The one thing I realized as Oscar night droned on and on for nearly four hours: If I ever had to choose someone to be stranded with for hours on end (say, like those poor Jet Blue passengers a few weeks ago), it would have to be Ellen DeGeneres.

Keeping her cool, and her genuine aura of chipper goodwill, throughout three costume changes (in suits from red velvet to all-white to royal blue) and what seemed once again like an overindulgent excess of movie montages (we definitely could have done without Michael Mann's fuzzy survey of cinematic American history), Ellen was welcome nearly every time she popped up. Offering a spec script to Martin Scorsese, directing Steven Spielberg on how to take her photo with Clint Eastwood, asking the megastars in the front row to lift their legs as she vacuumed the Kodak past midnight (ET), while informing us that Helen Mirren had just asked for a rum and coke (sounded pretty good to me at the time), Ellen did her darndest to deflate the bloat and pomposity that infects nearly every Oscar telecast.

She's not a showstopper like Billy Crystal (who probably is the host with the most in our modern era). She's more likely to beguile than wow you. But she's never vulgar, and is well suited to this classy venue, more inclined to celebrate (with a tambourine and gospel choir) than to mock, as has been the recent example set by hosts like Jon Stewart and Chris Rock. Ellen's few political barbs were gentle, not strident. (Loved how she compared Jennifer Hudson to Al Gore in terms of persevering after controversial votes.) Given the refreshing diversity of this year's nominees, Ellen was also a very appropriate and historic choice. As she noted: "If there weren't blacks, Jews and gays, there would be no Oscars. Or anyone named Oscar, if you think about it." (It's that sort of last little absurd aside that Ellen does better than anyone.)

There's no question this year's show went on way too long, but that's nothing new. This was still a classier event than most, and at least there were many creative moments to capture our fancy, from the shadow art of the Pilobolus dance troupe to the choir that sang in sound effects. The sensational "Comedian at the Oscars" number (co-written by the reliable Marc Shaiman), featuring Will Farrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly, helped elevate the first hour, which was heavy on the "boring" awards we usually are forced to sit through during the show's middle portion.

Besides Scorsese, who finally won his long-overdue Oscar (so what if it wasn't for his best movie?), the star of the night was probably Al Gore, whose An Inconvenient Truth won two Oscars (including an upset in the Best Song category against three tunes from the largely snubbed Dreamgirls). Has a documentary ever won a musical award as well? Gore and his influential documentary got plenty of props from the crowd, and one of the best gags was when the orchestra played him off as he began to issue (jokingly) the big presidential announcement Leonardo DiCaprio was urging him to make.

The night's most stirring acceptance speech was a bit of a surprise, coming from Forest Whitaker, who in every televised awards show up to this had mumbled and stumbled each time at the podium. Goes to show you: Everything else is just a warm-up for the Oscars. Well done, Mr. Whitaker. (I still regret him being passed over last season for his work on The Shield.)

Still, the undisputed big moment of the night, a major snapshot of cinema history, was Scorsese's win, which notably occurred after all the acting awards (all but one, Alan Arkin's, a no-brainer) were handed out. Everyone knew he was the star of the night, and rightly so. How very cool for the "three amigos" of 70s cinema (Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg) to be there to bestow the Oscar on their contemporary and friend. Scorsese understandably was overjoyed: "Could you double-check the envelope?" Seriously. When you think he was denied Oscars for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, upstaged by more populist hits like Rocky and Ordinary People, you can understand his sheepish glee.

But in a year without a front-runner best-picture favorite, this was Scorsese's time to shine. And with a bald Jack Nicholson in the wings to help cheer him on, it did feel like a 70s coronation. All that was missing was Robert De Niro.

Finally, if this year's Oscars was good for anything, it may be to shine a spotlight on the film that got the second most trophies of the night (behind The Departed). That would be the brilliant dark fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, which in many ways may have been the actual best picture of 2006. (I'm hoping to see the German best-picture winner, The Lives of Others, very soon, which emerged late in the game as the front-runner in that category, despite Labyrinth's multiple nominations and dominance in certain creative arenas like art direction and cinematography.)

Pan's Labyrinth is every bit as good as it looks, way more satisfying than the overrated Babel. And best yet, it's only half as long as the Oscar ceremony.