'The Awards Pundits' on 'Martian' v. 'Spotlight,' Precursors and Doc Shortlist

Scott Feinberg and Stephen Galloway discuss the week's awards-related news and controversies.
'Creed,' Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan in 'Creed'

This is the 11th installment of what will be an ongoing dialogue, throughout the awards season, between THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive editor, features Stephen Galloway.

FEINBERG Stephen, it’s been quite a week. Mad Max: Fury Road was chosen by a major awards group as the year’s best film. Sylvester Stallone won a prize for his acting. And Harvey Weinstein wrote an op-ed complaining about how crazy awards season has become. What’s going on? Did I miss the Apocalypse?

GALLOWAY What you’re seeing is a race in complete chaos. There are no clear frontrunners for most of the major categories, even as we approach the December holidays. Normally, by this time, clear favorites have emerged — like Slumdog Millionaire for picture, or Julianne Moore for best actress in Still Alice. At the very least, the race should have boiled down down to a couple of clear alternatives — think 12 Years a Slave versus Gravity, or The Social Network versus The King’s Speech. This year, you don’t have that, or any dominant player.

FEINBERG And you won’t, unless Star Wars: The Force Awakens — the last of this year's major films yet to be unveiled — turns out to be so good that it upends the race entirely.

GALLOWAY Which may still happen. A lot of people in Hollywood are secretly eager, and maybe even desperate, to have a true commercial leviathan bulldoze its way to the Oscars.

FEINBERG I'm tremendously excited for Star Wars, but also skeptical about its awards prospects. Even if it manages to land a best picture nom — and only the first of the franchise's six prior installments did that — I can't imagine it winning, mainly because of its genre. At this point it looks to me like the best picture race could come down to Spotlight and The Martian

GALLOWAY The kind of David-and-Goliath battle that we all love. Certainly, in terms of budget and scale, that's the dynamic. And it’s true a lot of people love both of those movies, in a year when many voters tell me they’ve liked a great deal of films without actually falling in love with any of them. Which is kind of the way I feel about this season. I’m waiting to fall in love.

FEINBERG There's a lot of different things going for Spotlight and Martian. Spotlight has a large ensemble of actors well-liked by other actors (just like recent winners Crash and Birdman), and don’t forget that actors form the Academy's largest branch —

GALLOWAY Another reason to be a bit skeptical of Star Wars' chances, unless Daisy Ridley turns out to be the next Jennifer Lawrence.

FEINBERG It's also got a serious subject matter, which always helps (look at Schindler's List and The Hurt Locker), and it has a distributor solely focused on its success (which also helped The King's Speech and The Artist). But The Martian has its own advantages: It’s made by the man who’s the clear favorite to win the best director Oscar (Ridley Scott), and that usually goes along with best picture (excepting Argo and 12 Years a Slave in recent years); it's upbeat and entertaining; and it's a huge box-office success (like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).

GALLOWAY But unlike some of the films you mentioned, it hasn’t gotten that much love from any of the awards groups that have weighed in so far, right? This week, the National Board of Review gave its top prize to Mad Max: Fury Road and the New York film critics went with Carol.

FEINBERG Don't put too much stock in the predictive powers of either of those groups.

GALLOWAY Didn’t Slumdog Millionaire win the NBR’s top prize before the Oscar?

FEINBERG Yes, but it was the last movie that did, and only one other film this century also got both the NBR and the Oscar — No Country for Old Men. Last year, A Most Violent Year won the NBR's prizes for best film, best actor and best supporting actress, but didn't land a single Oscar nom. As for the New York film critics, you have to go back to The Artist.

GALLOWAY By the way, speaking of the NBR, does that organization really exist? Have you ever actually met an NBR member? I’ve met more free-masons than card-carrying members of the NBR. I always suspect it’s secretly one of your New York pundit rivals holed up in a garret, trying to play mind games with people like us.

FEINBERG Could be. But according to its website, at least, the NBR is made up of "film enthusiasts, filmmakers, professionals, academics and students" —

GALLOWAY — so is any evening at Spago. I want proof, here, Scott.

FEINBERG One thing that's for certain is it's a much younger group than the Academy, too — hence the strong showings this year for Mad Max, The Martian, Creed and The Hateful Eight. And its winners tend to be spread among films from a lot of different distributors — which, coincidentally or not, helps to sell tables at their dinner gala.

GALLOWAY You almost feel sorry for all these filmmakers and distributors who have to keep shelling out to attend these things and making small-talk with all the other contenders they secretly hope will lose.

FEINBERG The NYFCC is a bit more transparent. They’re made up of Gotham-based film critics. It's a finicky group —

GALLOWAY No kidding. They threw us all into a tailspin by giving Spotlight's Michael Keaton the award for best actor. I don’t mean he didn’t deserve it — only that the rest of the world had him down in the supporting category.

FEINBERG They also gravitate toward hometown-set fare such as Carol (best film, best director Todd Haynes, best cinematography Ed Lachman), Brooklyn (best actress Saoirse Ronan), Bridge of Spies (best supporting actor Mark Rylance) and Jackson Heights (best documentary).

GALLOWAY But what they don’t gravitate toward is future Oscar winners. There’s the rub. Is Mad Max, the NBR's favorite film, really going to pick up an Oscar? No chance. Warner Bros. was barely pushing it when it looked like Black Mass was a formidable contender. And Carol, which the New York critics chose? I love it, but its best hopes seem to be for its actresses and writer.

FEINBERG It's tempting to dismiss these awards groups as having no real impact on the Oscar race, but I think you’re wrong if you do. The truth is, in some cases, they can shift the race. For example? By picking Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria) for best supporting actress — which I applaud (there's a reason she became the first American actress to win a Cesar Award earlier this year) — the New York film critics really breathed new life into her prospects, and hopefully will motivate her reps and distributor IFC to mobilize a campaign on her behalf.

GALLOWAY And that category is anyone’s guess right now.

FEINBERG It couldn't be more wide open, with some contenders at risk of being bumped into the lead category, and maybe failing to get a nomination altogether because of category confusion (like The Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander and Carol's Rooney Mara); others hoping to cash in for just a few minutes of screen time and a lot of goodwill (Youth's Jane Fonda); and still others being no more obvious choices than Stewart herself (Love & Mercy's Elizabeth Banks, Room's Joan Allen).

GALLOWAY Coming back to the West Coast, what did you think of the Academy's announcement this week of its shortlist for the best documentary Oscar? I expected Amy, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and The Hunting Ground to make the cut, and they did. Were there any shockers?

FEINBERG Branch members culled a field of 124 eligible titles down to just 15 from which the five nominees will be chosen. I was somewhat surprised to find Davis Guggenheim's He Named Me Malala on the list — it has a bit of a glossy infomercial feel to it, which they usually shun. And, to be honest, I wasn't sure they'd go for Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next, if only because it lacks the sort of "bad guy" that's been at the center of all of Moore's other docs.

GALLOWAY Any glaring omissions?

FEINBERG I felt sorry for the absence of the latest works of two perennially under-appreciated legends, Frederick Wiseman (Jackson Heights) and the late Albert Maysles (Iris). I also wished I’d seen three personal favorites nominated: Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel's Meet the Patels, a rare funny doc that also has been a huge hit at the box-office; Crystal Moselle's The Wolfpack, which skillfully chronicles one of the craziest stories I've ever encountered —

GALLOWAY Right! About that family of siblings who spent their whole lives pretty much locked away from the real world, not unlike many Hollywood executives.

FEINBERG And also Bobcat Goldthwait's Call Me Lucky, which reintroduces viewers to the 1980s comedian Barry Crimmins and provides a shocking explanation for why he dropped out of the comedy scene. But they're all outsiders trying to crack into an insiders’ club, which is very hard to do.