Off the Carpet: With the table set, the critics are ready to have their say

Posted by · 2:23 pm · December 2nd, 2013

Unless you were holding out hope that “A Madea Christmas” or “47 Ronin” would make an impact on the Oscar race, it's fair to say all the cards are on the table. “American Hustle” was shown to guilds and press last weekend and has been screening in earnest ever since. “The Wolf of Wall Street” was shown to guilds and HFPA over the last two days with further press screenings set for later this week. All the cats are out of the bag, and just in time, too. Because the critics are about to have their say.

But before I get to that, where do we find ourselves with these final two reveals? I've made my case that “Wolf” could really pop in a somber season that has carried with it themes of survival and hardship. And indeed, reactions from those guild screenings have been through the roof, like everyone's been craving something to take the edge off. “Hustle,” meanwhile, has received a bit of a mixed reaction, some thinking it's set for double-digit nominations, others viewing it as a minimal player at best. Both films, in my humble opinion, are slightly disappointing in their own ways, but I like them both. However, if David O. Russell was looking to put a period on the year, Martin Scorsese has certainly come along and added an exclamation point. (And ironic, that, given how much “Hustle” owes to Scorsese's aesthetic.)

So…here we are. Beginning tomorrow, the critics will start their roll-out of superlatives as the New York Film Critics Circle – which once again desperately scrambled to the head of the pack, one day ahead of the National Board of Review, in order to be “FIRST!” with its announcement – reveals its winners. Last year, it was “Zero Dark Thirty,” right on the heels of the film's first press screenings. Others followed suit for the most part before the tide began to turn toward “Argo.” Did the early critics paint a bull's-eye on Kathryn Bigelow's film, much like the media has done with “12 Years a Slave” this year? Perhaps. Plenty of the film's fall was owed to shenanigans in Washington, too, though.

This year, I imagine “12 Years” is fully primed to be the critical giant. But maybe “Her” goes over well with NYFCC tomorrow, a film that, like “The Master” last year, could also mark a disparity between critics and Academy voters. The Rudin presence in New York might help “Captain Phillips” and particularly “Inside Llewyn Davis” along. And with “The Wolf of Wall Street” fresh on their minds tomorrow (NYFCC is seeing the film today), who knows how much of a presence it could have?

The LA critics will speak up less than a week later and could easily go with “12 Years a Slave,” too. Though last year there was clearly a desire to spread love to “The Master” when it was completely ignored by the New York crowd. Their winners seemed to have a more adventurous spirit, less drunk on the shiny new toy that was “Zero Dark Thirty.” Maybe their actor pick stands out. Bruce Dern seems like a good bet, for instance. And he may well need that boost in a very, very competitive category.

And even after all those critics have spoken, we still have a completely different group of people to suss out the Oscar nominations and, ultimately, winners. Interestingly enough, I currently have both “12 Years” and “Gravity” chalked up for 10 nominations apiece. It could easily be more or less for each but that has been the apparent race for a couple of months now, ever since the films released two weeks apart. Both have done very well in their own ways at the box office and are critical hits, meaning neither would be an embarrassing winner by any stretch. (Though let's not forget the power of instant revisionist history, when a film like “Argo” – same Rotten Tomatoes percentage as “12 Years,” box office hit – suddenly becomes a terrible choice in the eyes of the bored.)

“Saving Mr. Banks” is a sleeper possibility, though, and “Nebraska” has been on an upward trajectory since Telluride. And if “Wolf” drops to the kind of reaction SAG has given it, well…watch out.

But my bet, still, is “Gravity.” It's the milestone. It doesn't have the baggage that “Avatar” did (which is what it has been compared to as far as Oscar races go) and it has a savvy campaign – last year's Best Picture winners, in fact – pushing it along, keeping their head down, steering clear of the usual pitfalls. Maybe when the widespread fear of violence vis a vis “12 Years” dissipates within the Academy and everyone finally watches it, it won't be too late. If the critics come out in force for it, that will certainly go a long way toward making that happen. But ever since the media set the film up for a steep fall, I've been skeptical.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. Winner talk isn't necessary. Let's get to the nominations first. All the players are lined up. Who's going to get there?

The Contenders section has been updated, with, finally, an attempt at narrowing the bet to less than 10 best Picture nominees (which, it will inevitably be less).

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