Contender Countdown: 'Gravity' and 'Her' rise in the race

Posted by · 7:13 pm · December 8th, 2013

What a week. We knew that the end of year honors from the nation’s preeminent critics groups would send a ripple through the best picture race. We didn’t know it would send a shockwave.

Based on critical response since it debuted at Telluride and Toronto, it was expected that Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave” would win at least one and possibly all three of this week’s best picture honors. Instead, despite some internal debate within the New York Film Critics Circle, Steve McQueen’s Oscar player went home empty-handed — at least in regards to a best film honor. Yes, it’s already earned some wins from less significant groups (Boston Online Critics) and will no doubt earn a bunch more. However, along with its “upset” loss at the Gotham Awards to “Inside Llewyn Davis” last Monday, this isn’t the December the studio was hoping for…so far.

“12 Years” should get a shot in the arm once the SAG Awards and Golden Globe nominations are announced later this week. Steve McQueen’s drama is a lock for Best Ensemble, Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender) from SAG and it could tally an impressive seven Globe nods. Even if that scenario does come to pass, Searchlight may need to begin pushing the pedal on this one. The mini-major has been incredibly classy so far by not going overboard with both their awards and consumer marketing campaign. That has worked as “12 Years” has earned over $35 million. For the film to seriously contend for Best Picture in this crowded race, however, members may need to feel the heat before final guild awards voting begins. “12 Years” can still win the Oscar, but having the New York or Los Angeles critics, let alone NBR, anoint you as the “chosen one?” No one is gonna turn that down.

Across town, Warner Bros. is having a great week. Spike Jonze’s “Her” has surprised not only taking the NBR best picture award, but tying studio stablemate “Gravity” with LAFCA. Whether “Her” can actually win Best Picture remains to be seen, but this early recognition may help solidify a nomination. WB’s real main contender, “Gravity,” will likely win a few other minor critics’ groups best movie of the year awards, but LAFCA is a solid win. There are numerous Oscar winners that haven’t won a major critics honor (“Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), but recently just as many have. For “Gravity” to avoid the stigma that it’s just another CG blockbuster (the benefit and detriment of huge box office) it needs the slight push of a critical stamp to allow some members to feel they can justify voting for it (again, “some” members, not all). How Warner Bros. shapes the campaign from this point on will be incredibly intriguing to watch.

Of course, we can’t forget David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” The late ’70s period drama shocked almost everyone by taking home the New York critics’ top prize along with Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence). In the days following, “Hustle” was completely shut out by both NBR and LAFCA. Like “12 Years,” however, the entertaining “Hustle” should rack up a bunch of SAG and Golden Globe nominations. And that’s enough heat for this pundit to finally add it to the contender top 10. Do we feel 100% secure about “Hustle’s” chances? No, but if it’s a hit, Sony Pictures likely has another Best Picture nominee on its hands (assuming “Phillips” doesn’t fall out of the race, of course).

With that in mind, here’s the current state of the countdown.

Dec. 8, 2013

1. “Gravity”
Needed at least one of the top three end of year critics groups’ honors. Done.

2.  “12 Years a Slave”
Looking to regain some lost momentum with SAG Ensemble nod and Golden Globes haul.

3. “American Hustle”
Only one of the last nine films honored by NYFCC as best of the year hasn’t been nominated for Best Picture (“United 93”). Numerous SAG and GG nominations will solidify this contender. Can’t fail at the box office thought.

4. “Saving Mr. Banks”
UK box office was shockingly disappointing, but it’s still looking to be a great word of mouth holiday release in the U.S.

5. “Captain Phillips”
Needs some top 10 end of year critics support. Not kidding guys.

6. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
The one The Weinstein Company isn’t worried about it.

7. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Best Feature win at the Gotham Awards and rave opening day reviews doesn’t hurt.

8. “Nebraska”
Critics favorite is an old person, er,  Academy favorite.

9.  “Her”
Last film to win the National Board of Review’s best film honor and not get nominated for Best Picture? “Quills” over 12 years ago.

10. “Wolf of Wall Street”
Don’t take the lack of year-end honors so far at face value. Many members have not had a chance to see it.

Currently on the outside looking in: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Philomena,” “Blue Jasmine”

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