NBR Picks Keep Focus on Indie Standouts 'Manchester' and 'Moonlight'

Manchester by the Sea SPLASH - Main - H - 2016
Claire Folger

Midday on Tuesday, I was seated amid a throng of Academy members at a Peggy Siegal luncheon held at The Explorers Club in New York for Moonlight, the film that essentially swept the Gotham Awards on Monday night. Writer/director Barry Jenkins and stars Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris were fielding questions from moderator Dave Karger — all part of the requisite whistle-stop tour for Oscar hopefuls — when Karger was handed a smartphone, glanced at it and then announced that the National Board of Review had just released its picks for the best of 2016, and that we all were looking at its best director and best supporting actress of the year. The three representatives of the film smiled and exchanged kisses, the audience applauded and then most everyone snuck a peek at their own smartphones to find a full list of NBR winners, led by Manchester by the Sea, which was named best film.

The fact that the NBR is a somewhat suspect organization — comprised of 130 unnamed individuals described on its website only as "film enthusiasts, filmmakers, professionals, academics and students" — is, for most people, neither here nor there. As one of the season's first groups to announce awards, they, like the Gothams, help to steer the conversation toward certain films, and that conversation helps other awards-dispensing groups that weigh in later, like the Academy, to decide what to consider. Last year, for whatever its reasons, the NBR gave its best film prize to Mad Max: Fury Road, an outside-the-box endorsement that may well have legitimized that film as an awards option for others and helped to spur it on its way to 10 Oscar noms (including best picture), six of which resulted in wins.

This year, the NBR may have made its biggest impact on others by championing the same indie films as the Gothams and the Spirit Awards — even though it, unlike those groups, had the option to consider a far larger field of films without budgetary or nationality considerations. Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight are the indie darlings that dominated those two other groups' nominations and the Gotham winners' circle, and they did so with the NBR as well. In addition to the two Moonlight wins and Manchester's best film victory, the latter saw Casey Affleck, who won best actor at the Gothams Monday night, tapped for the same prize here; writer-director Kenneth Lonergan win best original screenplay; and Lucas Hedges, the film's young best supporting actor Oscar hopeful, cited for breakthrough performance (male). In other words, Manchester's guys — if not its supporting actress Michelle Williams, who also was denied a Spirit Award nom — are well on their way.

It's a bit bizarre, but not altogether that significant, that the NBR totally shunned Oscar frontrunner La La Land, save for including it on its list of the year's top 10 films. (Last year's eventual best picture Oscar winner, Spotlight, got the exact same reception, or lack thereof.) Instead, the NBR spread its other top prizes between a wide cross-section of films — some would argue because it likes to sell tables to as many different distributors as possible, while others would argue that was the just thing to do. Best actress went to Arrival's Amy Adams, who is having a nice 24 hours after picking up a Gotham career tribute last night that came with a gushing intro from Cate Blanchett. And best supporting actor went to Hell or High Water's Jeff Bridges, just the sort of affirmation of CBS Films' desired category placement for him that was needed after the Gothams nominated him for best actor and the Spirit Awards didn't nominate him at all, probably because voters were unsure of which category he belonged in.

It's notable for several reasons that the best adapted screenplay award went to Silence, Martin Scorsese's highly anticipated film that I and my fellow pundits don't get to see until Sunday. That suggests that NBR members saw it, though it has a great screenplay (credited to Scorsese and Jay Cocks), but didn't feel the film was worthy of any other awards (apart from a spot on the top 10 list, which doesn't come with any hardware). In a weird sense, giving Silence this one award is almost akin to pouring cold water on the film, which might have done better to not receive anything at all.

O.J.: Made in America, ESPN's seven-and-a-half-hour film, picked up best documentary just hours after doing the same at the Gothams. Steamrolling its competition, it's starting to look unbeatable — unless the Academy's documentary branch, which is in the process of voting to determine the best doc feature Oscar shortlist of 15 films, decides O.J. isn't really a "film," even though it meets the eligibility requirements, and therefore leaves it off the shortlist or the subsequent list of nominees. That is what HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, a member of the branch with whom I met up on Tuesday morning to record an upcoming episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast, told me she suspects will happen. (Incidentally, another top doc contender, Cameraperson, was chosen for the NBR Freedom of Expression Award.)

Other notable news out of the NBR: Focus Features' Kubo and the Two Strings won best animated feature, which serves as a reminder that Disney and Pixar titles may dominate but won't be alone in this year's animated feature Oscar contest; Iran's The Salesman, helmed by Asghar Farhadi, won best foreign-language film, the same accolade his prior film A Separation won en route to an Oscar five years ago; Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg, the Lone Survivor collaborators who this year reteamed on Deepwater Horizon and the much better Patriots Day (it's one of the NBR's top 10 films), shared the Spotlight Award; and Hidden Figures won best ensemble, which its supporters hope will pave the way for it bagging at least a nom for the equivalent SAG Award, something that I think is very possible — but if it doesn't, that could really snuff out its Oscar chances.