NBR Awards Celebrate 'A Most Violent Year' as 'Sniper,' 'Birdman,' Others Share Spotlight

Oscar Isaac Jessica Chastain NBR P 2015
AP Images/Invision

Just about all of the major Oscar contenders except for the presumptive favorite, Boyhood, were feted in one way or another at Tuesday night's 86th annual National Board of Review Awards. Handed out at the stately Cipiriani 42nd Street restaurant by a 106-year-old group comprising "knowledgeable film enthusiasts and professionals, academics, young filmmakers and students" — few if any of whom are also members of the Academy — it was a marathon three-hour evening, hosted by NBC's Willie Geist, that featured the presentation of no fewer than 19 awards, the winners of which were announced on Dec. 2.

The winner of the most and biggest prizes was J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year, a crime drama starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain that was awarded best film, one-half of best actor (Isaac) and best supporting actress (Chastain). Birdman took home two big prizes — the other half of best actor (Michael Keaton) and best supporting actor (Edward Norton) — while American Sniper (best director Clint Eastwood) and Still Alice (best actress Julianne Moore) were also accorded major recognition.

Over the course of a very long evening, there were moments mind-numbing (the team behind The Lego Movie rambled on for well over 10 minutes), emotional (Selma's director Ava DuVernay spoke about "freedom of expression" and how it can be threatened) and funny (as is bound to happen when you get Chris Rock, Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld together in one room).

Will Arnett, a voice actor on the animated Lego Movie, kicked things off by presenting the best original screenplay award to that film's co-writers (and co-directors) Chris Miller and Phil Lord, calling their script "dazzling and original and special." During an acceptance speech in which both men spoke and that went on for so long that everyone from comedian Rock to film historian Scott Eyman later mocked it, Lord called their work, which on paper sounded like "the least original" idea, actually "a trojan horse to sneak in some ideas."

The second prize, best breakthrough performance, was given by film critic Richard Corliss to Jack O'Connell, the star of both Unbroken and Starred Up in 2014. After Corliss compared him to James Mason and Adrien Brody, the 24-year-old Brit, who will soon be seen in the film '71, cracked that after his busy last year, "I certainly feel broken in!"

The Freedom of Expression Award was presented to two different films, the first being DuVernay's Selma. Introduced by the film's star David Oyelowo, who called her "one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met" and "a sister to me, a goddess of cinema and a beauty in so many ways," DuVernay delivered a short speech, the subtext of which seemed to have to do with the flak that her film has been taking for its portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. "In a world where one's freedom of expression can be challenged, strangled, airbrushed, revised, op-eded, blogged about and tweeted to death, it's lovely to be here celebrating our right, as artists, to pursue our truth, amplify our voice and embed our ideas in our questions and images that we make." She added, "That's the safest thing I can say tonight."

Fury producer John Lesher then collected the best ensemble award on behalf of his film's cast, which included Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Logan Lerman, none of whom were able to be in attendance.

Jenny Slate, the star of Obvious Child, presented her film's director, Gillian Robespierre, with the best directorial debut award, calling the indie comedy "a game-changer" and Robespierre "my truly dope-ass friend." Robespierre, for her part, thanked the NBR — "for whatever you do."

Eyman, the film historian and author of acclaimed film biographies on everyone from Mary Pickford to Louis B. Mayer to his latest subject, John Wayne (The Life and Legend), was introduced as the recipient of the William K. Everson Film History Award by Robert Gottlieb, who said, "I've read all his books. No one deserves this more." In addition to thanking his subjects, he mentioned, "I thought if everyone cut 30 seconds off their acceptance speeches then Chris Rock might do 10 minutes … The guys from The Lego Movie pretty much shot that."

The second Freedom of Expression Award was then presented by Star Wars savior J.J. Abrams to Stewart for his feature directorial debut Rosewater. After Abrams said of Stewart, "He's a genius — he makes it look easy," Stewart came to the podium accompanied by klezmer music that he joked was "the Jew-iest music they could find." He continued, "It's not easy to make a film, but if you can get someone courageous arrested [as was the case with the man who inspired his film], it's a great start." Turning serious, he said, "It feels ridiculous to get an award for expression. Nothing that I did was in any way courageous. It is honoring a man who deserves this."

America Ferrara, one of the voice stars of How to Train Your Dragon 2, came out to present that film with the best animated film prize, which was accepted by producer Bonnie Arnold (whom Ferrara congratulated on her recent promotion to co-head of production at DreamWorks Animation) and writer-director Dean DeBlois. Arnold encouraged people who haven't yet seen the acclaimed film, "Go see it, it's really pretty good!"

Next up was Ron Rifkin, who presented Birdman's Norton with the best supporting actor prize for a character that Geist humorously noted was "the least supportive actor." Rifkin said Norton "makes acting seem like breathing," and Norton thanked the NBR for their constant support of his work — including giving him "the very first award I ever received" at Tavern on the Green 18 years ago, six months after he had been fired as a waiter there.

Ramin Bahrani, a young filmmaker championed by Roger Ebert late in the film critic's life, then did the best documentary honors, which recognized Steve James' Ebert profile Life Itself. Bahrani called James "one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time" who has made "masterpiece after masterpiece," and the doc "a great film." James remarked, "It's really a love story," highlight Ebert's many passions, and noting that Ebert "probably touched the life of every person in this room."

Inherent Vice was the best adapted screenplay winner, and the film's rookie leading lady Katherine Waterston nervously presented its writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who had worked from Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name, with the prize, saying, "I've never seen a film that captures the feel of a novel so well." Anderson said, "I was just a secretary to a great book."

Seinfeld then presented Rock with the Spotlight Award for Top Five, which he called "one of the best movies ever made by a stand-up comedian," at least, he added, one who was still actively a stand-up comedian. Rock got laughs by cracking that he thought the ceremony was the National Black Review Awards and that there would be singing and dancing, but that, instead, "I am bored out of my fucking mind." He added, "Why did the animated people take so fucking long? None of these people saw your movie — their kids are 50 years old!" He also said, "I'm the only person who's offended I wasn't [in any hacked emails]," noting of his film's producer Scott Rudin, who was: "Scott Rudin's not a racist. Scott Rudin hates everybody. He's not here tonight because he hates all of you!"

Carla Gugino presented Damian Szifron with the best foreign film prize for his Argentine comedy Wild Tales, saying it is "an understatement" to call it hilarious. He gratefully accepted "the first award I have received in this country" and dedicated it to his late father.

As the evening wore on and more and more alcohol was consumed, a strangely lethargic Bruce Willis introduced best actor co-winner Keaton, of Birdman, by stating, slowly and repeatedly, several variations of, "I've been a fan of his films for a long time, he has been a favorite of mine for a long time." Keaton, more energetic, declared, "This is really a special thing for me," calling filmmaking "the ultimate team sport" and emphasizing, "I happened to be on a really, really, really great team."

This was followed by last year's Cannes Film Festival best actor winner introducing its best actress winner: Timothy Spall introduced NBR best actress winner Moore (Still Alice), a two-time past NBR Award winner (for Magnolia and Far From Heaven), as a woman possessing "masterly skill." After recounting all of the obstacles that had to be overcome by the film for which she was being honored, which only wrapped production last March, she said, "We made the movie so quickly that I don't remember any of it."

Best supporting actress and best actor were then jointly presented because their recipients were co-stars — A Most Violent Year's Chastain and Isaac, respectively — who wanted to celebrate each other, having known one another since they met at Juilliard 12 years ago. Isaac said of Chastain, "To act opposite her was like surfing — thrilling and dangerous." She returned the compliment, "He's incapable of a false note." Chastain, who was cast before Isaac, also mentioned that after another actor withdrew from the film, she had sent writer-director Chandor an email pleading with him to consider Isaac — and then read a portion of that email, which Isaac had never heard before. A highlight: "He reminds me of Al Pacino in the seventies." After Isaac acknowledged his co-recipient, Keaton, Keaton rushed back onto the stage to repay the compliment, having forgotten to acknowledge Isaac during his earlier turn at the podium.

Bradley Cooper, having already given a performance on Broadway earlier in the evening, made it over in time to present best director to his American Sniper helmer Eastwood, long a favorite of the NBR. "Clint was truly in the trenches with us every single day," he said. Eastwood said, "The great thing about Bradley is I never saw him acting. That's the best compliment I can give him and that's the best compliment I can give any actor."

And finally, at long last, the best film prize was presented to A Most Violent Year. Zachary Quinto, a producer of Chandor's earlier two films — Margin Call (2011), for which Chandor won the NBR's best directorial debut prize, and All Is Lost (2013) — called it "one of the greatest gifts of my career to be a part of his journey," and also acknowledged Chandor's two other loyal producers, Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb. Chandor, speaking for the trio, recalled, "It almost didn't happen," explaining that he had been ready to quit the business when he met Quinto, Dodson and Gerb, having faced so much rejection, but that he reluctantly sat down with them, they bought his vision and the rest is history. He added, "It's very important that original, new, contemporary stories are told."

The last movie that won the best film NBR Award but did not go on receive a best picture Oscar nomination was Quills 14 years ago. That might suggest that people are underestimating the Oscar prospects of the critically acclaimed, $20 million drama, which few are predicting for a best pic nom — or it might just be a pure coincidence. We'll find out when the 87th Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 15.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg