5 Things the Critics' Choice Awards Revealed About Oscar Race (Analysis)

Hugo Wooden Camera - H 2012
Paramount Pictures

Hugo Wooden Camera - H 2012

The Broadcast Film Critics Association, of which I am proud to be a voting member, held its 17th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards last night at the historic Hollywood Palladium. The group found something to like about virtually all of the top Oscar contenders -- The Artist (best picture, director, costume design, score), The Help (best ensemble, actress, supporting actress), The Descendants (best actor), Midnight in Paris (best original screenplay), Hugo (best art direction), Moneyball (best adapted screenplay), War Horse (best cinematography -- tie), The Tree of Life (best cinematography -- tie), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (best editing), Bridesmaids (best comedy), Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (best young actor/actress), Drive (best action movie), Beginners (best supporting actor), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (best makeup, sound), Rango (best animated film), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (best visual effects), and A Separation (best foreign language film) -- but did it tell us anything that we didn't already know about how the Oscar race might pan out? I think so.

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My five primary takeaways are these …

1. Clooney, Davis, Plummer and Spencer are your acting front-runners.
The BFCA has been as accurate a predictor of acting Oscar nominations (18 of 20 last year) and wins (four of four last year) as any organization, and I expect that to remain the case this year. George Clooney won a best supporting actor Oscar six years ago, when Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck showed people it was time to take him more seriously, and in the time since he has given standout performances in -- among other films -- Michael Clayton (2007), Up in the Air (2009), and now The Descendants, all of which seem to have convinced people that the 50-year-old is worthy of joining the rare mutli-Oscars club by awarding him his first in the more prestigious best actor club. Christopher Plummer, 82, meanwhile, has been working at a very high level in the business for decades without having ever won one, partly because he never made the effort to be as charming off-screen as Clooney has, but this year he's shown up everywhere and been as gracious as possible, and in so doing I think he has finally sealed the deal. And then there's Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, close friends and acting veterans whose careers have had major ups and downs but who brought two literary characters to life as skillfully and movingly as anyone could have in The Help and won over a lot of voters' hearts. The fact that Spencer beat her co-star Jessica Chastain shows the level of affection that people have for her feisty character, and the fact that Davis prevailed over the legendary Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) among critics indicates that she should have no problem beating her elsewhere.

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2. The Artist is much stronger than its individual parts.
Critics love The Artist as much as anybody, but even they have their limits. Best picture? Fine. Filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius over the likes of Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Martin Scorsese (Hugo), and Steven Spielberg (War Horse) for best director? Only reasonable, I think they suppose, since the best picture didn't direct itself. But Hazanavicius' script for best original screenplay over the legendary Woody Allen's for Midnight in Paris? Or Hazanavicius' wife Berenice Bejo for best supporting actress over the Horatio Alger-esque Spencer? Or her leading man Jean Dujardin for best actor over Hollywood royalty Clooney? Apparently bridges just a little too far. I think that the passion for the film itself will result in it winning the best picture Oscar under the Academy's new voting system … but Hazanavicius is by no means a dunk for director, and it is certainly within the realm of possibility that his film might not win any other above-the-line categories.

3. The Help appears to be emerging as the leading alternative to The Artist.
In this year's GOP presidential race, there is Mitt Romney, and then there is everyone else who is trying to become the primary alternative to Romney -- the anti-Romney, if you will. As the Iowa caucuses provided the first hard numbers of the race, it became clear that, for a while at least, that person was Rick Santorum. In this year's Oscar race, there is The Artist, and then there is everyone else who is trying to become the primary alternative to The Artist -- the anti-Artist, if you will. At the Critics' Choice Awards, the results, as well as the unmistakable vibe in the room, indicated that, for a while at least, that film is The Help. The late-summer release was liked by critics (76% on RottenTomatoes.com) but not loved by them. Still, it managed to beat critical favorites to win best actress, supporting actress, and, perhaps most strikingly, ensemble (prevailing over The Artist, Bridesmaids, The Descendants and The Ides of March). As its various winners keep reminding voters during their acceptance speeches, it is a film that was made and became a massive hit (raking in more $200 million at the box-office worldwide) against all odds: it features a cast comprised almost entirely of character actresses -- women of all ages races -- who portray strong and assertive characters who never resort to taking off their clothes to win the attention of the audience. What it implies is that a vote for The Help is a vote for progress, both in society at large and in the industry itself, and that may be too much to resist for many in the Academy, especially those who feel that The Artist is an enjoyable but ultimately lightweight option for their top prize, which usually goes to films with greater gravitas.

4. Scorsese is surging.
Hazanavicius may have won best director last night, but, as even he suggested from the podium, its a "stupid" title for anyone competing in a category with Scorsese, arguably the best director of all-time. Scorsese was, of course, nominated for Hugo, his first 3D film and family film. He was honored earlier in the evening with BFCA's Music+Film Award for his incorporation of music into his films, and that presentation involved a fabulous montage of clips from his films from over the years as well as heartfelt tributes from Leonardo DiCaprio, one of his favorite leading men; Olivia Harrison, the widow of George Harrison of The Beatles (who suggested that Scorsese's use of music in his films belies his reputed preference for violence by showing a deep sensitivity), as Bob Dylan. (Dylan and Scorsese received standing ovations.) Scorsese, who was honored on Tuesday night in New York with the National Board of Review's best director award (for the third time in his career) and who is nominated for the best director Golden Globe on Sunday night (for the eighth time in his career), appears to me to have surpassed Payne as the person who poses the greatest challenge to Hazanavicius at the Oscars. (I still think The Artist is ahead of Hugo for best picture, but picture-director splits occur roughly twice a decade, on average, and it's been quite a while -- six years, in fact -- since we last had one.) True, Scorsese already has a best director Oscar (for The Departed five years ago), whereas Payne does not (though he won best adapted screenplay for Sideways seven years ago), but when one considers the fact that John Ford won four best director Oscars, it is not hard to understand why many believe that awarding a second to Scorsese would not be inappropriate.

5. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is far from dead.
The Rorschach puzzle of the 2011 awards season, thus far, has been Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which was completed and began screening so late in the year that voters for many awards groups failed to see it before filling out their ballots. The critics, however, had to see it, and did, and liked it enough to nominate it for best picture, director (Stephen Daldry), adapted screenplay (Eric Roth) and best young actor/actress (Thomas Horn). While it didn't win the first three, it did pull off a major upset in the fourth, with Horn prevailing over the likes of Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) who was also nominated for best supporting actress; Asa Butterfield (Hugo), who anchored a best picture nominee; and Elle Fanning (Super 8), who had my vote for her remarkably mature performance in a summer blockbuster. If hard-bitten critics liked Extremely Loud enough to vote for it, then the sky is the limit for it among the older and schmaltzier Academy members. (I have spoken with many who have it on their best picture ballots, and one former best supporting actress Oscar winner has Horn at her No. 1 for best actor.) The film has been knocked for using a historical tragedy to emotionally manipulate its audience, which is not untrue but isn't necessarily unwelcomed by many voters. Point of reference: Daldry's last film, The Reader.