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BAFTA's surprises are a breath of fresh air

Bravo, BAFTAs. The 2014 awards perfectly captured how the BAFTAs have to straddle the line of honouring the best films of the year globally while still recognizing British work.

Some years BAFTA seems to recognize exactly the same people who will win Oscars, and therefore BAFTA just feels like a bit of an Oscars warmup. That’s certainly not the case this year, as the BAFTAs felt especially relevant and BAFTA voters showed their unique worldview. This was a show that impressed on its own unique merits; and there were quite a few surprises amongst the winners, and they were all a breath of fresh air. The American prognosticators who analyse BAFTA simply as a predictor of Oscar glory are missing the point, these are awards that deserve to stand on their own. This year more than usual.

The editors of Rush taking a BAFTA? Unexpected but hugely deserved, and a bold choice by BAFTA voters. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope winning Adapted Screenplay for Philomena was another surprise, perhaps showing some British bias amongst voters, but it’s a script I was blown away by even before it won Venice’s best script award, and certainly a worthy winner.

BAFTA voters also seem more willing than Oscar voters to celebrate singular achievement on a film that’s not leading the pack. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby wasn’t an across-the-board hit nominated in the main categories, so it was even more thrilling to see Catherine Martin celebrated for the film’s sumptuous costumes and production design.

In addition, BAFTA voters over the years seem more ready than AMPAS members to celebrate new talent – this year it was a thrill to see Somali-born, US-based Barkhad Abdi [pictured] celebrated as Best Supporting Actor for his first-ever film role in Captain Phillips. (A pity that another new talent, Lupita Nyong’o, didn’t join him in the winners circle.)

While a bit of British pride is good in many instances, it’s also important that it doesn’t overly cloud judgment. For instance, Cate Blanchett deservedly won Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, it was her year and good on BAFTA voters for not just blindly backing national treasure Emma Thompson.

And sometimes BAFTA can make up for Oscars’ wrongs — last year Ben Affleck won best director for Argo without even landing an Oscar nomination, and this year the American Hustle team won the BAFTA for hair and make up (it’s still a big mystery how they didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar).

I still stand by my opinion that the Best British Film category should be revamped to celebrate films more akin to The Selfish Giant than Gravity. But how great to see so many of the British craftsmen who made Gravity honoured for their work across six wins. Plus Alfonso Cuaron gallantly paid tribute to all the British ‘below stairs’ talent who made his film possible, just as much as he lauded Sandra Bullock.

The show itself felt finely paced (not as bloated as the Oscars), and suitably classy with Stephen Fry again hosting. Speeches weren’t just mindless thanks to agents, managers and higher powers – Steve McQueen talked about modern slavery; The Act of Killing’s Joshua Oppenheimer spoke about Western governments’ role in Indonesia’s past genocide. Poignantly, Cate Blanchett paid tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Dame Helen Mirren, receiving the BAFTA Fellowship, made a point to celebrate the teachers that inspire creative lives (she even went so far as to the starry crowd to raise their hands remembering teachers that influenced them.) Peter Greenaway called on people to continue to reinvent cinema.

Fry himself ended the show with a call for anyone watching at home to get into filmmaking, that there don’t have to be barriers for entry — what a wonderful sentiment to remember alongside the glamorous dresses on the red carpet.

Also, Tinie Tempah high-fived Prince William. You won’t see THAT at the Oscars.

See the winners here and their on-stage remarks here.

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