National Board of Review Backs Oscar Contenders Needing a Big Boost (Analysis)

The NBR gives big boosts "Hugo," Tilda Swinton and Shailene Woodley, but snubs "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and Octavia Spencer.
Paramount Pictures

The National Board of Review, a New York-based panel of film professionals, educators, historians, and students that has been dispensing best-of-the-year movie awards since 1909 -- 20 years longer than even the Academy -- selected its 2011 honorees earlier this afternoon, and provided an attention-boost for a number of contenders that certainly needed one.

The biggest beneficiary of the announcement was probably Paramount's 3D family-fantasy-adventure flick Hugo, which won best film, and for which Martin Scorsese won best director. The film -- to my surprise, I must admit -- has exploded with critics (94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (it made a fortune last weekend in limited release), and even before today was starting to look like a solid bet for a best picture Oscar nom, but this showing suggests that such an outcome is now likelier than not. Scorsese is a favorite of many members of the group, as he is both a native New Yorker and a champion of film history and preservation (two of their favorite causes), but Hugo was still a somewhat surprising selection for the NBR's top honors, considering that the group has historically gravitated towards films with greater gravitas, relevance to the present, and educational value. Indeed, the last two best film winners, Up in the Air and The Social Network, dealt with the implications of globalization and modern-day communications; neither won the best picture Oscar, but both were nominated for it.

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Another best picture Oscar hopeful that needed a pick-me-up was Fox Searchlight's The Descendants, which lost all three awards for which it was nominated at Monday's Gotham Awards and then on Tuesday had its leading man, George Clooney, denied even a nomination for the best actor Indie Spirit Award. Today, the film led the NBR field with four wins: Clooney for best actor; Shailene Woodley for best supporting actress; Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for best adapted screenplay; and the film itself as one of the top 10 of the year. Clooney's award might have been explained away as just wanting the A-lister to show up to their party, but the screenplay win, and particularly the win for Woodley -- who is quickly emerging as only real threat to Octavia Spencer (The Help) at the Oscars -- show that the group has real affection for the film.

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The NBR's selection of Christopher Plummer (Beginners) for best supporting actor was not unexpected, as the veteran thespian has been picking up statuettes left and right for his performance as a man who decides late in life to come out as gay. What was far from expected, however, was Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) would bag the prize for best actress -- not because the veteran Oscar winner isn't held in a very high regard (although the NBR, unlike the Academy, had never before honored her), but because her film, which chronicles the evolution of the relationship between a mother and her troubled son over many years, has heretofore proven to be incredibly divisive and upsetting. This attention could re-inject her into the best actress discussion, although she'll have to fend off two younger contenders who were also recognized by the NBR today. Felicity Jones (Like Crazy, coming off of a big win for best breakthrough actor at the Gothams) and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which has only just begun to screen) tied for best breakthrough actor.

The NBR is famous for spreading its love around amongst many films -- in part, at least, because doing so attracts more stars to their awards dinner and also allows them to sell tables to a higher number of studios. This year was no exception, with 39 films represented amongst their selections:

  • 13 Assassins (one of the year's top 5 foreign fllms)
  • 50/50 (one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • Another Earth (one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • The Artist (one of the year's top 10 films)
  • Beginners (best supporting actor Plummer, one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • A Better Life (one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • Born to Be Wild (one of the year's top 5 documentaries)
  • Buck (one of the year's top 5 documentaries)
  • Cedar Rapids (one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • Crime After Crime (NBR Freedom of Expression Award)
  • A Dangerous Method (Spotlight Award winner Michael Fassbender)
  • The Descendants (best actor Clooney, best supporting actress Woodley, best adapted screenplay)
  • Drive (one of the year's top 10 films)
  • Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (one of the year's top 5 foreign fllms)
  • Footnote (one of the year's top 5 foreign fllms)
  • George Harrison: Living in the Material World (one of the year's top 5 documentaries)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (best breakthrough actor Mara, one of the year's top 10 films)
  • J. Edgar (one of the year's top 10 films -- Wesleyan University film professor Jeanine Basinger, Eastwood's friend and chronicler, is a prominent member of the NBR, and the group honors him every time he makes a film, even if it isn't widely embraced by virtually anyone else, as is the case with this one)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Shallows: Part 2 (special achievement in filmmaking and one of the year's top 10 films)
  • The Help (best ensemble), Jane Eyre (the aforementioned Fassbender)
  • Hugo (best picture, best director Scorsese)
  • The Ides of March (one of the year's top 10 films)
  • Le Havre (one of the year's top 5 foreign fllms)
  • Like Crazy (best breakthrough actor Jones)
  • Margin Call (best debut director J.C. Chandor, one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (best documentary)
  • Pariah (NBR Freedom of Expression Award)
  • Point Blank (one of the year's top 5 foreign fllms)
  • Project Nim (one of the year's top 5 documentaries)
  • Rango (best animated feature)
  • Senna (one of the year's top 5 documentaries)
  • A Separation (best foreign language film)
  • Shame (the aforementioned Fassbender, one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • Take Shelter (one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • The Tree of Life (one of the year's top 10 films)
  • War Horse (one of the year's top 10 films)
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin (best actress Swinton, one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • Win Win (one of the year's top 10 independent films)
  • X-Men: First Class (the aforementioned Fassbender)

Noteworthy snubs include The Iron Lady, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, My Week with Marilyn, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, however, was not ready for the group prior to voting.

A fun fact: both the best film and the best animated feature winners -- Hugo and Rango, respectively, were written by the same man, John Logan, who could potentially join a very small club of people to be nominated for both the best adapted screenplay Oscar and the best original screenplay Oscar in the same year for those two films.

The NBR winners will be feted at a gala dinner in New York City at Cipriani's 42nd St. on Jan. 10, 2012.