Off the Carpet: The critics leave it wide open

Posted by · 10:21 am · December 9th, 2013

The New York Film Critics Circle went with “American Hustle” after being gridlocked over whether to choose that film as 2013’s Best Picture or “12 Years a Slave.” “12 Years” came back around with the first wave of regional critics notices, taking Best Picture from the Boston Society of Film Critics and winning huge with the online Beantown crowd, among others. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association answered their east coast brethren by completely ignoring “Hustle” and finding its own unsettled gridlock between “Gravity” and “Her” for the year’s top honor, ending in a tie.

The chatter that has arisen in the wake of this initial precursor wave could have been predicted: it’s anyone’s game.

At this point last year, “Zero Dark Thirty” was dominating the critics groups’ superlative lists. Mid-month, that tide eventually shifted to “Argo,” but those were the two and nothing else ever seemed to be dominant. Here we are at the start and four different films have been crowned the year’s best by the most respected organizations. Two of them we knew would be in the thick of it, the other two needed the boost of early kudos to insinuate themselves into the race. We’re truly off to the races.

But the tide shifts again later this week. Wednesday, the first industry awards announcement will come in the form of the 2013 Screen Actors Guild nominations. Often more of an indicator of early-season standings, it’s nevertheless an important moment because we’ll have almost a whole month before the DGA adds to whatever cumulative effect there might be. In the meantime, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe nominations announcement on Thursday, which given how this town gossips won’t have too many surprises, should build steam for this or that awards season narrative.

RELATED: ’12 Years a Slave,’ James Gandolfini win with Boston Society of Film Critics

Finally, a week from today, the Broadcast Film Critics Association speaks up. And say what you will about the group (I’ve certainly been critical, and full disclosure, I’m a member), it is unique in that it is a large body of people that can reflect the sort of consensus takeaway we eventually see in the Oscar nominations.

But for now, it’s “American Hustle,” “Gravity,” “Her” and “12 Years a Slave.” In the performance arenas, Cate Blanchett has predictably dominated for her tour de force work in “Blue Jasmine,” while Jared Leto has nearly swept the supporting actor races for his “Dallas Buyers Club” transformation (he tied with “Spring Breakers” star James Franco with LAFCA and lost out to “Enough Said’s” James Gandolfini with the Boston crew). The lead actor races have been somewhat scattered, Robert Redford, Bruce Dern and especially Chiwetel Ejiofor all staking a claim. It was Redford who probably need the boost from New York the most, however. Meanwhile, “12 Years a Slave” star Lupita Nyong’o has been pretty consistent on the circuit in the supporting actress category, though “Nebraska’s” June Squibb and “American Hustle’s” Jennifer Lawrence have gotten theirs, as well.

And as for directors, Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón have kind of been going back and forth, but Spike Jonze got a tip of the hat from the National Board of Review to go along with his film’s Best Picture win there.

RELATED: ‘Her’ named best film of 2013 by National Board of Review, Spike Jonze wins Best Director

So far, nothing for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” though it came close to the Best Picture ranks with both Boston groups. It has has been playing like gangbusters to some, a total bloated miss to others, but overall it seems like critics are more inclined toward “American Hustle” of the latter-year reveals. But there are still plenty who need to get around to the Scorsese, mind you.

Also curiously low key on the circuit has been the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I expect it to pick up a Best Picture win somewhere along the way, though the groups that it likely spoke to most have already spoken. Maybe the National Society of Film Critics throws it a crucial bone at the beginning of the year?

With all of these announcements, by the way, comes our brand spanking new edition of The Circuit, where you can track all of these crazy ups and downs and twists and turns on the way to Oscar. It will be linked in the right sidebar all season long, a time capsule for the 2013-2014 film awards season. And it’s on that note that I’d have to disagree slightly with my colleague Greg Ellwood, who noted that it was “not the best week” for “12 Years a Slave” in his Contender Countdown piece last night. I think more and more the prestigious critics groups like LAFCA and NYFCC have proved that they aren’t necessary beyond perhaps shining a bright light on some movie that needs to be seen. But when you look at the regional critics, McQueen’s film is clearly dominant.

This is important, by the way. I know a lot of people like to scoff and act like covering each of these announcements as they come in is pointless, but in point of fact, it’s not. Guess where “Argo” ended up surging last year? With the regional critics. In the collective, you begin to see consensus build, and that’s what the Academy vote is all about: consensus. To say nothing of the fact that these are professional film critics whose voice shouldn’t be ignored just because they aren’t located in a big city. It’s all part of the mixture, and while none of it “influences” the race (the NY and LA crowds can do that), all of it informs it.

RELATED: The 2013-2014 Film Awards Circuit

So for now, that’s about as clear an early table setting as you can get. We’ve gone ahead and updated the Contenders section to pretty much reveal that status, even though it’s worth keeping in mind that old mantra: “Critics don’t vote for Oscars.” The Academy is its own beast with its own fickle tendencies, and yes, it’s silly to speak of it like a single sentient thing, but when voting is that widespread, the most agreeable and easily acceptable rise up.

Is that going to be “12 Years a Slave?” Maybe, maybe not. Is it “Gravity?” Could be. Is it “Saving Mr. Banks,” which has been completely and totally absent from the precursors so far. Again, could be. We have a long way to go, and the critics have done their job so far: putting the pressure on to make sure certain movies are seen. Though, as ever, it would be nice if those films were, I don’t know, “Mud” or “Before Midnight” or “In a World…,” but it is what it is.

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