We are, without question, off to the races.
In the last six days, six different critics organizations have announced the winners of their year-end awards, thus formally jumpstarting the annual onslaught of national, international, and most specifically regional awards that will send us all into Phase One overload and foster enough storylines to keep us guessing about the state of the Oscar race.
It all started last Tuesday, when the National Board of Review (NBR) and its cryptic group of film-going illuminati (we can’t actually refer to them as “critics,” so “illuminati” will have to do) made the year’s first awards announcement, as they are want to do. The New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) followed one day later, kicking off the critics’ circuit proper. The Boston Online Film Critics Association (BOFCA) made its announcement on Saturday, and finally, on Sunday, the annual day-long hysteria of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Boston Society of Film Critics (BSFC), and the New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) commenced, an event I will henceforth refer to as “Super Sunday” (move over, NFL).
Bottom line: it’s on. Full-speed ahead.
These early results signal a certain degree of parity in terms of the choices made…albeit that parity is limited to a central group of contending films. The top tier for the critics thus far seems to be Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Carol. And by “seems to be,” I mean that these are currently the only three films to be awarded Best Picture by one or more of the organizations thus far. Mad Max won top honors from NBR and BOFCA. Carol won Best Pic from NYFCC. And if number of wins is our key metric, then Spotlight has a slight early lead, having gone 3-for-3 in Best Picture prizes with LAFCA, BSFC, and NYFCO yesterday. Six groups, three different films splitting the top prizes. So parity, but within a limited context.
“Three” is a pretty common number among these announcements. Best Actress has been split among three performances: Brie Larson in Room, Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years. In the interest of symmetry, it should be noted that each of them has won over two of the critics groups, splitting honors in precise thirds. Best Supporting Actor has also been split three ways, between Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Sylvester Stallone in Creed, and Michael Shannon in 99 Homes…though Shannon’s is a one-off win from LAFCA. Best Director would also be a three-headed monster – split between Carol’s Todd Haynes, Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy, and Mad Max’s George Miller – except for the NBR, which chose The Martian’s Ridley Scott (?) in a weird outlier that likely won’t be matched for the remainder of the season.
Logic is less precise in other categories. Spotlight is the dominant film in the Best Screenplay race, having claimed the prize from four of the six groups (NYFCC opted for Carol; NBR went with The Hateful Eight in Original and The Martian in Adapted…since they loved them some Martian). The early Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress results have underscored the central controversy of this season, a condition now colloquially referred to as Category Confusion. It’s always been around, but has reached a wacky fever pitch this year, where performances like Rooney Mara’s in Carol and Alicia Vikander’s in The Danish Girl seem to toe the line between Lead and Supporting, and from one person to the next, it’s difficult to get a consistent answer on whether the Spotlight cast even has a lead character…and if so, who it is. Re: Spotlight, the NYFCC crew must lean in the Michael Keaton direction, considering he won Best Actor (not Supporting) from them. As a category, Best Actor is all over the map, with wins being handed to Michael B. Jordan (BOFCA), Matt Damon (Martian-crazy NBR), and Michael Fassbender (LAFCA). Oddly enough, the most consistent winner among them is Love and Mercy’s Paul Dano, who was honored by the NYFCO and BSFC, though the latter was in a tie with The Revenant’s Leonardo DiCaprio. Category Confusion rears its ugly head yet again in this case, since, if you go to Roadside Attractions’ FYC site, they are fronting John Cusack as Love and Mercy’s Best Actor contender, with Dano as Best Supporting Actor. And so the season turns…
To their credit, the critics have seemed to largely sidestep the Category Confusion in Supporting Actress, skipping over the veritable lead performances by Mara and Vikander, instead rewarding legitimate supporting roles in smaller films. Vikander herself reaped the benefits of this logic, having been awarded Best Supporting Actress from LAFCA for her legit Supporting turn in Ex Machina. And of course, someone had to cave, so Rooney Mara did win Best Supporting Actress from NYFCO. But since the critics have largely avoided handing Supporting prizes to lead performances, it has revealed the dirty little secret in the Best Supporting Actress category: if you take Mara and Vikander out, it’s the thinnest category of them all. As a result, the most consistent Supporting Actress winner across the groups has been Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria – which, apart from setting social media ABLAZE (I think my tweet about K-Stew winning NYFCC yielded the most Likes and Retweets I’ve received all year), is actually a fine choice, and an appropriate category placement to boot. Ditto Vikander in Ex Machina. The more awareness we have of these smaller gems, the greater the likelihood Academy members will pop in those DVDs.
And that is precisely the kind of substantial impact critics can have on the Oscar race: awareness.
More on the critics’ impact on the race, and more analysis of the early critics’ group results, in Part 2 of this week’s Projection: Oscar, coming tomorrow…