THE LONG SHOT: Critical mass

Posted by · 7:26 pm · December 9th, 2010

Guy’s updated Oscar predictions here.

Just one week on from the first formal awards announcements of the season, the Oscar season may still be taking its first steps, but my personal interest in the precursor trail is nonetheless set to peak this very weekend.

That, of course, is when the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association weigh in with their selections of the year’s best, showing up the likes of the nominee-naming Washington group as the pretenders they are, while classing up the season with some unapologetically idiosyncratic film smarts.

Or so we hope – for as much as the major critics’ groups often delight us by throwing caution (and Oscar-soothsaying cred) to the wind with rebellious left-field picks, they are equally capable of falling dully into line behind pre-anointed favourites. I was recently chased by Tom O’Neil’s resurrected Gold Derby site for my NYFCC and LAFCA predictions, and while I’m as game as anyone for a spot of light-hearted, consequence-free punting, the irony of the exercise still nagged away at me: the day I predict either group’s set of winners accurately is the day they’ll cease to matter to me.

For while the term “precursor” may imply a kind of predictive or even pre-emptive effect on the rest of the season, many of the two groups’ most memorable calls did no such thing. The New Yorkers’ infamous crowning of Cameron Diaz as Best Actress for “There’s Something About Mary” in 1998 (the amusing compromise drawn between rival camps of support for two tonier actresses) was hardly intended to influence any other voting bodies to do the same, and duly didn’t; on the opposite end of the spectrum, the Los Angelenos’ championing of then-unknown “Down to the Bone” star Vera Farmiga in the same category in 2005 was a nobly, knowingly lost cause.

A glance down the list of past NYFCC and LAFCA winners only emphasises the already well-known fact that the gap between critical darlings and Academy fare can be gratifyingly vast: the list of films that snagged top honors from either group only to miss the Oscar dartboard ranges from “Brazil” to “Topsy-Turvy,” from “Mulholland Drive” to “Do the Right Thing.” Joined by their more esoteric sister in the holy trinity of US critics’ awards, the National Society of Film Critics, the groups also share an awareness of foreign-language cinema that collectively dwarfs that of the Academy: it’s regrettably easy to forget that only a year ago, French actress Yolande Moreau was the dominant critics’ choice for Best Actress, while the LA crowd has recently surfed the Romanian New Wave with awards for actors Vlad Ivanov and Luminita Gheorghiu.

As an actor, you needn’t even have an exotic-sounding name or tongue to fall into the aforementioned gap: Sally Hawkins and Bill Murray share the unenviable, but perversely honourable, distinction of being the only thesps in history to take prizes from all three major US critics’ groups without earning so much as an Oscar nomination for their pains. Let their names serve as bitter reminders to any naïve awards-watchers assuming this weekend’s awards are an automatic shot in the arm for the lucky winners’ Oscar chances.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Just as one is tempted to relieve the critics of their supposed influence on the season—granting them the freedom to reward any difficult, subtitled AMPAS-repelling obscurity they happen to take a shine to—something happens to remind us that their announcements aren’t made into a void, and that the critics’ groups themselves are cannily aware of the power they wield.

It’s exactly 25 years since LAFCA purposefully changed the path of Terry Gilliam’s then-unreleased “Brazil” by handing it their Best Picture prize, prompting doubtful Universal bosses to let audiences see it. The impact of that win on the Academy was minimal (though the film at least earned two Oscar nods it wouldn’t otherwise have received), but the same can’t be said of last year’s choice: shrugged off by audiences and boasting no heavyweight industry names, “The Hurt Locker” became the most critic-steered Best Picture winner in Oscar history, as every major critics’ group in America lined up behind the indie Iraq drama to raise its profile in the face of the threatening populist shadow cast by “Avatar.”

The last time the critics’ awards converged on one film to such an extent was in 1997, when they rallied behind “LA Confidential” as the discerning voter’s alternative to “Titanic” – it didn’t work that time, of course, but let it never be said that critics aren’t as collectively calculating as the savviest Hollywood publicists.

We should not be surprised, then, if this weekend sees both the Los Angeles and New York groups throwing their weight behind “The Social Network”—already cast, despite the patronage of a beleaguered middlebrow institution like the National Board of Review, as the cooler, more credible alternative to “The King’s Speech”—in a concerted effort to keep the ball in its court. And if they do, fine: it’d be a respectable winner under any circumstances.

Except I want to be surprised by these awards: as appreciative as I am of the helping hand they gave Team Bigelow last year, I nonetheless value the likes of LAFCA and the NYFCC more for their independent inclination to celebrate the uncelebrated than their modest ability to manipulate glossier awards institutions. This, critics, is the moment to remind movie fans of the singular achievements of “Dogtooth” and “The Illusionist,” of Emma Stone in “Easy A” and Michael Fassbender in “Fish Tank,” of anything you damn well please, whether or not the Academy can be persuaded to like them too. In the heartless sport of Oscar-watching, critics’ awards may be regarded, for better or worse, as precursors, but they’re their own prizes first.

[Photos: Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, AMPAS]

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23 responses so far

  • 1 12-09-2010 at 7:52 pm

    cineJAB said...

    Best Picture: Inception
    Best Director: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
    Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
    Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
    Supporting Actor: Jeremy Renner, The Town
    Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Inception
    Best Picture: Black Swan
    Best Director: David Fincher, Social Network
    Best Actor: Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
    Best Actress: Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
    Supporting Actor: Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
    Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, The Fighter

  • 2 12-09-2010 at 7:55 pm

    Hans said...

    Didn’t they both also give Fantastic Mr. Fox their animated film award? That did make me question for a bit whether Up really had the award in the bag and it looked like we had a race.

    Anyway, I love the Social Network, it’s a solid, practically perfect film, but I really hope this season isn’t a boring sweeper for it.

  • 3 12-09-2010 at 8:00 pm

    Julian Stark said...

    Great writeup as always, and love the Emma Stone mention.

    I’m not fully sure what I’m predicting for LAFCA and NYFCC just yet, but I think Tilda Swinton might win Actress at one of them (probably LAFCA)

  • 4 12-09-2010 at 8:37 pm

    Michael said...

    “As an actor, you needn’t even have an exotic-sounding name or tongue to fall into the aforementioned gap: Sally Hawkins and Bill Murray share the unenviable, but perversely honourable, distinction of being the only thesps in history to take prizes from all three major US critics’ groups without earning so much as an Oscar nomination for their pains.”

    -That sentence confuses me – didn’t Bill Murray get nominated for Lost in Translation or do you mean for another role where he won all three critic awards but didn’t get a nomination?

  • 5 12-09-2010 at 8:46 pm

    Julian Stark said...

    Rushmore in 1998

  • 6 12-09-2010 at 9:05 pm

    red_wine said...

    I would say LA, NY & NSFC remain the three most sensible and prestigious awards simply because they also choose to award foreign language films. I find it deeply offensive that year after year, the other critic awards (many of whom even have nominees) fail to mention a single foreign language film. It can be said of Academy members and the general viewing public that they don’t have much opportunity or inclination for watching them but what about critics who get to see everything in a year.

    A critic who doesn’t mention a single foreign language film in his year end round-up is a failed critic. Its like they collectively seek to smother out all foreign language films by not acknowledging their presence. It is being narrow-minded, ignorant, prejudiced and pandering to the extreme.

    I do think The Social Network will win both LA & NY, and like you it won’t bother me because TSN is a perfectly deserving film. However, it is not so above its American peers (as The Hurt Locker was) to justify a sweep and I would be more delighted by a scattered season than repetition of one name ad nauseam.

    TSN is the safe choice, the most traditionally and broadly acclaimed American feature of the year, but it is also a good choice, so almost everyone is going to go for it.

    But I hope these lesser critic awards realize that nobody is even going to bother reporting them if they all pick one film, eccentric choices are the one way they will receive (and merit) coverage and discussion. But these poor lesser critic awards can’t reconcile their goals of being relevant and safe at the same time.

    Guy did you see Peter Travers’ Top 10 who it can’t be denied is one of the most famous and widely read critics in America? It was utterly horrific and shocking.

  • 7 12-09-2010 at 10:39 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    I don’t get what everyone’s obsession with being surprised is about. For me, I just want the people I think are the best to be rewarded. I don’t care if god came down to earth and preordained the winners, so everyone in the world knew who they would be, as long as I agreed with the picks.

    For instance, I would have not find it delightful if Sounder had somehow managed to upset The Godfather in 1972. It definitely would have been surprising, but it would have been pretty shameful in my opinion.

  • 8 12-09-2010 at 10:39 pm

    sosgemini said...

    Apologies if this is out of place but WTF is wrong with David Rusell?

  • 9 12-09-2010 at 10:40 pm

    Patriotsfan said...


  • 10 12-10-2010 at 1:53 am

    Alberto said...

    I think Another Year has a chance of pulling an upset in one of these critics’ awards. I’d be ecstatic, since it’s the best film of the year.
    I hope Lesley Manville and Jacki Weaver repeat their NBR win in any of these three so that they can consolidate their Oscar nomination chances.
    Here’s my NBR aftermath analysis:

  • 11 12-10-2010 at 1:58 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ Patriotsfan — I think in the case of the critics’ awards, a “surprise” would be nice just to see some unique choices. Even if I disagree with them, it was interesting and bold for the BSFC to choose Frank Langella as their Best Actor in 2007, or the NSFC to select Yi Yi as their Best Picture of 2000. One of the best functions of the critics’ awards is to highlight, and in a sense, “lobby” the Academy to at least nominate their choices, or at the very least give *some* sort of award to non-frontrunners (like Woody Harrelson and the NBR last year) so I’m always more supportive of idiosyncratic picks rather than thinly veiled Oscar predictions.

    Besides, a lot of times a surprise can be a good thing with the Oscars. For example, Marlon Brando winning Best Actor for On the Waterfront was considered a big upset at the time (Bing Crosby was favored).

  • 12 12-10-2010 at 5:19 am

    Edwin Drood said...

    I, for one, certainly don’t want surprises just for the sake of surprises. “The Social Network” was by any measure the best reviewed film of the year therefore it only makes sense that it should sweep the critics’ awards…

    @Michael – Bill Murray swept the critics’ prizes as best supporting actor for “Rushmore” in 1998…

  • 13 12-10-2010 at 5:39 am

    Dominik said...

    If there will be a major surprise this year, watch out for Mike Leigh and “Another Year” – I have a feeling it might sweep either LA or NY.
    Black Swan? Too controversial. While I admit Natalie Portman was nothing short of terrific and fearless, the film is at times slightly over the top and too effect-seeking. This might hurt also Portman´ s chances, at least with these more “highbrow” critics circle groups (watch out for Natalie at the Golden Globes).
    So I bet Lesley Manville and Annette Bening might prevail here.
    And, one last note, I bet that Christian Bale won´t be recognized neither, cause his film is way too mainstream-ish and (in all due respect) dull.
    I see John Hawkes winning LA or NY. And Colin Firth sweeps for Best Actor.

  • 14 12-10-2010 at 5:55 am

    Maxim said...

    I disagree with a notion that Crititics groups have to be unpredictable to be good, nor do I think that a desrving winner should always lose some of the races. In both cases it should all be about that subjective notion of what’s truly deserving.

  • 15 12-10-2010 at 6:27 am

    John Gilpatrick said...

    Unrelated question, but Guy, when will you be unveiling your end-of-year top 10 list? I know Kris is today. Wondering if we can expect yours soon after?

  • 16 12-10-2010 at 7:59 am

    Brian said...

    @Maxim – agreed. In my opinion, however, the Oscars generally do not pursue the ‘truly deserving’ criteria. So if by unpredictable Guy means ignoring the Academy’s perplexing grading system then I believe he is making a valid point.

  • 17 12-10-2010 at 8:05 am

    Brian said...

    By the by, I see Mansville winning NY, with Williams being the nearest alternate

  • 18 12-10-2010 at 8:17 am

    Maxim said...

    That’s an important distinction, Brian. I am certaily not against spreading the wealth when that is appropiriate.

    Really the thing I disagree is the notion of being interesting or unpredictable for the sake of being so.

    The fact that AMPAS doesn’t always get it right and has a weird way of voting is certainly a valid concern but wasn’t quite what I was getting at.

  • 19 12-10-2010 at 11:08 am

    dp said...

    you forget brokeback mountain…which won just about every pre-cursor.

  • 20 12-10-2010 at 11:08 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    ““The Social Network” was by any measure the best reviewed film of the year…”

    I have no idea how you measure such things — it’s not maths. And don’t give me RT scores.

    John Gilpatrick: There are still a few stray films I need to catch, so I haven’t nailed a date yet — but my list will definitely go up before Christmas.

  • 21 12-10-2010 at 11:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    DP: I didn’t forget Brokeback Mountain, but there isn’t room for every relevant example in a piece of this length. (And its sweep of the major critics’ awards wasn’t actually as comprehensive as The Hurt Locker’s — it lost the NSFC to Capote.)

  • 22 12-10-2010 at 11:45 am

    Keil Shults said...


    Let’s be chums.