Top Challengers to 'The Artist' Get Big Boosts at National Board of Review Awards (Analysis)

Hugo Asa Butterfield  Ben Kingsley Toy Shop - H 2012
Paramount Pictures

Hugo Asa Butterfield  Ben Kingsley Toy Shop - H 2012

Last night, the National Board of Review -- a group of film historians, educators and students that has been bestowing best-of-the-year honors since 1930, only one year less than the Academy -- held their annual awards gala at majestic Cipriani 42nd Street in New York. The biggest winners -- all of which were announced weeks ago -- were Hugo (best film and director), The Descendants (best actor, supporting actress, adapted screenplay), and The Help (best ensemble), which happen to be the three films that have the best chances of upsetting presumptive best picture front-runner The Artist (which the NBR snubbed save for a mention on its top 10 list) at the Oscars.

The ceremony was hosted by NBC's gorgeous Today show host Natalie Morales. It ran very long but was jam-packed with A-list actors and filmmakers (honorees and presenters), moving and funny acceptance speeches (honorees have time to prepare since voting is conducted and results are announced weeks before the show) and good food and cool swag (several people joked from the podium about the massive hunks of beef and mountains of books, DVDs and soundtracks on each table), all of which made it well worth sitting through until the bitter end.

(Surreally enough, I was seated at a table with Hugo's director/producer Martin Scorsese, supporting actor Sir Ben Kingsley, producers Tim Headington and Graham King and executive producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, among other fun folks, so I certainly wasn't going anywhere!)

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Following brief introductory remarks from NBR president Annie Schulhof and Morales, things got under way with a presentation of the best documentary award. Lars Ulrich, the drummer for the band Metallica, spoke movingly about the Oscar short-listed doc Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's third HBO film in 18 years about the "West Memphis 3" (three men who were convicted of murder in 1994 for a crime that they always maintained they did not commit). The filmmakers' focus and persistence motivated many people, including Ulrich, to begin pressuring the state of Arkansas to reopen the case and has been credited with helping to lead to the release of the three men in August. They were joined at the podium by one of the three, Jason Baldwin, who said as much.

Next up, Alec Baldwin, who eight years ago was presented with the best supporting actor award for The Cooler by the legendary thespian Christopher Plummer, returned the favor by helping to recognize Plummer's work in the dramedy Beginners, for which he is widely regarded as the Oscar front-runner. Plummer noted that different expectations come with winning different awards -- for instance, he cracked, when one is bestowed with a lifetime achievement award (as he was by the NBR in 2002), one is supposed to die. But, he added, "Try as you might, I didn't croak. And here you are, trying to get rid of me in another category!"

Then, actress Naomi Watts, who looked particularly stunning, took the stage to speak about Gore Verbinski, the director of best animated feature winner Rango. Watts, who was directed by Verbinski in the horror/thriller The Ring (2002), joked, "He taught me how to scream," then credited him with setting her career on a totally different path. For his part, Verbinski noted of Rango, "None of us who worked on this film had ever made an animated movie before," which he indicated was the reason the film wound up being so unconventional, in the best sense of the word.

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Verbinski was followed by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, one of the many fine actors who were convinced to work for the young first-time director J.C. Chandor on Margin Call because of his marvelous script, which produced a first-rate and timely thriller. Irons presented the best breakthrough director award to Chandor, who subsequently recounted the funny garb in which Irons was adorned when he arrived on set to shoot a scene in a corporate boardroom, out of which he changed into boxers and a wife-beater before commencing in a table read-through. Chandor thanked Irons and the rest of the cast for delivering his words in a way that made him forget they were his own, and in so doing giving him a career.

Plummer then returned to the stage, this time as a presenter of one of the night's two best breakthrough performance awards to his The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo co-star Rooney Mara, who is widely regarded as being on-the-bubble for a best actress Oscar nomination. Mara's standing in the minds of many attendees was boosted immensely by both Plummer's uncharacteristically gushing introduction ("She recently burst upon the scene with a force Joan of Arc would have envied … with a fearlessness and courage I have not seen in a hell of a long time") and her own eloquent, humble and heartfelt acceptance speech ("I'm more nervous about standing up here than I was about anything I had to do in the movie; I don't know if you've seen the film, but that's saying a lot").


79-year-old Robert Benton, the revered screenwriter who has accumulated five screenplay Oscar nominations (two of which resulted in wins), then came along to present the best adapted screenplay prize to the three writers who scripted The DescendantsAlexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Benton called it "a magnificent film, brilliantly written … word-perfect, filled with wit and compassion." He said he was particularly "filled with envy" over the writing of a scene between George Clooney and Nick Krause but regards the entire project as "one of the best films I have seen in a very long time." Payne said that those comments from that man made the evening for him, while his eccentric co-writers joked that they had been finalists for the parts in the film that eventually went to Clooney and Shailene Woodley.

Next up was the presentation of a special filmmaking achievement award to the Harry Potter franchise, which was made, appropriately enough, by Daniel Radcliffe, who played the title character in its eight films (and recently wrapped up a long run on Broadway), to David Heyman, the producer who discovered him for the part and guided all of the films from page to screen. Radcliffe asserted, "Not a frame of any of the fllms was made without attention to detail and caring." Heyman began his acceptance speech -- in which he would later note that Radcliffe served as something of a producer of the franchise himself (to which the actor reacted with a look of surprise and disagreement) -- by saying, "Harry Potter is not known for its brevity, but I'll try to be brief!"

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Amy Ryan, the NBR's best supporting actress of 2008 for her work in Gone Baby Gone, assumed the task of presenting that same honor to this year's recipient, Woodley. Ryan, a class act, said very generously of the 20-year-old: "It's hard to imagine anyone else playing this part. It's a rare portrayal of an adolescent that is not condescending to adolescents." She humorously remarked upon a scene in which Woodley's character calls her younger sister a name, "There is something about the way she says 'twat' that is worthy of this honor in and of itself!" During Ryan's remarks, Woodley, who confessed to me during the cocktail hour that she was very nervous about having to speak in front of a room so full of amazing people, turned to her left and whispered to Clooney, "I can't do this!" But do it she did, and very graciously, thanking Payne for his faith in her; complimenting Clooney on being a great role model, always prepared, generous and fun on the set; and expressing her gratitude to her date -- her younger brother -- for being by her side throughout the hoopla of the past few months.

The always funny Seth Rogen then took the stage and provoked howls of laughter by opening with the non-sequitur, "So, there's a lot of shit on the table! I don't know if there's room for another The Art of Rango." He then shared a few funny remarks and presented the best original screenplay award to his longtime friend Will Reiser, who penned 50/50, which Rogen co-produced with Evan Goldberg and in which Rogen plays a key supporting role. Reiser said that he spent the first quarter-century of his life not knowing what to write about; then, he continued, "At 25 I was diagnosed with cancer … and I didn't know how to talk about it … so instead I was encouraged by Seth and Evan to write about it. He thanked them for supporting him in spite of "my neuroses -- and I am one neurotic motherfucker," and then he brought tears to many in the room by thanking his mother, who was in attendance.

It didn't seem possible that Rogen could be topped for laughs, but Rosie O'Donnell, of all people, absolutely brought the house down by going on a rapid-fire rant en route to presenting the first of the NBR's two Freedom of Expression awards to the doc Crime After Crime, which focuses on a woman who was jailed after murdering her abusive husband. She said she much preferred the NBR to the National Society of Film Critics (because that other awards-dispensing group just awarded its best picture honor to Melancholia, which she proceeded to absolutely eviscerate), ribbed the NBR ("There are no gift bags, so grab some shit and stick it under your seat) and even went after herself ("This tablecloth that I'm wearing cost $5,000) and the low ratings of her show on the OWN network ("Oprah still thinks I'm big … she hasn't watched a lot of TV in recent years"). When Crime After Crime director Yoav Potash finally took the stage, he correctly acknowledged that there was no good way to follow O'Donnell, but did pitch Rogen on starring in a feature adaptation of the film.

Then, two-time Oscar winner Sally Field came out and presented the best ensemble award to the cast of The Help -- or at least to the six members of it who were in attendance: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O'Reilly and Cicely Tyson. (I moderated a Q&A with all but Stone and Tyson earlier in the day.) Davis, as has become custom this awards season, spoke expositorily and movingly on behalf of the group. She remarked, "I wonder if people understand the obstacles that were in our path" for the project, which was adapted from a best-selling novel, but, she reminded, also dealt with the cinematically hard-to-sell subject of race; featured a cast almost entirely composed of women; and did not incorporate any sex. "This is truly an American movie," she said, noting the diversity in race and age of the women in the film, "and I want to encourage that."

The best foreign-language film prize was presented by Oscar winner Jonathan Demme to Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian writer/director of Iran's 2011 Oscar submission A Separation, whom he only shortly before the event, but whose film he has been a fan of for some time now. After Demme implored people to "See this movie!," Farhadi shared a funny anecdote about a recent visit to New York, during which he shared a smoke with the doorman outside of the hotel where he was staying, who, upon learning that Farhadi was Iranian, encouraged him to see A Separation.

Next up was the second award for best breakthrough performance, this one presented by Oscar winner Dame Helen Mirren to her much younger countrywoman and The Tempest (2010) co-star Felicity Jones, the beautiful and charming star of the largely overlooked indie Like Crazy. In introducing Jones, Mirren said, "Forget 'breakthrough' -- I would say blast-off!" Jones, graciously and appropriately enough, said that she shares her award with her co-star Anton Yelchin, who, for whatever reason, hasn't gotten a shred of the attention that Jones has.

The Spotlight Award, which the NBR apparently created to honor the year's most profilic actor, was presented to Michael Fassbender -- the star in 2011 of Jane Eyre, X: Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method and Shame -- by two of his sexy co-stars, the British BFFs Carey Mulligan (Shame) and Keira Knightley (Method). Mulligan noted that the most-used adjective to describe Fassbender's work over the past year has been "'fearless' -- especially so in our films,"  and Knightley cracked, "Michael, if I had to be spanked by anybody, I'm glad it was you!" Fassbender, for his part, looked every bit the A-list star that he is rapidly becoming but remained as humble as ever, saying that he always feels like an interloper at events like the NBR's.

Then Scorsese's best director award came around. Hugo's young stars Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz (both 14) stepped up to the microphone, accompanied by Kingsley, and began reading off a long list of the filmmaker's most famous films before delivering the punchline, "That is a list of Martin Scorsese films that our parents wouldn't let us see!" Scorsese began his acceptance speech by noting, for those who might not be aware, that the character played in the film by Kingsley, Georges Melies, was a real person, and "100 years ago he pretty much did everything we're doing now." He also noted that Hugo was his first 3D film and first family film, and then, In his inimitable New York way, delivered a long and funny series of anecdotes and asides about it, such as: "The kids were a pleasure to work with -- for the most part." "A few times I'd look at a monitor on set and it would be out-of-focus, and I would say, 'What's going on?' And [cinematographer] Bob Richardson, who would be up on some crane somewhere, would shout, 'Marty, put your 3D glasses on!' 'In the opening scene you see the Eiffel Tower and you know it's Paris -- I hope.' 'I learned to work with dogs.' etc.

The Tony Award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe then presented the second Freedom of Expression award to Pariah director Dee Rees, who made very brief remarks but emphasized that she hopes that her film will change how people who see it see the world (and I believe it will).

Frances McDormand, who won both the NBR's and Academy's best actress awards 15 years ago, was greeted warmly when she came out to present the best actress award to her friend Tilda Swinton (whom she affectionately referred to as "Ma-tilda"), the star of the dark indie We Need to Talk About Kevin. McDormand said, "In our house we call this time of year [the awards season] 'the convention' … I hate this shit," but noted that she was doing it anyway out of love for Swinton. She went on, "NBR, I don't know who you are, but it was lovely of you to give this to her." Swinton, who was sporting a stylish outfit and hairdo, as always, then strode to the microphone and deadpanned, "I knew it was a bad idea asking her [to present]!" On a more serious note, she thanked "the boys" in her life for being "so sweet and angelic that I didn't even know what the film was about," and she joked, "Let's all look forward to the Broadway musical The Book of Kevin!"

The second-to-last category of the night was best actor, providing an opportunity for Payne to retake the stage to honor his leading man in The Descendants, Clooney, whom he described as "an actor, a movie star … and an all-around mensch." He then acknowledged that he had passed on Clooney for the part that Thomas Haden Church wound up playing in Sideways (2004) but submitted that the actor -- whom he described as "our only old-fashioned movie star, in the grandest way" -- would have been perfect for a number of other films and proceeded to list a whole bunch of classics including Roman Holiday (1953), Chinatown (1974) and even 8 1/2 (1963 -- "dubbed"), but emphasized that he was glad we had him for this era, and suggested, "I really think the best is yet to come." Clooney, who jetted in from the West Coast with his girlfriend Stacey Keibler (he collected a prize at the Palm Springs International Film Festival this week), spoke about the importance of "kindness" in our society and how touched he was by the kindness that he witnessed and received at the NBR ceremony. He closed by deadpanning, "I thank you, Alexander, for your kindness … and fuck you for not hiring me for that other film you mentioned."

At long last, it was time for the last and biggest prize of the night -- best picture -- which was presented to one legendary filmmaker (Scorsese -- along with Headington and King -- for Hugo) by another (Francis Ford Coppola, one of the few people who has ever worked on a level comparable to his own, whose arrival elicited a standing ovation from fellow talents no less than Payne and Benton). Coppola described his decades-long friendship with "Marty"; recalled taking his family to see Hugo "in the biggest theater we could find" over the Thanksgiving weekend; and said that Scorsese's film about the formative years of the medium made him think back across its entire history, including the silent era: "It's interesting to think what could have happened if there had been another 10 years of work at that level."

That was the closest that anyone came to discussing The Artist, the other film about films that Hugo, The Descendants and The Help all hope to topple next month.