By Juan A. Ramirez, Staff Writer

The Academy managed to barrel through its 88th Awards telecast, despite a minefield of possible (and actual) embarrassments and a seeming lack of care for its nominees and their craft.

Amid the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Leonardo DiCaprio’s ferocious Best Actor campaign, Sunday night’s ceremony was destined to be a series of unpleasant situations: uncomfortably shoehorned activism, even more uncomfortable attempts by the Academy to right their alleged wrongs and either the happiest or saddest moment in DiCaprio’s career. With the stage set for a night of discomfort, not even the “politically correct” choice of Chris Rock as host could save this disappointing tribute to an excellent year in film.

Though almost irrelevant in 2016, Chris Rock managed to draw a few laughs during his hosting duties, even if the majority of his quips were not so much jokes as lazy talking points about racism in the industry. Capitalizing, yet not building upon the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which was centered around the lack of black acting nominees for the second year in a row, Rock had the unenviable position of being made the token black host of his own show. This task, along with the necessity to address such issues, albeit in a self-aware pass at comedy, fell flat most of the night.

Add to this the fact that winners are now expected to plug any sort of activism into their acceptance speeches, no matter how vague or loosely connected (accepting the Costume Design statuette, “Mad Max: Fury Road” designer Jenny Beavan warned of what could happen “if we stopped being kind to each other”). The pleas for change brought up are noble causes and when given a 30-second platform of mention, it seems cold to dismiss them, but their exaggerated overuse leads to a feeling of insincerity rather than urgency.

Moreover, they take away from what the Oscars are meant to celebrate: Film.

This year’s Best Picture nominees each had their fierce supporters, making for an excitingly even race which ended in the safe and sterile “Spotlight” taking home the night’s biggest award. Though technically excellent and packed with strong performances, “Spotlight,” a straightforward account of the Boston Globe journalists who uncovered a massive sexual abuse cover-up in 2002, seems tame compared to more ambitious nominees like “The Revenant” or “The Big Short,” which dove headfirst into new creative territory. If anything, the film seems more a median measure of the nominees rather than its best entry; in terms of drama excitement, “Spotlight” is firmly between the blaring audacity of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the quiet glory of “Brooklyn.”

In the field of winning streaks, Alejandro G. Iñárritu becoming the third director to win back-to-back Oscars will undoubtedly lead to his next film being at least twice as pompous and bombastic as “The Revenant” and last year’s “Birdman.” His cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, though facing tough competition in the Best Cinematography category, scored his third-consecutive win: A remarkable feat that will likely translate to further successes with his ingenious vision.

Leonardo DiCaprio, after five unsuccessful acting nominations, was finally handed his Best Actor statuette. Whether you see his performance in “The Revenant” as a miracle of true acting prowess or as an extended, dramatically charged episode of “Survivor,” his role in the film will likely be remembered as a breakthrough in endurance, both on-screen and off. On the opposite side of the acting spectrum, Brie Larson was awarded Best Actress for her emotionally powerful performance in “Room,” signaling that the Academy still respects more traditional achievements in acting.

Any observations or reflections on film and filmmaking, however, would have to be carefully thought through, as organic appreciation for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – what the Academy is meant to represent – was obscured by the uneasy specter of racial tension and the ever-present question of whether the Academy would address the issue earnestly. What we got instead was the most unsentimental non-apology in recent memory as Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs politely deflected blame to Hollywood itself, which she denounced for not providing enough opportunities for minorities to thrive. Her argument was sound and reasonable, though perhaps not the emotional and apologetic promise of change the public expected from her.

Musical performances this year ranged from the boring (Sam Smith nervously swaying through “Writings on the Wall”) to the exhilarating (Lady Gaga bringing actual survivors of sexual abuse onstage near the end of “Til It Happens to You”) but were mostly forgettable and still retained that air of “What’s going on?” that the rest of the night carried. The Weeknd’s performance of the sexy “Earned It” proved pop music was able to thrive in film, while Dave Grohl’s gentle voice and guitar during the “In Memoriam” segment, during which he covered The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” was drowned out by the mandatory orchestra.

Despite all these misgivings, perhaps the biggest sign of hope for progress within the Academy was neither racial nor socioeconomic but artistic. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a genuinely thrilling cinematic experience which could have been dismissed as an action-packed summer blockbuster, took home six awards – the most of the night – and was a serious contender for Best Picture. Though the Best Picture category usually reserves a spot for an audience favorite, the film’s accolades in six of the technical categories like Best Production Design and Film Editing reflect a change. The Academy is veering away from its usual “dead-serious dramas only” guidelines to a more culturally aware reflection of the film medium – one that takes into consideration both artistic merit and the cultural landscape in order to better represent both the industry and the people to which it caters.

Photo courtesy Robert Couse-Baker, Creative Commons