Pete Hammond

If they weren’t first out of the gate every season, the New York-based National Board Of Review (a self-described group of film enthusiasts, academics, film professionals, and students) probably wouldn’t garner a whole lot of attention for their awards choices. But their announcement (1ST AWARDS: ‘The Social Network’ Sweeps 2010 National Board Of Review Kudos) today naming Sony Picture’s The Social Network Best Picture, Best Director for David Fincher, Best Adapted Screenplay for Aaron Sorkin, and Best Actor for Jesse Eisenberg will certainly give at least a temporary boost to that film’s battle for supremacy over the other presumed Oscar frontrunner, The King’s Speech, which only got mentioned on the org’s 10 Best List. The complete shut out in individual categories for The Weinstein Co pic is a bit surprising since the NBR in the past had a tendency to be a little more conservative. It even was overlooked for Original Screenplay which  went, surprisingly, to Liongate’s Buried, a box office dud that disappeared quickly and is not on anyone’s awards radar.

Still The Social Network probably shouldn’t start prepping those Oscar acceptance speeches yet. Even though the NBR did match eventual Best Picture Oscar winners No Country For Old Men in 2007 and Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, nothing other than Best Documentary winner The Cove and Best Animated winner Up repeated at the Oscars last year. (Up In The Air was the NBR winner.) And only one of their 8 acting winners in the past two years (2008 Supporting Actress Penelope Cruz) similarly triumphed at the Oscars. That spotty recent track record doesn’t bother NBR president Annie Schulhof who told me, “Some feel that, because we are the first, we are positioned to be Oscar predictors. But that’s not who we are. We are an eclectic group now. It’s wonderful to be first, and sometimes not. We don’t always look so smart even though we think we are. We never said we were film critics. We are the people who go to see movies and our membership votes with their hearts and heads.”

Distributors happy with that “heart and head” vote include Paramount, which landed all three of its contenders Shutter Island, The Fighter and True Grit in the org’s top 10 films of the year, along with The Fighter’s Christian Bale as supporting actor and Waiting For Superman as Best Documentary. True Grit in fact was one the last two films the org saw in a Monday doubleheader that also included Sony Pictures’ James L. Brooks comedy, How Do You Know which did not score any NBR love. Warner Bros scored three of the top ten slots with Inception, NBR favorite Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (Clint always gets something from this group), and The Town which also won for Ensemble cast. Sony scored big with Social Network’s sweep and specialty division Sony Pictures Classics’ numerous wins that included Best Actress for Lesley Manville in Another Year, Best Supporting Actress Jacki Weaver in the little-known Animal Kingdom, and a “Spotlight” award for the animated The Illusionist and Best Foreign Film for France’s Of Gods And Men. (A special shoutout to my pal, Leonard Maltin, who was named the winner of the William K. Everson Film History Award.)

Now that the gauntlet has been laid down, look for a parade of about 600 critics groups weighing in with their awards in the next month so fasten your seatbelts.

In other awards doings this busy week, Fox Searchlight may have had nothing much to celebrate with the NBR announcement (both their leading lights, 127 Hours and Black Swan, zeroed out while Conviction got a special “Freedom of Expression” mention), but it threw a holiday party Wednesday night at the rooftop of Beverly Hills’ Thompson Hotel that drew a packed crowd. All stepped gingerly around the edges of the hotel pool (no one fell in although Minnie Driver contemplated it briefly) to talk Oscar and other news of the season. Among those there were Searchlight toppers Nancy Utley and Steve Giulula; Conviction cast members Hilary Swank, Minnie Driver, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis; Cyrus’ Marisa Tomei; Never Let Me Go’s (and The Social Network’s) Andrew Garfield  and composer Rachel Portman; Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky; 127 Hours’ Danny Boyle and Christian Colson; and from “big” Fox, Co-Chair Tom Rothman along with Love And Other Drugs’ Ed Zwick and his stars Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Hathaway is “terrified and excited” about hosting the Oscars on February 27th but said it is a big honor. Still, it turns out she’s got an even bigger awards gig well before that — when she and Denzel Washington travel to Oslo, Norway, to co-host this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Concert on December 11. (Following her recent SNL stint, how does she have time for movies anymore?) Swank and Tomei met up and were trying the remember the dates they won their first Oscars. Garfield talked about prepping to play Spider-Man. Leo described the crazy schedule she has been keeping between shooting HBO’s Treme in New Orleans and plane-hopping to promote The Fighter’s December 17 opening. And Aronofsky was still on a high from his New York premiere of Black Swan just one night earlier; he told me it was one of the greatest nights of his life because of the amazing reception. He’s hoping Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey all get (deserved) recognition for the film.

Meanwhile, across town, True Grit was having its first big Guild/Academy screening at the DGA theatre. One Academy member in attendance emailed this right after: “It played through the roof! The theatre was packed, and they may have even turned people away… Laughter in the right places and major applause at the end – especially for Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. I heard a bunch of people on the way out saying how great Bridges was – another definite nomination — and how great the movie was as well. Very strong sentiment for Hailee too, but the bigger buzz was for the film and Jeff.”

Bridges not only has True Grit opening on December 22, he also is starring in Tron: Legacy debuting five days earlier. It’s the sequel to his 1982 sci-fi adventure in which, thanks to new technology, he actually plays opposite his younger self. It’s pretty mind-blowing to see, just like the film and its jaw-dropping 3D effects. Even though most people are saying it is his 2009 Oscar Best Actor rival Colin Firth’s year for King’s Speech, a double-whammy of high profile December releases is definitely going to put Bridges right in the thick of the Oscar race again. And going for No. 2 in a row, previously only accomplished in the Best Actor race by Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks.

Earlier this week Warner Bros heated things up with back to back DVD release/awards parties for The Town on Monday and Inception on Tuesday. The former was held in a Security Pacific bank building on Wilshire Blvd (the movie is about bank robbers, of course) and saw star/co-writer/director Ben Affleck and co-stars Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner chatting up Golden Globe and BAFTA voters among others. Producers Graham King and Basil Iwanyk were there, too. And talk about dedication: Iwanyk was a little nervous about another upcoming production: he was on baby alert with his wife due to maybe deliver later that evening. All in a day’s work for a producer with an Oscar contender.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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