Oscars 2024: ‘Oppenheimer’ Wins Big, Canadians Shine and Historical Stories Take Centre Stage

Oscars 2024

Director Christopher Nolan's 'Oppenheimer' led the 2024 Academy Awards with seven wins, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Nolan) and Best Actor (Cillian Murphy). Photo: John Shearer / WireImage / Getty Images

Historical narratives and historically unrewarded talents won big at the Academy Awards on March 10, with the night’s best picture Oppenheimer leading the pack on both fronts. 

Christopher Nolan’s box office juggernaut about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the tortured mind behind the atom bomb, played with harrowing precision by Cillian Murphy, picked up five Oscars in total, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Murphy, 47, and Best Director for Nolan, 53.

“Movies are just a little bit over 100 years old,” said Nolan while accepting the directing prize. “Imagine being there 100 years into painting or theatre. We don’t know where this incredible journey is going from here. But to know that you think that I’m a meaningful part of it means the world to me.”

Nolan, the Hollywood titan behind The Dark Knight Trilogy and Interstellar, has never won an Oscar before Sunday, despite being nominated for blockbuster films like Dunkirk and Inception, as well as his time-shuffling 2000 breakout hit about a vengeful widower suffering from short term memory loss, Memento. 

Oppenheimer being the film that brought Nolan across the finish line makes sense when you consider how the film is especially tailored for the Oscars. The director has made period films in the past like The Prestige and Dunkirk, but never before made a historical biopic about a real-life influential figure, which the Academy tends to favour. Also, Nolan’s fusion of prestige drama and blockbuster cinema in Oppenheimer feels like a win for a bygone era, when sweeping historical epics from Lawrence of Arabia to Titanic and Schindler’s List regularly dominated.

And while Nolan’s long overdue win is deserved for what he pulls off in Oppenheimer alone, you can’t help but also feel that it is also recognition for the ways he champions a more classical cinematic experience, even when he’s dabbling in science fiction like with his time and brain-scrambling thriller Tenet. Throughout his work, Nolan prefers craft departments over computer effects, shoots in real landscapes on celluloid film instead of digital and pushes for large formats like 70MM and IMAX that incentivizes audiences to soak up the theatrical experiences effectively keeping the lights on at so many multiplexes. The Academy showed their gratitude.


Robert Downey Jr. Finally Gets His Due

Robert Downey Jr., another overdue talent on Oppenheimer’s team, picked up his first Oscar for his supporting performance as Lewis Strauss, the Atomic Energy Commission’s chairman who grew hostile towards Oppenheimer. Downey, 58, had incredibly stiff competition, beating out another Bobby D (Robert De Niro, 80) giving one of his finest performances in Killers of the Flower Moon and Canada’s Ryan Gosling, whose delightful performance from Barbie continued onto the Oscar stage during a live musical performance of his “I’m Just Ken.” 

As terrific as performance Downey’s performance in Oppenheimer is, his awards season sweep feels more like a crowning lifetime achievement recognition following a storied career arc filled with sweeping cliffs and valleys. The actor was first nominated 32-years-ago for playing Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, competing against Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Denzel Washington (Malcolm X) and Al Pacino, who won for Scent of a Woman. Downey’s career would only get more interesting. He appeared in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, though his struggles with the law and addiction would begin to consume his life around the time that he was alternating between generic Hollywood thrillers like U.S. Marshalls and indie projects like Two Girls and a Guy and Black & White. Downey acknowledged his recovery, during his acceptance speech, thanking his wife for finding him at that moment and his entertainment lawyer for bailing him out of jail during the period before he made his epic comeback, appearing in Shane Black’s buddy cop comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac and, of course, Iron Man.

Downey’s redemption story was essentially grafted onto morally bankrupt playboy turned superhero Tony Stark, whose charisma was the foundation the Marvel Cinematic Universe was built on. For better or for worse, Downey changed Hollywood, ushering in a new age of franchisee filmmaking that was built off his charm and humour. After spending a decade making Marvel movies, Downey ditched the Iron Man suit, put on a three-piece, returned to dramatic fare in Oppenheimer like a prodigal son and, on Sunday, picked up the Oscar that eluded him for three decades.

“I needed this job more than it needed me,” Downey quipped onstage.


Wars Past and Present

Alongside Oppenheimer, another Second World War adjacent narrative won a major prize. Best picture nominee The Zone of Interest, which is about the Nazi family in charge of Auschwitz, picked up the Best International Feature prize. The film also triumphed over Oppenheimer in the sound category, a recognition of The Zone of Interest’s unnerving methods. 

The film follows the Hoss family as they tend to daily duties, hosting garden parties or minding children, all while ignoring a chilling soundscape of cries, howls and gunfire emanating from the concentration camp on the other side of the wall. In one of the very few political speeches of the evening, director Jonathan Glazer, 58, spelled out how his film set 80 years in the past speaks to the same desensitization towards mass murder we’re seeing happening at this moment.

“All our choices were made to reflect and confront us in the present,” said Glazer, “not to say look what they did then, rather look what we do now … Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation that has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of Oct. 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims face dehumanization. How do we resist?”

Glazer’s speech stood out during an evening where even the filmmakers behind the animated short film, War is Over, stayed silent. Instead of speaking to the current war, they wished a “Happy Mother’s Day” (it’s Mother’s Day in the U.K.) to Yoko Ono, whose anti-war song with John Lennon, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” provides the inspiration and soundtrack to their film. 


Best Actress Upset

The big upset on Sunday night was Emma Stone’s win in the Best Lead Actress category. Stone, who previously won the award in 2017 for La La Land, nabbed the prize for her outrageous performance as a Frankenstein-ish creation in the Victoria-era fantasy Poor Things. 

While her victory wasn’t entirely a surprise in a very tight race, many were rooting for Lily Gladstone, 37, to make history by winning for her incredibly soulful performance as Molly Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon. Gladstone is the first Native American to be nominated in an acting category and would have been the first Indigenous woman to win. Thus far, Russell Crowe (Gladiator), who is partly of Māori descent, is the only Indigenous actor to win an Oscar.


Canucks in Tinseltown

Canadians were well represented at the ceremony, between Catherine O’Hara, 70, showing up as a presenter, director Ben Proudfoot winning his second Oscar for Best Documentary Short for The Last Repair Shop, and Ryan Gosling bringing down the house with his performance of I’m Just Ken.

The Barbie actor from London, Ontario, who also had fun playing up the Barbenheimer feud as a presenter opposite Oppenheimer star Emily Blunt, wore a hot pink suit with rhinestones and impressed with his live singing that reminded everyone that he has a musical background from his days as part of The Mickey Mouse Club. The sensational performance, which also featured guitar legend Slash, 58, and fellow Canadian Barbie star Simu Liu, also tipped its hat to movie history with a stage design borrowed from Marilyn Monroe’s famous musical number Gentleman Prefer Blondes. 

I’m Just Ken didn’t end up winning an Oscar – the award for Best Song went to Billie Eilish’s Barbie number What Was I Made For – but the performance clearly stole the show.

Later, when Emma Stone took the stage to accept her Best Actress Oscar, she noted, “My dress is broken,” revealing the snapped zipper in the back of her off-white dress. 

Then she quipped, “I think it happened during, I’m Just Ken.”


Revelling in Nostalgia 

The show itself delighted in reliving the past. Every acting category brought out five previous winners, not just last year’s but beyond, each who would speak for one among the new nominees. Among them were Mary Steenburgen, 71, Sally Field, 77, Ben Kingsley, 80, Tim Robbins, 65 and Rita Moreno, 92, the West Side Story star who became the first Latina to win an Oscar. In a lovely call back, Moreno sang the first words to her West Side Story solo America to introduce a fellow trailblazing Latina, Barbie’s supporting actress nominee America Ferrera.

Beetlejuice stars Michael Keaton, 72, and Catherine O’Hara, 70, (who also star in the upcoming sequel Beetlejuice Beetlejuice) reunited on stage to remind everyone of their comedic chops while introducing the make-up and production design categories which were both won by the Victorian-era fantasy with a gothic aesthetic, Poor Things.

They were followed onstage by reuniting Twins co-stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, 76, and Danny DeVito, 79, got some belly laughs pointing out that they both played Batman villains in the past, Mr. Freeze and the Penguin respectively. They pointed out that Batman was in the audience, pointing to Keaton, before the three stars exchanged a hilarious round of cut-eye. These bits never got old.


Legendary Winners and Nominees

Hayao Miyazaki, 83, the Japanese animator behind My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and previous Best Animated Feature winner Spirited Away, took home the prize again for The Boy and The Heron. The swan song about a young child exploring the spirit world, where the borders between nature and technology tend to blur, expands on the motifs and themes that Miyazaki has been toying with throughout a career that dates back to the 1970s.

Another Japanese legend who made it to the winners circle is … Godzilla! The creature, which made its debut in the eponymous 1954 movie, spawned a decades-spanning franchise that was nominated for and won its first Oscar in the visual effects category for this latest entry, Godzilla Minus One, a period piece stomping its way back to the post-Second World War nuclear fallout that made way for the original Godzilla. Fitting that Godzilla would win this year, alongside atomic bedfellow Oppenheimer.

There were also several legends among the nominees, many nominated for Killers of the Flower Moon, including the aforementioned De Niro, director Martin Scorsese, 81, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, 84, legendary production designer Jack Fisk, 78, and Canadian composer Robbie Robertson, who passed away last summer at 80. Robertson, was in the Original Score category with John Williams, 92, who picked up his 54th nomination for Indiana Jones and The Dial Of Destiny breaking two of his own records, for oldest ever nominee and most nominated living person.

For the full list of 2024 Oscar winners, visit the official Academy Awards website.