Oscar Watchers Shouldn't Read Too Much Into Gotham Awards Noms (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst applauds many of the noms but emphasizes that, unlike the Oscars, they reflect the views of only three five-person committees of film geeks.
"Short Term 12"

Are indies more a part of the Oscar race than usual this year or is our definition of indies looser than it used to be? It's hard to say, but, regardless, an unusually large contingent of this year's most serious Oscar contenders received Gotham Independent Film Award nominations Thursday morning.

Among those heading to New York's Cipriani Wall Street on Dec. 2 are best picture front-runner 12 Years a Slave; best actor front-runners Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years), Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) and Robert Redford (All Is Lost); best actress front-runner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine); and best supporting actress front-runner Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years). These contenders, all of which are backed by major distributors and marketing campaigns, will compete alongside films that are indisputably true indies -- including some truly great ones, such as Gimme the Loot, Short Term 12 and Upstream Color -- but in all likelihood lack the profile and/or resources to hang with the big guys for the rest of the awards season.

C'est la vie, I guess.

STORY: '12 Years a Slave' Leads Gotham Awards Nominees 

This year, the Gothams eliminated their best ensemble category and introduced best actor and best actress categories.

It would be nice if I could tell you that the following factoids about this morning's nominations offer us some clue about the larger Oscar race:

  • 12 Years a Slave led the field with three nominations, and Blue Caprice, ConcussionFruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis and Upstream Color were close behind with two noms each;
  • August: Osage County, Enough Said, Frances Ha, Mud, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Nebraska, The Place Beyond the Pines and Spring Breakers were completely shut out;
  • 12 Years, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Before Midnight, Inside Llewyn Davis and Upstream Color were nominated for the best feature Gotham, but All Is Lost, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club and Fruitvale Station were not;
  • Five of the last nine winners of the best breakthrough actor award went on to score an Oscar nom: Catalina Sandino Moreno for Maria Full of Grace (2004), Amy Adams for Junebug (2005), Rinko Kikuchi for Babel (2006), Ellen Page for Juno (2007) and Melissa Leo for Frozen River (2008).

But, as I remind people each year, the reality is that they do not because ...

  • Gotham noms really are a reflection of nothing more than the tastes of three five-person committees comprised of "film critics, journalists, festival programmers and film curators." (Winners are then determined by "separate juries of writers, directors, actors, producers, editors and others directly involved in making films.") Moreover, there is no coordination between the different committees, which results in nominations that are all over the map and into which deeper meaning -- read: Oscar implications -- should not be read.
  • The Gothams' nomination criteria are incredibly vague. To be eligible, a film must be American and "made with a point of view and with an economy of means." Best feature nominees have included everything from Ballast (2008), a microbudget film with a no-name distributor, to Into the Wild (2007), a $15 million Paramount film, to The Departed, a $90 million Warner Bros. film. The budget of this year's best feature nominees range greatly as well. The least expensive, Upstream Color, had a budget of less than $100,000 and was self-distributed, whereas the most expensive, 12 Years a Slave, cost $20 million and is being handled by Fox Searchlight. The best breakthrough actor category has been equally bizarre over the years. Last year, for instance, the nominees included Quvenzhane Wallis, a nine-year-old who never had acted in a movie prior to the one for which she is nominated, and 35-year-old Melanie Lynskey, whose real breakthrough came 18 years and 50 credits earlier. And what exactly distinguishes a best breakthrough actor and a best actor or best actress nomination is not exactly clear: Brie Larson (Short Term 12), who was nominated for best actress, had a real breakthrough year (during which she also appeared in Don Jon and The Spectacular Now), whereas Michael B. Jordan, who was nominated for best breakthrough actor, broke through years ago on TV's The Wire, Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, and, in my view, deserved a best actor nomination.
  • The winners of best breakthrough actor sometimes have foreshadowed subsequent Oscar noms, but not for the last four years, in three of which they nominated someone who would go on to score an Oscar nom but then awarded the prize to someone who never really popped up again over the course of the awards season: Catalina Saavedra for The Maid over Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker in 2009; Ronald Bronstein for Daddy Longlegs over Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone in 2010; and Emayatzy Corinealdi for Middle of Nowhere over Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012.

Still, despite their eccentricities, the Gothams serve several important purposes:

  • They shine a spotlight on a number of contenders who deserve recognition but might not receive it from any other awards group. This year, they include truly exciting young filmmakers (i.e. Adam Leon for Gimme the Loot, which may end up on my year-end top 10 list) and actors (i.e. Larson for Short Term 12, which may end up at the top of my year-end top 10 list).
  • They generally recognize terrific documentaries -- many of which have gone on to receive Oscar nominations as well -- and this year is no exception: Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, Lucy Walker's The Crash Reel, Alan Berliner's First Cousin Once Removed, Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn and Penny Lane's Our Nixon.
  • And they offer us Oscar watchers at least a tiny bit of insight, through their nominations and their wins, into how the New York indie film community feels about this year's crop of contenders.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg