Who Got a Boost from the National Board of Review Nominations?

THR's awards analyst dissects the group's eclectic selection of honorees
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in J.C. Chandor's 'A Most Violent Year'

In addition to the Academy's announcement of the shortlist for the best documentary feature Oscar (read my take here), Tuesday also brought the news of the National Board of Review's selections for the 86th annual NBR Awards, which will be handed out during a gala fundraiser at Cipriani on Jan. 6.

Like the barrage of awards handled out on Monday, those given by the NBR don't really offer any real indication of how Oscar voters are thinking. (The NBR is comprised of "knowledgeable film enthusiasts and professionals, academics, young filmmakers and students," few if any of whom are also members of the Academy.) Still, their endorsement — and the opportunity for the winners to accept a prize and give a speech at their ceremony — are highly valued by contenders because they result in a considerable amount of media coverage that might motivate Oscar voters to give them greater consideration.

For that reason, the biggest beneficiary of today's NBR announcement is clearly J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year, a critically-acclaimed gritty drama about an immigrant businessman that has been cheered by critics but struggled to gain much awards traction — until today, that is, when it was picked as best film and both of its stars, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, also took home prizes (best actor, in a tie with Birdman's Michael Keaton, and best supporting actress, respectively). Chastain, in particular, could get a boost from this and become a stronger contender for the best supporting actress Oscar — for which she is competing with herself, among others, for her work in Interstellar.

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Today's NBR news further cemented Birdman's Keaton and Still Alice's Julianne Moore as the frontrunners in the lead acting Oscar races (both also took home prizes at last night's Gotham Awards), although the male category strikes me as much more fluid than the female one, and I'd be careful about writing off the year's five preeminent stars of biopics: Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything, Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper for American Sniper and David Oyelowo for Selma.

The NBR certainly boosted Birdman's Edward Norton by giving him their supporting actor prize (Whiplash's J.K. Simmons claimed the New York Film Critics Circle's yesterday). Unbroken's Jack O'Connell got a nice nod, as well, for best breakthrough performance — but that generally serves as a consolation prize for someone who did great work but is unlikely to get nominated at the end of the day (as was the case with last year's recipient, Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan).

It was no surprise to see Argentina's Wild Tales win best foreign film or Steve James' Roger Ebert portrait Life Itself win best doc — both are regarded as clear frontrunners. (What was quite impressive to me was that all five other docs highlighted by the NBR — Art and Craft, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Keep On Keepin’ On, The Kill Team and Last Days in Vietnam — also made the doc Oscar shortlist.)

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Some other picks, however, were really out of left field: The LEGO Movie cracking the NBR's top 10 list and winning best original screenplay was surprising enough — but the fact that they then gave How to Train Your Dragon 2 their best animated film prize is just plain confusing. Equally baffling is the group's decision to bestow the best adapted screenplay prize — and a spot on the top 10 list — to Inherent Vice, a film that has been largely written off as incoherent by most. (This is probably as much an acknowledgement of Thomas Pynchon's source novel of the same title as the film itself.)

Expect to laugh at the ceremony when Chris Rock collects the Spotlight Award for writing, directing and starring in Top Five; when Gillian Robespierre is presented with the best directorial debut prize for Obvious Child, which also claimed a spot on the list of the top 10 indies — particularly if its star, Jenny Slate, without whom the film might have been nothing, makes the hand-off; and also when Jon Stewart accepts one of two NBR Freedom of Expression awards that will be presented this year for his directorial debut Rosewater. (The other will go to Ava DuVernay for Selma, which was oddly snubbed everywhere else.)

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Like most awards-bestowing groups, the NBR is rather transparent when it comes to certain biases and obligations. Clint Eastwood and his films almost always do much better with the NBR than they do elsewhere — Jeanine Basinger, a key member of the group, chairs the film program at Wesleyan University, which houses Eastwood's papers — and this year was no exception, with the 84-year-old claiming best director honors for American Sniper and the film itself landing on the top 10 list. One could be forgiven for also raising an eyebrow at the warm embrace of Fury, a middling film that happens to star Brad Pitt (who, you may have heard, is married to Angelina Jolie, whose Unbroken also cracked the top 10, and who could collectively make for nice party guests). Fury also was picked for the best ensemble prize and a spot on the top 10 list.

'Tis the season!

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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