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We have finally reached the time in the awards season when we shift from speculating about everything to having some actual winners and losers! This past week, a slew of announcements were made, among them the Gotham Independent Film Awards (GIFA) on Dec. 2; the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) on Dec. 3; the National Board of Review (NBR) on Dec. 4; the Boston Society of Film Critics (BSFC); the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA); the New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) on Dec. 8; and the AFI Awards (AFI) on Dec. 9. They placed movies such as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Her, Nebraska and Stories We Tell and stars such as Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Jared Leto and Meryl Streep firmly on one side of the ledger or the other, and left a few others somewhere in between.
These organizations’ selections do not (necessarily) reflect what the Academy is thinking — after all, there are no critics in the Academy, only people who actually make films and therefore come with different tastes and perspectives. (Case in point: Last year, the BSFC, NBR, NYFCC and NYFCO chose Zero Dark Thirty as best picture, the GIFA picked Moonrise Kingdom and the LAFCA tapped Amour, but Argo won at the Oscars.) But their announcements are noteworthy, if only because they engender a lot of media coverage and enable studios to add laurels to materials promoting their film and talent, which can help spur Academy members to consider films and people they might otherwise have missed.
Here’s my take on who emerged from the week beaming, bruised or just plain confused…
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1. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) for best supporting actor
It’s no surprise that critics are impressed with the 41-year-old’s portrayal of a transsexual character dying of AIDS in this powerful drama: He is completely unrecognizable thanks not only to heavy makeup, but also the loss of 40 pounds and the believable adoption of completely different mannerisms. But not even Leto’s greatest champions expected the sort of week that he has enjoyed. He was the choice of both the L.A. (tying with Spring Breakers‘ James Franco) and New York film critics — who seem to almost make a point of picking different winners most of the time — plus the New York Film Critics Online. And not only did he do well this week, but his presumptive main Oscar competitor, 12 Years a Slave‘s Michael Fassbender, did not; Fassy was shut out across the board.
2. Stories We Tell for best documentary feature
Sarah Polley‘s shocking examination of her unconventional family is a terrific film — no one disputes that — but some purists feel that the degree to which it incorporates re-enactments should disqualify it from being categorized as a doc. The Academy’s doc branch seemed to disagree by including it among its 15 shortlisted films last week, and it received a ringing endorsement for that decision from the other groups that announced last week as well: Both the NYFCC and LAFCA as well as the NBR gave it their top doc prize, which may give hesitating Oscar voters tacit permission to include the film on their own ballots.
3. Her for best picture
This futuristic love story, being a Spike Jonze film that stars the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, was expected to be supported by critics and awards groups, but not to the extent that it was: It was named best film by both the NBR (which also picked Jonze as director) and the L.A. film critics (in a tie with another WB entry, Gravity) and also wound up on the AFI’s list of the top 10 films of the year. A story about a relationship between a man and his computer operating system is inherently not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but under the current Oscar voting system it doesn’t have to be in order to score a best pic nom; it just needs the people who do like it to really like it. (If just five percent of Academy members list it at No. 1 on their ballots, it is in, even if the other 95 percent don’t list it at all; many believe that’s how The Tree of Life got nominated a few years ago.) This week’s showing suggests that is possible.
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4. The Wind Rises for best animated feature
Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki‘s final film is not everyone’s cup of tea — some have argued that it glorifies the guy who designed the planes that killed Americans during World War II — but it was awarded the top animation prize this week from the NBR, New York and Boston film critics and NYFCO. Moreover, the two films that I have long had ahead of it in my own projections for the best animated feature Oscar, Frozen and The Croods, were completely shut out; the Gothams don’t have an animation prize and the L.A. film critics’ went to the French film Ernest & Celestine.
5. Nebraska‘s Bruce Dern for best actor (and co-stars)
Dern said that he wanted to contend for an Oscar nom in the category of best actor, not best supporting actor, and while plenty of people questioned that decision — me included — he and his backers at Paramount have certainly mounted a terrific campaign on his behalf, in an incredibly competitive year in the best actor category, and he might well make it to the Dolby after all. Best actor titles from the NBR and the LAFCA certainly won’t hurt. His costars Will Forte and June Squibb also enjoyed some recognition this week, picking up the NBR’s best supporting actor prize (to go with his Spirit Award nom of last week) and the Boston film critics’ best supporting actress prize, respectively.
6. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) for best actress
Everyone expected Blanchett, the presumptive Oscar frontrunner, to hold her own and she did, winning the best actress prizes of the New York, L.A. and Boston film critics, plus the NYFCO. Nobody sweeps everything, but this is about as close as it comes and Blanchett has really solidified her standing as the one to beat.
1. Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) for best director and best original screenplay
On a certain level, it can only be seen as a win that 27-year-old Coogler, who was given the chance to direct this Sundance-winning film by producer Forest Whitaker, had such a tremendous week. Among his prizes: best breakthrough director from the Gothams, best directorial debut from the NBR, best first film from the New York film critics, best new filmmaker from the Boston film critics and best debut director from the NYFCO. So why is he listed under the “Mixed Bags” section instead of “Big Winners”? Because the Academy doesn’t have a breakthrough or debut award with which to give a young filmmaker a pat on the back, in the way that these critics and awards groups do. At the Oscars, you’ve got to win the best director and/or best original screenplay categories outright, and that is not yet something Coogler has been able to do elsewhere.
2. 12 Years a Slave for best picture
Similarly, how does a film that had a very solid showing this week — earning a spot on the AFI’s top 10 list, winning the best picture prize from the Boston film critics and NYFCO, the best actor prize (for Chiwetel Ejiofor) from the Boston film critics and NYFCO and the best supporting actress prize (for Lupita Nyong’o) from the New York and L.A. film critics — wind up in the “Mixed Bags” section? Because, as the presumptive best picture Oscar frontrunner, it was expected to do even better. It was limited to just two top prizes thanks to an upset by Inside Llewyn Davis at the Gothams (albeit with only five people voting), an NYFCC loss to American Hustle and a LAFCA loss to its presumptive main nemesis, Gravity (and Her, which also beat it with the NBR). Critics, as much as anyone, were supposed to have this film’s back.
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3. Robert Redford (All Is Lost) for best actor
The 77-year-old legend, who gives the performance of his life as the only actor on screen — and almost entirely without dialogue — in J.C. Chandor‘s dramatic thriller, did pick up the NYFCC’s prize, but lost the others to several of his chief competitors: Matthew McConaughey beat him at the Gothams, Ejiofor bested him with the Boston film critics and the NYFCO and Dern picked up the NBR and L.A. film critics’ prizes. Redford has never been a favorite of critics, some of whom have unfairly dismissed him as just a pretty boy, but there was some speculation that this performance would reverse that in a major way. It apparently has not.
4. Saving Mr. Banks for best picture
Much like director John Lee Hancock‘s last film, The Blind Side, this schmaltzy but irresistibly charming film was never likely to be the critics’ favorite, and indeed it is not. It was shut out entirely from these early awards, save for the NBR’s best actress prize going to Emma Thompson and a spot on the AFI’s top 10 list. It is worth noting, though, that The Blind Side overcame the lack of critical support to score best picture and best actress Oscar noms, and I would still bet that this one does the same — perhaps with noms for best supporting actor (Tom Hanks) and best original screenplay (Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) thrown in for good measure.
5. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) for best supporting actress
J-Law’s scene-stealing turn is the talk of the town, but she emerged from this week with only one prize, the NYFCC’s, while frontrunner Nyong’o claimed two and Squibb and Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) each walked away with one.
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1. Sandra Bullock (Gravity) for best actress
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the critics and awards groups liked Gravity, which makes it a little mystifying that not one of them recognized the actress at its center, who could have really used a boost in what should be a close Oscar race with Blanchett (who was picked by the New York, L.A. and Boston film critics, plus the NYFCO) and Thompson (the NBR’s choice).
2. Blue Jasmine for all categories except best actress
Apart from Blanchett’s string of awards, Woody Allen‘s summer hit was completely ignored. Some thought that it could crack into the AFI’s top 10 list and that at least one or two groups would throw it a bone for best director (Allen), best original screenplay (Allen) or perhaps even for one of its supporting actors (Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale or Andrew Dice Clay), but none of that was to be, which makes me wonder if the film may have been forgotten by enough people to jeopardize its best picture nomination prospects.
3. Captain Phillips across the board
One expects a film directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks to show up somewhere, but this one has been completely snubbed by everyone apart from AFI, which included it on its top 10 list. Not even Barkhad Abdi‘s much-heralded supporting performance received acknowledgment in a breakthrough performance category. Perhaps, in a twisted way, the fact that the film was such a hit at the box office gave critics pause about championing it.
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4. Lee Daniels’ The Butler across the board
This is the movie that many smart and savvy people are, for whatever reason (its unabashed schmaltziness?), embarrassed to admit they loved. For my money, there were very few performances this year that were on par with Forest Whitaker‘s, which is why I’m somewhat surprised that not even he was recognized by any of the critics or awards groups. (The socially conscious NBR seemed the most likely, but it went for Dern.)
5. Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
She’s Meryl Freakin’ Streep and, even if she is up for an extremely polarizing movie that few critics have embraced, her performance was still the best thing about it. For that reason I thought that at least one of the groups might acknowledge her with a best actress prize. Instead, Streep was given the year off — as was the film.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese‘s film took home no major awards (although it is on the AFI’s top 10 list) — but does that mean the critics and awards groups’ members didn’t like it? Not necessarily. The film was completed so late and screened so soon before many of these groups voted that many members didn’t have an opportunity to see it before casting their ballots. Even so, I’ve heard that it had a strong show of support from those members who did see it. With the Boston film critics, for instance, it was the first runner-up in no fewer than five categories: best picture, best actor, best screenplay, best film editing and best use of music. So don’t write its obituary just yet!
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