Will Oscar Voters Take a Cue From Critics' Picks?

Will Oscar Voters Take a Cue From Critics’ Picks?
Illustration by Mark Matcho

Two of the earliest signs that Bong Joon Ho's Parasite would take the golden brick road to its best picture Oscar last awards season came when it was anointed 2019's best picture by both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. (The rival New York Film Critics Circle opted instead to hand its best picture prize to Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, but then the three prominent critics' groups almost make it a point of pride never to agree with one another.)

The previous season, though, offered a different story, with the critics' voices seemingly having little impact on the outcome of the Oscar contest. While both the Los Angeles and New York critics agreed that Alfonso Cuarón's Roma was that year's outstanding film, and the National Society went its own way by hailing Chloé Zhao's The Rider, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bucked a large critical consensus and bestowed its best picture Oscar on Peter Farrelly's Green Book.

So what will it be this time around? Will the critics prove to be soothsayers, pointing toward an eventual Oscar victory? Or will their favorites figure in the nominations but not the actual win?

This cycle, there has been no unanimity on display among the critical fraternity. On Dec. 18, the New York critics kicked off their annual ritual by singling out Kelly Reichardt's unassuming, 19th century-set First Cow. Their Los Angeles counterparts followed on Dec. 20 by elevating Steve McQueen's Small Axe (which is actually five separate though thematically related films, but more on that in a moment). And then, on Jan. 9, the National Society, rather than choose between the two, celebrated Zhao's haunting Nomadland.

But even as that all seemed to point Academy voters in different directions, there is also a big asterisk attached to the current pandemic-delayed awards season.

The Academy, in the hope (now looking increasingly wistful) that the viral outbreak would be resolved by this spring, postponed its big awards show to April 25, and rather than make Dec. 31, 2019, the cutoff date for films to qualify, it will consider movies that get some sort of release through Feb. 28. Most of the other awards groups in town followed suit. Normally, the critics' own year-end choices arrive as nominations for other awards like the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild Awards and the Critics' Choice Awards (voted on by a much larger, more populist collection of more than 400 critics) are announced in December, but, with their awards shows delayed this year, those groups won't be dropping their noms until February and March.

In a regular year, the critics' picks usually command attention for a day or two, but are sometimes lost amid all the praise coming from other quarters. But striking out on their own, the critics' groups decided to stick to the 2020 calendar year, COVID-related extensions be damned. Theoretically, since the nominations or awards haven't been announced yet, that should give the critics' choices more weight.

Except that not all of their idiosyncratic selections may serve as much of a road map for Academy members surveying the field. The New York critics, for example, eschewed a number of probable frontrunners to elevate First Cow, which may have difficulty gaining traction because the A24 release played just one week in four theaters back in March before it was pulled because of the pandemic. (It subsequently became available as a VOD rental and is now on Showtime.) The low-key drama is the sort of film that could find a more receptive hearing at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles critics took an even more unconventional route by circling in on Small Axe. Not only does it consist of five films about London's West Indian community — three of which, Lovers Rock, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, did play the New York Film Festival — but Amazon isn't even qualifying any of those films for Oscars, instead promoting the entire series for Emmys.

That leaves Nomadland, the National Society's best picture winner, as the one title that could most benefit, Oscar-wise, from the critics' attention. All three groups did name Zhao best director, while the National Society also proclaimed the film's star, Frances McDormand, who plays a lonely, stubbornly independent wanderer, best actress.

Adding to the chorus, a whole array of other critics' organizations coast to coast — from the Boston Society of Film Critics to the San Diego Film Critics Society — have also lent their imprimatur to the Searchlight feature, which won the top prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. And, at the end of the day, that's an awful lot of thumbs up.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.