Manic Monday: What to Make of the Gothams, New York Film Critics, PGA and Annies

THR's awards analyst puts a busy first day of December into some context
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Richard Linklater and the 'Boyhood' team accept the audience award at the Gothams.

December kicked off with a flurry on Monday — not of snow, but of awards announcements: Boyhood dominates the voting for the New York Film Critics Circle Awards! Birdman upsets Boyhood at the Gotham Independent Film Awards! The Boxtrolls lands a field-leading 13 Annie Award nominations! Citizenfour bags prizes from the New York Film Critics and at the Gothams!

In case you couldn't tell from the headlines, awards season is in full swing. But the question that few industry folks looked up from their smartphones long enough to ponder is this one: Do any of these awards actually offer a hint about the state of the race for the award that everyone wants most of all, the Oscar? The answer, I'm sorry to report, is no.

See more 2014 Gotham Awards Red Carpet: 'Boyhood' Team, Jake Gyllenhaal, Scarlett Johansson Take Manhattan

Forgive me for reminding you, but last year American Hustle was the big winner at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards (it ended up winning exactly zero Oscars), Inside Llewyn Davis took home the top prize at the Gothams (ditto), Despicable Me 2 led the Annies field (it ended up losing the best animated feature Oscar to Frozen) and The Act of Killing was the doc that couldn't miss (until, that is, it lost the best documentary feature Oscar to 20 Feet From Stardom).

None of this is to suggest that today's big winners can't or won't fare better on Feb. 22, 2015 — in fact, I happen to think, at the moment, that Boyhood, Birdman and Citizenfour will all be taking home big prizes. But any overlap between the selections of today's awards-dispensing groups and those of the Academy will be purely coincidental.

Read more Feinberg Forecast: 'Tis the Season for a Wide-Open Oscar Race

Why?

The Producers Guild of America's documentary noms — which were also announced Monday and included Steve James' film about Roger Ebert, Life Itself — are determined by producers, who account for only a small percentage of the Academy's documentary branch, which determines the nominees for the best documentary feature Oscar. Annie noms are determined by animators, who do also determine the best animated feature and best animated short Oscar nominees — but the Annies' voting rolls are disproportionately stacked with studio employees and nominate so many films in their major categories that they don't really clarify the standings at all. The NYFCC honors achievement in a wide variety of categories that also exist at the Oscars, but there are precisely zero film critics in the Academy, so their picks don't offer much insight either. And then there's the Gotham Awards, the nominees for which reflect nothing more than the tastes of three five-person committees comprised of "film critics, journalists, festival programmers and film curators" (not groups of people represented within the Academy), and the winners of which were subsequently determined by "separate juries of writers, directors, actors, producers, editors and others directly involved in making films" (some of whom are also members of the Academy, but who, in this case, could pick only from the limited pool of nominees that had been handed to them by others).

Why, then, do people still value the aforementioned sort of recognition? Because each awards season is packed with way more contenders than most non-pundits will ever even see — my own sense is that most Academy members watch only 12 to 15 of them — which means that a filmmaker needs any and every bit of help he can get to separate his film from the pack of others and maybe then motivate someone to check it out. (If that doesn't happen en masse, forget about landing a nom.) Being celebrated by heavily covered awards-dispensing groups like those that announced news today increases the likelihood that Academy members will hear about a film in a positive enough light to make them check it out for themselves. In other words, it's all about perception — which, of course, can sometimes become reality.

Read more Gotham Awards: The Winners' Reactions

So what and who gained the most on this Manic Monday, at least in terms of perception?

Certainly Boyhood, which was made over the course of 12 years without bankable stars by a quirky director for virtually no money and then released in the middle of the year. As you might have guessed, it needs some lovin', and it got that on Monday from the NYFCC (which tapped it for best film, Richard Linklater for best director and Patricia Arquette for best supporting actress). And it also got a boost from members of the public, who voted it the Gotham audience award, which is, in some ways, more meaningful than the best feature award that it lost, in something of an upset, to Birdman.

See more The Making of 'Boyhood' With Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane

Birdman certainly had a good day, too, not just because it won that prize, but because of the reception accorded its star, Michael Keaton, who also won at the Gothams. There, he gave a killer speech — which is not always the case — and was name-checked in the most flattering of ways there by Alejandro G. (where have you gone, "Gonzalez"?) Inarritu during the director's speech accepting the best feature prize, with the filmmaker calling him "the best actor I've worked with."

Foxcatcher also got a nice boost, with Meryl Streep strongly endorsing it at the Gothams en route to presenting it with a special award for its ensemble — just as Jonah Hill did at the Hollywood Film Awards — whereupon Steve Carell, the only member of said ensemble in attendance, gave a very funny speech. The film's director, Bennett Miller, also received a career tribute at the same ceremony. (Last week's announcement of the Spirit Award noms also brought the news that Foxcatcher will receive another special honor at that awards show, despite it being ineligible, due to its budget, for recognition in the main categories.)

Also, Snowpiercer's supporting actress Tilda Swinton received the sole standing ovation at the Gotham Awards — she was there to receive a career tribute, like Miller — following a raucously funny intro from Amy Schumer, of all people. It's worth a watch.

But nobody had more to celebrate than the team behind Citizenfour, Laura Poitras' up-close look at Edward Snowden, which became the first doc ever to win both NYFCC and Gotham awards on top of receiving Spirit Award, IDA and Cinema Eye Honors noms. The fact that it was denied a nom by the PGA is less "bad news" for it than helpful news for the five films that landed one — if, that is, they make the Oscar shortlist, voting for which already closed. If both Citizenfour and Life Itself do make the shortlist, Life Itself, which, oddly, hadn't even been nominated by any major awards group except the Gothams, could pose the biggest Oscar threat to the frontrunner.

Still Alice's Julianne Moore won the best actress Gotham Award, as was expected (beating Arquette, who was entered and nominated in that category, despite being pushed for a supporting actress Oscar elsewhere, because the Gothams do not have supporting acting categories). But Moore came up just short with the NYFCC, which opted to instead fete Marion Cotillard for her extraordinary work in two indies that have struggled to gain traction, Two Days, One Night and The Immigrant. It could boost Cotillard's chances in the weak Oscar field for the category — but for which film?

Read more Gotham Red Carpet: 'Boyhood' Team, Bennett Miller and Tilda Swinton Surprised By Honors

Others championed by the NYFCC included several widely presumed Oscar frontrunners — Whiplash's J.K. Simmons for best supporting actor, The Lego Movie for best animated film and the Polish black-and-white drama Ida for best foreign film — plus Mr. Turner's Timothy Spall for best actor, the Wes Anderson-penned screenplay for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Darius Khondji's lensing work on The Immigrant for best cinematography and Jennifer Kent's The Babadook for best first feature. (The good folks at IFC, who are distributing Boyhood, Two Days, One Night and The Babadook, had plenty of cause for celebration!)

Oh, and one more thing — in a fair and just world, Tessa Thompson, who won the best breakthrough actor Gotham Award for her performance in Dear White People, would be a major best actress Oscar contender. Instead, she may have to settle for being "just" a great actress and a future star.

The awards season barrage will continue on Tuesday with the release of the Academy's shortlist of 15 titles for the best documentary feature Oscar (although I'm told it could be pushed to Wednesday) plus, in New York, the announcement of the National Board of Review Awards honorees, the first promotional events for the just-unveiled Unbroken (with director Angelina Jolie in tow) and a series of distributor "holiday parties" at which talent and press will mix, mingle and do their best to be merry in the midst of all this insanity.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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