominated for five Oscars and won three, for editing, sound mixing, and the supporting actor award won by Simmons.
In fact, of the eight best picture nominees, only "The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game," about the WWII code-breaker Alan Turing, seemed like typical Oscar fare: lavishly produced, impeccably acted, British. Nominated for eight Oscars, "Imitation Game" won only one, for best adapted screenplay, but Graham Moore's emotional acceptance speech recalling his suicidal adolescence was a highlight of the evening.
The award for foreign language film went to Poland's "Ida," a stark, exquisitely shot period drama about a young nun probing her family's past in the Holocaust. The Oscar for documentary short went to "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1," about an organization dedicated to helping veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), "The Phone Call," a striking British film starring Sally Hawkins as a suicide-hotline volunteer, won the award for live-action short.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of around 6,000 working members of the film industry, with branches representing all major crafts, from acting and directing to sound and costume design.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.