Pete Hammond

National Board Of Review Names ‘Hugo’ Best Film, Martin Scorsese Best Director
‘The Artist’ Is NY Film Critics Best Picture; Meryl Streep Best Actress, Brad Pitt Best Actor

The first week of actual awards-giving and nominations has now passed and pundits are searching for clues. Has anything actually been clarified in this year’s Oscar race?

Yes.

Based on the mixed bag out of the New York Film Critics, National Board of Review and Gotham Awards winners along with the announced nominees for Independent Spirit Awards, this year is completely, completely wide open. But then you knew that already.

The New York Critics so wanted to be first and “influence” the Oscars that they advanced their voting date up two weeks and prematurely presented a list of winners Tuesday that seemed downright conservative and very “Academy friendly.” After honoring harder edged films in the past, they went for a delightful black and white silent film as their Best Picture (The Artist) and Director (Michel Hazanavicius) plus big stars  Meryl Streep (in another biopic — as Margaret Thatcher this time) and Brad Pitt (Moneyball) both playing real-life characters, something  Academy voters have tended to favor in many of their recent acting winners. It was Streep’s fifth acting honor from the NYFCC. The group moved their voting up in order to beat everyone else, particularly the National Board of Review which is normally first, and in effect forced Sony to show them David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by agreeing to move their voting date back a day (and then ignored the film). They also miscalculated Warner Bros’ willingness to show Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close before it was completely finished and ready to be seen by some of the nation’s most “important” (at least in their own minds) critics. So that one wasn’t part of their deliberations. The Broadcast Film Critics Association (I am a member) and the Los Angeles Film Critics among others will be able to see Dragon Tattoo starting Friday. Neither has changed its voting schedules (about 10 days out) in order to jump the gun and will be able to see everything before weighing in on the year’s best. That seems like the right course for critics groups  instead of trying to force the hands of filmmakers in order to pursue their own delusional quixotic quest for influence.

Actually the National Board of Review which named their winners earlier today was in the same boat as NYFCC. This mysterious film “society” normally gets special treatment from studios and distributors due to its pole position in the awards race but even though they too were able to see Dragon Tattoo (which landed on their ten best list and got a breakthrough award for its “girl” Rooney Mara) they also missed out on Extremely Loud which has not started screening yet due to a tight post-production schedule.

The NBR’s intriguing choice of Hugo for best picture and best director for Martin Scorsese does, like the top choices of the NYFCC, seem to indicate a mini-trend toward lighter fare, and a tip of the hat to the origins of the movie industry. This may all be reflecting the times and a yearning for a break from reality and back to the kind of feel-good pictures the industry regularly churned out in previous tough times.

The NBR also gave poor George Clooney some relief after a week in which he was snubbed even as a best actor nominee in the Spirit Awards despite his film The Descendants winning several key nods. He was also double-dissed by NYFCC with no mention of Descendants or his writing, directing, producing and acting effort The Ides of March which were both blanked in that contest. But things got considerably brighter today when he took the NBR’s best actor for Descendants (which also got best adapted screenplay and supporting actress for Shailene Woodley) and both his movies landed squarely on the NBR’s 10 best list, while his friend Brad Pitt’s Moneyball was one of the most conspicuously absent films on that lineup.

NBR also made the day of their best actress choice Tilda Swinton who was also ignored earlier in the week at  NYFCC for her very demanding but acclaimed turn in We Need To Talk About Kevin. She also lost at Cannes where the film debuted (she wasn’t eligible for Spirits or Gothams)  so this recognition is probably cause for rejoicing in the Oscilloscope camp and at the very least has thrown her a bit of a life preserver going forward in this year’s incredibly crowded actress race where Streep, The Help’s Viola Davis and My Week With Marilyn’s Michelle Williams are considered front-runners. Another one of those top actress contenders, Albert Nobbs’ Glenn Close has not had a great week. She was overlooked by NBR and NYFCC  and left off a list of Spirit Award best lead actress nominees even as her supporting player Janet McTeer was reccognized.

Last year all of the critics groups marched in lockstep for The Social Network creating a tidal wave of support for the movie and front- runner status until the industry itself started to weigh in at the PGA, DGA and SAG awards (among others) for their choice, The King’s Speech, which then marched in triumph all the way to the Oscars. It was a classic case of disconnect between critics and the people who actually make the movies even though Social Network did manage to win three Oscars and was a Best Picture nominee. This year it is apparent  already that there may not be one movie that can build that kind of consensus, the kind that also started the Best Picture ascent of Slumdog Millioniaire in 2008 and The Hurt Locker in 2009. Although these sorts of early awards from groups are nice and look good in newspaper and TV ads they may not have a whole lot of influence on the Academy except to reinforce the rapturous response The Artist and Hugo have already received at early screenings for members. It’s my guess we will see other critics groups (there are lots of them) spreading the wealth and attempting to send a message to Academy voters who proved last year they still could have a mind of their own and not necessarily fall in line for the agenda of critics trying to influence the outcome of an Oscar race where they don’t have a vote.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.