By Ken Tucker
Updated March 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

An Academy Awards show that gives proper due to everyone from Katharine Hepburn to avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage; that ridicules five-second delays, Jack Valenti, and the bogeyman of film piracy; that possesses the quick-wittedness to cut to Sean Connery sitting in the audience cracking up at Jack Black and Will Ferrell — well, the usual Oscar sarcasm fails me.

Nope, I wasn’t bored or annoyed for a minute. (Well, okay: I wasn’t an admirer of Adrien Brody’s nonstop kiss last year, and for him to try to milk it again — stepping on Charlize Theron’s moment of glory — that was a pain in the butt. Brody is now officially the thinking cineast’s Roberto Benigni.) And the 76th annual Oscars paid off in every way possible: It offered the spectacle of a sweep for a film that pleased multimillions (when was the last time you heard a Best Picture producer thank ”the fans”?); one salute that was subtle and classy (Tom Hanks’ variation on Bob Hope’s setup phrase ”I wanna tell ya” preceding a nice selection of Hope’s Oscar moments) and another that was gleefully crass (Jim Carrey conspiring with honorary-Oscar’d Blake Edwards to pull off an Inspector Clouseau-ish wheelchair gag). All this, plus some political rabble-rousing guaranteed to bubble up at watercoolers the day after (thank you to Sean Penn for not being able to resist, and to documentarian Errol Morris for his unfogged comments about war, followed by host Billy Crystal’s crystalline capper about these being ”scary times”).

Crystal’s flawless opening performance, inserting himself into the best-pic nominees, was terrifically pointed (Miramax’s Weinstein brothers as ”evil wizards”), as were the parody songs that referenced everyone from Janet Jackson to Truman Capote; Crystal has located the perfect middle ground between Steve Martin’s adroit silliness and Whoopi Goldberg’s unapologetic hamminess. And first-time producer Joe Roth offered that rarest quality in an Oscar broadcast: a sense of pacing. The music performances, usually arduous segments scattered through the program or clumped together awkwardly, were artfully deployed, permitting Alison Krauss to deliver two heavenly vocals and Annie Lennox one, then waiting until later to give Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara time to deliver the impeccable poker-faced joke as Mitch & Mickey from A Mighty Wind. Even the incidental music, like Black and Ferrell’s rascally application of lyrics to the playing-off music that usually bedevils winners, was a gift.

Inevitably, there are disappointments about the winners and losers: I was rooting for Diane Keaton, and who didn’t want to hear Bill Murray’s speech, even as we knew this was Penn’s year? Nevertheless, this Oscar telecast managed to do what Hollywood may not have: convince us that this was a great year for the movies.