Critics' Choice Awards: How They May Have Helped to Focus the Oscar Race (Analysis)

Mahershala Ali Critics Choice - Getty - H 2016
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On Sunday night, the eve of Golden Globe nominations, most of 2016's top awards contenders were at the Critics' Choice Awards, which took place at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica — and which, in spreading its film accolades between a bunch of different films, may have provided a roadmap for other awards groups for how to handle a year jam-packed with great options and close contests.

The modern-day movie musical La La Land, at whose table I was sitting, won best picture and best director (Damien Chazelle), neither of which were sure-things going into the night, considering that Moonlight and its director (Barry Jenkins) have dominated with other critics' groups.

Early in the ceremony, Moonlight was awarded the best ensemble prize (for which two-hander La La Land was not nominated), but La La Land went on to claim a field-leading eight total wins, the others coming for best original screenplay (Chazelle's script tied with Kenneth Lonergan's for Manchester by the Sea, which had been the heavy favorite), best cinematography, best film editing, best original score, best original song ("City of Stars" topped five other nominees, including another of La La Land's tunes, "Audition") and best production design.

But La La Land's stars did not fare as well. Emma Stone, who was widely expected to win best actress, was upset by Jackie's Natalie Portman. (Jackie also won best costume design and best hair/makeup.) And Ryan Gosling, less surprisingly, was upended, by Manchester by the Sea's Casey Affleck, who had to fend off Fences' Denzel Washington, as well. (Affleck's prior acceptance speeches this season, at the non-televised Hollywood Film Awards and Gotham Awards, were weak, but he rose to the occasion at this event, which aired on A&E.)

Fences did pick up one big win, for Viola Davis in the best supporting actress category, not long after she was presented with a special award in recognition of being a female role model and received a rousing standing ovation. (She did not win on the TV side for her performance in How to Get Away With Murder.)

And in what felt like not only an upset, but a moment of real consequence, best supporting actor was awarded to Moonlight's Mahershala Ali over Hell or High Water's Jeff Bridges, and much of the audience rose to its feet to offer a standing ovation, a testament to Ali's talent, professionalism and all-around class.

One could argue that the Critics' Choice Awards are reflective of nothing more than the tastes of the Broadcast Film Critics Association — a group comprised of some 300 critics, journalists, pundits and Oscar bloggers, including yours truly — and therefore should not be studied for clues about how the Oscars, which are determined by some 7,000 people who actually work on films, will pan out.

But the correlation between Critics' Choice winners and Oscar winners actually is very strong. Sure, there have been disagreements over best picture — e.g. Critics' Choice winner Sideways vs. Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby, Brokeback Mountain vs. Crash, The Social Network vs. The King's Speech and Boyhood vs. Birdman. But over the past 16 years, the BFCA and the Academy picked the same best picture on 12 occasions. And the overlap on acting awards is just about as strong.

What happens is that others in the industry see or hear about a film or a person getting recognized by one group — especially at a show that is televised — and often take their cues from that. In other words, for many people it's now a lot easier to imagine voting for, say, Portman or Ali than it was before, because someone else already has done it. That doesn't necessarily mean those two actors are going to win at the Oscars — I suspect Stone and Bridges will take Sunday night as a bit of a wake-up call and campaign more aggressively going forward, which could reap dividends. But seeds have been planted. Balls are in motion. And the next twists and turns will arrive when Globe noms are announced first thing Monday morning.