From Emmanuelle Riva to David O. Russell, mixed signals from BAFTA keep the race alive

Posted by · 5:54 pm · February 10th, 2013

In the first year that BAFTA switched to the Academy’s system of letting the entire membership vote across most categories, we had every reason to expect their customary quirks to disappear with branch-specific voting. Gone are days, probably, of “Mulholland Drive” winning for Best Film Editing, or Pedro Almodovar taking Best Director for “All About My Mother,” as BAFTA increasingly settles into its assumed role as one more Oscar-minded precursor.

But wait — not so fast. Where they could merely have checked off every consensus favorite from the season thus far, BAFTA threw in enough individual choices to suggest they’re at least as keen on guiding Oscar voters to viable alternatives as they are in merely guessing their taste. Some of their choices, meanwhile, were merely about celebrating their own industry: witness the Best British Film award for people’s favorite “Skyfall,” which, as I mentioned in my review, is really its own kind of British heritage film. (They could, after all, have gone with “Les Miserables,” which nonetheless ended the night with the most trophies of any film.)

I couldn’t be more delighted that Lynne Ramsay — one of the most exciting filmmakers at work today, and not just within UK borders — has a BAFTA to call her own for her brilliant short “Swimmer,” which in turn was made as part of last year’s triumphant London Olympics campaign. (As I mentioned the other day, it’s a film that puts all this year’s nominees for the Best Live Action Short Oscar to shame.)

That aside, however, as Kris noted in his live-blog of the winners earlier this evening, most of the Brits’ prominent digressions from the script — most notably, Emmanuelle Riva for Best Actress — may be echoed by the Academy in two weeks’ time. (Just two weeks!)

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all. The BAFTAs’ have carefully cultivated their position in the calendar as the last televised film awards ceremony before the Oscars; announcing their choices weeks after the Globes, the SAGs, and the BFCA Critics’ Choice Awards puts them in a position to demonstrate late-breaking momentum shifts in ever-evolving races. That’s not to say that BAFTA talks and Hollywood listens — these changes are slower-building than that, and plenty of voters placing an X next to Riva’s name in the next few days will be doing so without knowing or caring with the British thought. (They certainly won’t care, whatever some people say, that an 85 year-old woman doesn’t put jetting off to a London awards shindig at the very top of her priority list.) has reached the stage in life where jetting off to  But if there’s something in the water, here’s your evidence.

It happened in 2002 with the quiet storm that was “The Pianist,” as it won BAFTAs for Best Film and Director en route to its near-coup of the Oscars. It happened in 2007 with Marion Cotillard and Tilda Swinton, neither of whom were favored by many awards pundits until BAFTA got behind them. And it could happen this year for Riva, who benefits from the fact that voters are still discovering her film and spreading the word — even at this late stage in the race, even after this major win, she’s the underdog that her fans feel needs to be talked up more

Of course, it might not happen. Just as Mickey Rourke’s 2008 BAFTA win fooled many of us into thinking he had enough last-minute steam to pull ahead of season-long frontrunner Sean Penn, only to fall just short, Riva may well find Jennifer Lawrence’s blazing head start in the race insurmountable. “Silver Linings Playbook,” after all, still has plenty of heat — as demonstrated in the single most surprising win of the BAFTA ceremony, as David O. Russell pulled ahead of both Best Film winner “Argo” and precursor category leader “Lincoln” to take Best Adapted Screenplay — an outcome that could easily be repeated at the Oscars, where the slate of nominees is identical.

The BAFTAs have sent us some confusingly but excitingly mixed signals this year, and this unexpected show of “Silver Linings” love is a perfect example. Less enthusiastically received than in the US by UK critics and audiences, the writing appeared to be on the wall for Russell’s film when the BAFTAS gave it only three nominations, passing it over in the Best Film and Director categories. Clearly, plenty of voters felt it deserved better — enough for it to win for its writing, but not Best Actress into the bargain.

There was similar compensation for another Weinstein property, “Django Unchained.” Like “Silver Linings Playbook,” it missed out on a nomination in the top race, but found enough residual support for its auteur to triumph in a highly competitive Original Screenplay category — where in turn, given Riva’s win, “Amour” clearly had enough admirers to be a close contender.

“Django,” however, went one better than “Playbook” by taking an acting prize, as Christoph Waltz bookended his surprise Golden Globe win to give himself a serious shot at becoming one of the more unlikely two-time Oscar winners of recent years. Best Supporting Actor thus becomes, if not the richest of this year’s acting Oscar races, certainly the most open, not least because we haven’t yet had one major precursor where frontrunners Waltz, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert De Niro have all competed at once.

Do we learn anything from SAG winner Jones’s loss other than that BAFTA wasn’t too jazzed about “Lincoln?” Do we even learn that at all? Certainly, it’s a film that, on the surface, lost some face tonight. After leading the field with 10 nominations, Steven Spielberg’s slice of American history won only for its one shoo-in, and a British shoo-in at that: Best Actor juggernaut Daniel Day-Lewis. But the signs were always there, notably in Spielberg’s missing Best Director nomination, that they weren’t entirely on board with it: I’ve spoken to several BAFTA members who admit to finding the film “boring.” The question, and it’s one BAFTA couldn’t answer, is how many Academy voters secretly feel the same way.

Which brings us around to the Best Film and Best Director races, where the BAFTAs broke no new ground by handing both prizes to “Argo,” following the lead of the Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the DGA, PGA, SAG and many a critics’ group. When a commercially successful crowdpleaser also unites that many industry bodies in agreement, there’s really no case to be made against it: the race may be fluid in other areas, but “Argo” is your Academy Award winner for Best Picture and Best Direc–oh, yeah. Huh.

That pesky, utterly anomalous Ben Affleck omission continues to make Best Director at once one of the most  intriguing and most irrelevant categories at this year’s Oscars, and by further linings Affleck’s cabinet of compensatory trophies, the BAFTAs did little to clarify it. A win for Ang Lee tonight — which, in light of “Life of Pi”‘s vast popularity in the UK, seemed a genuine possibility — would have strengthened his case a potential Oscar winner. As it stands, he faces the challenge of winning the biggest prize of all with nothing heavier than a London Critics’ Award in his back pocket — not that Steven Spielberg has been tearing up the precursor circuit either. In this category, at least, it’s now the Academy who gets to show a little of that off-beam BAFTA quirk I was talking about earlier. 

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