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Top 5 Surprises of National Film Critics Awards

The Ghost Writer

Yes, The Social Network won the big National Society of Film Critics awards (picture, director, actor, screenplay) Saturday. But The Ghost Writer, The Fighter and The King's Speech did better than you think. Could they change the Oscar vote?

Usually, the 61 NSFC eggheads don't predict what will win Oscar's best picture. The two best picture awards (NSFC and Oscar) have an 11.1111 percent chance of coinciding. But the goose-step unanimity of the big critics from New York to LA may make King's Speech voters feel out of step and improve those odds. "Votingwise, I think it's been a dull consensus year, with The Social Network the Schindler's List of 2010," says NFSFC voter Richard T. Jameson, former editor of Film Comment. "I was delighted, though, to see enough support for The Ghost Writer to put it on top of the board in several categories and, hallelujah!, cop the supporting actress scroll for [previously extreme Oscar longshot] Olivia Williams." And now that, as pundit Sasha Stone tweets, "The Academy does listen to critics more than they used to, since 2005 [when Million Dollar Baby won 4 Oscars]," that could hint at upsets to come.

Here's how Williams's film's wins rank among NSFC's 2010 surprises:

1. The Ghost Writer may have more than the ghost of a chance. Critics are shedding some of their irrelevance in Academy eyes, vaulting The Hurt Locker to glory last year. Will Oscar voters give Roman Polanski's head-trip thriller a last-minute look now that Olivia Williams startlingly beat Amy Adams, Oscar frontrunner Melissa Leo and previously more-touted longshot Jacki Weaver for supporting actress? Especially since they were more enthused about Williams (37 voting points) than they were about more widely publicized best actor winner Jesse Eisenberg (30 points)?  Or Geoffrey Rush, supporting actor winner (33 points)?

Polanski came in third for director after Network's David Fincher and Oscar-ineligible Carlos' Olivier Assayas, and (with Robert Harris), third after Network's Aaron Sorkin and King's Speech's David Seidler for screenplay, too. Ghosts arise! You may have more heat than you suppose.

Also: NSFC hints at the relative strength of Social Network's contenders, at least as far as critical influence goes. They were more than twice as enthusiastic about director Fincher (66 points) as his star Eisenberg (30), and still wilder about writer Sorkin (73 points). Does this mean Fincher has double Eisenberg's Oscar odds, and Sorkin more? Not precisely. But significantly double-ish.

2. As Mussolini's spurned secret squeeze in Vincere, Giovanna Mezzogiorno stole best actress from Annette Bening and Lesley Manville. A surprise, but all it means is more evidence of Bening's Oscar frontrunnerness, and Manville keeps getting honors that do almost but heartbreakingly just shy of enough to give her the firm shove she needs to break out of the maybe zone.

3. Colin Firth practically tied with Jesse Eisenberg for best actor. Every critics' group is a pro-Social Network kangaroo court, and Firth only lost by one point (29 to 30). Oscar voters are apt to give Firth a wider margin of victory (which AMPAS will never reveal, the spoilsports).

4. Jeremy Renner practically tied with Geoffrey Rush and Christian Bale for supporting. Well, almost. Rush only beat Bale 33 voting points to 32, and Renner got 30. So maybe Renner is more of a spoiler than we thought. Depending on what Oscar thinks of this tight race. They're more apt to be swept off their feet by a dramatic, massively, incessantly publicized sweep, like The Social Network's. Read the fine print, people.

5. The Ghost Writer practically tied with The King's Speech, and The Fighter with The Ghost Writer. Well, almost. If we count total voting-score points in all categories instead of the usual measure of success, the number of #1 wins, it looks like this:

The King's Speech: 87 points

The Ghost Writer: 85 points

The Fighter: 83 points

But NSFC wants you to watch The Social Network (230 points) and Carlos (124 points) way more. "I'd surely rather see Social Network take another best pic come Oscar night than have King's Speech prevail," says Jameson. "I don't feel the inevitability for King's, even if it's almost the Platonic-ideal prototype (if that's not a contradiction in terms) of The Kind of Movie That Wins the Oscar For Almost Entirely Wrong Reasons. Not that it's a bad whatever-it-is...and there's much to enjoy. But a movie? No."

One caveat on The Fighter's apparent good score: Most of it is Amy Adams' 28 points and Melissa Leo's 23, and both can't win. Interesting that Adams outscores Leo; most pundits put their odds the other way around.

Another surprise to come: If Olivia Williams does win supporting actress, she'll have to hand the trophy over to Polanski, as she she promised. Williams said at a November screening, "He acts the scene for you. And if you don't copy what he does, he goes, 'No! Like this,' -- pause, movement, intonation, the works. So the prize for any performance really does go to Roman."

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