Awards Season: Why Critics' Prizes Can Be a Dead End (Analysis)

"Zero Dark Thirty" had been headed for a sweep, but the fact that it was defeated by "Amour" in Los Angeles might be the best thing that could have happened to it.
"Zero Dark Thirty"

This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Sony Pictures might have dodged a bullet.

When the Los Angeles Film Critics Association met Dec. 9 for its annual deliberations, there certainly was a contingent backing Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the military procedural Sony will release in limited engagements Dec. 19. The film already had been given best picture benedictions by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, and it looked like a critical sweep was beginning to materialize.

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But by the time the dust settled, Zero captured only one award from LAFCA, for its editing by Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg, and Bigelow had to settle for runner-up status to Paul Thomas Anderson, named best director for The Master. As for best picture, LAFCA handed that distinction to Michael Haneke’s Amour.

Counterintuitively, that probably was good news for Sony because it means, when it comes to its Oscar hopes for Zero, recent history isn’t necessarily about to repeat. Only two years ago, Sony rode into the awards hunt with The Social Network, which had collected just about every critics’ prize to be had. The Broadcast Film Critics Association gave the film its top honor, and the Golden Globe Awards followed suit, naming it best drama.

But then, beginning with the Producers Guild Awards, where The King’s Speech was hailed as best motion picture, the tide began to turn as the industry itself began to make its tastes known. When Speech was crowned the best picture Oscar winner, all of those Social critics’ prizes counted for naught.

With Oscar nominations still nearly a month away, the contenders are looking for every bit of evidence that suggests they’ve got momentum on their side. But critics’ prizes are a mixed blessing: They can boost a performance that otherwise might have been overlooked, but they are no guarantee of an Oscar win. In fact, they can provide a false sense of inevitability, as happened with Social.

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Sure, there are those rare years when critics’ choices seem to predict the Oscar outcome. In 2009, the three most prominent critics’ groups - LAFCA, the NYFCC and the National Society of Film Critics - endorsed Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which ultimately stole the best picture Oscar from the mighty Avatar. But usually, the critics shouldn’t be read for their predictive powers.

“There have been plenty of movies that didn’t score with critics — from Forrest Gump to Titanic — that won Oscars, and there have been plenty of movies that won all the critics’ awards, like Raging Bull and GoodFellas, that didn’t win best picture,” notes one strategist. “It doesn’t really mean anything if a film wins one or two critics’ awards. What really means something is when they start winning them in the aggregate; and even then, what really matters is what the guilds then choose.”

Plus, critics groups sometimes have their own agendas -- and even within each group, there often are dueling cliques more interested in voting down a rival clique’s favorites than promoting their candidates. At the New York vote, for example, critic J. Hoberman reported that after Beasts of the Southern Wild fell one vote shy of being named best first film on the group’s first two ballots, the documentary How to Survive a Plague snuck in and took the award on the third try. And at the Los Angeles confab, though there was a definite and vocal Holy Motors faction (the French pic ultimately won best foreign-language honors), the sentiment was pretty equally divided among Amour, Master, Zero and Beasts, with each getting a prize or two to take home.

When it comes to the broader awards scene, though, critics’ nods perform one useful function: While the cottage industry of Oscar bloggers spends months predicting nominees, which has the effect of narrowing the field, the critics, in turn, can open the field back up -- at least in regard to nominations.

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This year, for example, Ann Dowd got an assist from the National Board of Review for her performance as a restaurant manager forced to submit to a nasty prank in the little-seen Compliance. And Rachel Weisz, whose The Deep Blue Sea grossed only $1.1 million when it was released by Music Box in March, could get a second look now that the New York Critics have named her best actress.

“It puts an exclamation on her performance,” says Weisz’s rep, Mara Buxbaum. “Now, hopefully people who didn’t see the movie will take time to watch the DVD.”