Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.
(CNN) -- A movie that offended almost no one, transgressed no historical fact or sociopolitical milieu and inspired every craftsperson in Hollywood to build his or her own giant pussycat (or some rough equivalent) proved to be the biggest surprise of Sunday night's Academy Awards -- without winning best picture.
"Life of Pi" did win four Oscars, including the best director prize for Ang Lee that probably should have gone to Ben Affleck (his movie, "Argo," got the best picture Oscar everyone expected it to get, along with one for best adapted screenplay and one for best editing.)
And by the way, here's a flash for you people who think best picture really means best picture. There are, and always have been, two criteria for a movie getting the Academy Awards' top prize and they have little, if anything, to do with whether it's really the year's best movie ... or even a very good movie.
1. It's a movie whose success will somehow benefit as many people in the movie industry as possible. Or ...
2. It's a movie that somehow reflects Hollywood's best image of itself.
When both these factors are in play, the movie is unstoppable. So it should have been obvious from the beginning that "Argo" was going to nab that one, even without its pre-Oscar haul of prizes from such trade organizations as the Screen Actors, Producers and Directors guilds. Its issues of historical accuracy aside (and conceded from the start by Affleck and others), the movie's a crisp little nail-biter that easily sells itself to the international marketplace, which remains the final frontier for American commercial cinema. That takes care of criterion No. 1.
And as for No 2 -- well, duh! Movie producers are the heroes who help save the lives of helpless Americans trapped in revolutionary Iran. What's more flattering to Hollywood's self-image than that?
If not for that, it's entirely possible that Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's mystical adventure would have picked everyone's pocket Sunday night. Even Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," whose focus on how the idealistic-but-pragmatic president battled intransigent legislators over constitutional banishment of slavery, carried enough contemporary resonance to make it an early favorite in the year of Barack Obama's re-election.
But "Pi's" bargain-basement metaphysics is like organic fruit salad to the collective Hollywood mindset, irrespective of ideology. And the various trades in movie land from the production designers to the boom operators were likely jazzed by "Pi's" technological achievements, notably the digitally enhanced Bengal tiger that even the movie's harsher critics believed to have stolen the movie from its human actors.
The only other (mildly) unexpected incident Sunday night came with Quentin Tarantino's Oscar for best original screenplay for his cheeky, incendiary antebellum satire, "Django Unchained." Most of the flak Tarantino caught for the movie came from African-Americans, who believed he was at best presumptuous and at worst defamatory in playing fast and loose with the history of American slavery.
Those who stood up to cheer the most emphatically when presenter Dustin Hoffman announced Tarantino's name were African-American actors in the film, including Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington. As usual, we'll have to wait another 20 years to see which of these movies endures beyond their varied contemporary controversies.
Oh and by the by -- Sunday night's Oscar telecast was as embarrassing as it always is, and not even host Seth MacFarlane's attempts to cover up the embarrassments by commenting about how embarrassed he was couldn't conceal the fact that, yet again, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences has failed to make its annual pageant appealing to younger audiences without alienating its older patrons.
It would seem the only way to pull that off would be to play things safe while seeming to be rebellious. And Hollywood's usually pretty good at playing pretend games like that -- except when it's not.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.