The three major film-critic groups (okay, two major and one National Board of Review) announce their awards this week, making for a torrent of superlative praise for the best movies of the year.
The degree of influence that the film critics' awards have on the Oscar race is always a bit amorphous. The simple truth is that critics don't make up any significant portion of the Academy membership, so it's not like, say, the Screen Actors Guild, where there's a huge membership overlap that makes the SAG awards a valuable bellwether. In their better moments, the critics' organizations act as advocates, surfacing performances that might not otherwise get notice at a time of year when "Oscar buzz" can so quickly funnel into a small handful of usual suspects. All too often, it seems like a case of the tail wagging the dog, where the critics get out ahead and throw awards at the movies that are already likely to score at the Oscars.
With the New York Film Critics Circle announcing their awards on Tuesday, followed by the National Board of Review on Wednesday, and then the Los Angeles Film Critics Association on Sunday, we're in for a week where Oscar campaigns could be made or solidified. Let's tackle this category by category.
Obviously, 12 Years a Slave is going to be a huge winner among the critics. But the New York and L.A. groups don't often agree on the same top film. My guess is that the New York critics will go for Steve McQueen's film in a big way. The last time the NYFCC threw four awards (among its top 6 categories) at the same film was Far From Heaven in 2002 (and look how well that turned out for Oscar snubees Todd Haynes, Dennis Quaid, and Patricia Clarkson), but I could see that happening again, with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress (or Supporting Actor) in play.
The L.A. critics can often get behind something with a rockier awards path, like WALL-E or American Splendor. They've also gone towards foreign-language films recently (Amour; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Letters From Iwo Jima). But expecting a Best Film notice for Cannes winner Blue Is the Warmest Color a year after Amour won feels a bit on the nose. If these late-breaking raves for The Wolf of Wall Street pan out, that could be a surprise winner. It should also be noted that the LAFCA have gone for Alexander Payne in a big way in the past, so watch out for Nebraska.
The National Board of Review are generally more mainstream in their tastes. They also release a Top 10 -- and often more than one -- in order to cover as many bases as possible. With the NYFCC possibly getting out in front of the 12 Years a Slave juggernaut, NBR could go for something a shade more mainstream, like a Captain Phillips or a Gravity or an American Hustle.
Predictions: NYFCC: 12 Years a Slave. LAFCA: The Wolf of Wall Street. NBR: Captain Phillips (rest of Top 10: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks, August: Osage County; The Butler; The Wolf of Wall Street; American Hustle; Inside Llewyn Davis).
The NYFCC has paired its Best Film and Best Director prizes the last four years, while the LAFCA do so a little under half the time, at least in recent years. If the L.A. critics do split, I would guess that they'd go for McQueen -- even at the risk of matching their counterparts in New York, and also at the NBR, who should go for McQueen as well. There's always Alfonso Cuaron, whose Gravity probably won't snag anyone's Best Film honors, or Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) or someone altogether unexpected, like All Is Lost's J.C. Chandor.
Predictions: NYFCC: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave. LAFCA: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity. NBR: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave.
Now that Leo DiCaprio is apparently a for-real contender for Wolf of Wall Street, this is officially too crowded a category. The critics' awards could actually do a solid job of shoving a contender or two to the front of the line. Especially for performers like Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), whose buzz has faded some. Both of those men could show up at the National Board of Review, particularly if they do what they often do and throw a Breakthrough Performance award at Jordan (or Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis).
I'm sticking with the 12 Years a Slave sweep for the NYFCC, but it should be noted that they liked Hanks enough to give him the award for Cast Away in 2000.
The L.A. critics have a thing for grizzled vets, having honored Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, and Jeff Bridges in the last 20 years. This could bode well for Robert Redford (All Is Lost) or Bruce Dern (Nebraska).
Predictions: NYFCC: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave. LAFCA: Bruce Dern, Nebraska. NBR: Robert Redford, All Is Lost.
Everything in me says that we're staring down the barrel of a Cate Blanchett sweep for Blue Jasmine, the way that Helen Mirren gobbled up everything for The Queen. Who might play the spoiler, though? The NYFCC has a thing for Meryl Streep like you would not believe, so if anyone's going to topple Cate there, it'll be Meryl. Out in L.A., they have been making a habit of picking crazy left-field actresses, often from foreign-language films. This seems to fit almost too well with Paulina Garcia for Gloria or Danai Gurira for Mother of George. Which means this is the year LAFCA follows consensus and goes with the Oscar favorite. The NBR, mainstreamers that they are, could always go for Sandra Bullock for Gravity. But it's time to get real.
Predictions: NYFCC: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine. LAFCA: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine. NBR: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Only twice since 1980 has the NYFCC given Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor to men from the same films (Milk and Raging Bull). The LAFCA has also done so only twice (The Insider and Unforgiven). Keep that in mind when assessing the chances of Chiweter Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) or Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club).
Fassbender is a favorite with the L.A. critics, however, having won their Best Actor award for Shame (among other films) in 2011. LAFCA seems to alternate slam-dunk choices (Christoph Waltz; Christopher Plummer; Heath Ledger) with left-field choices (Dwight Henry for Beasts of the Southern Wild; Niels Arestrup for Un Prophete; Vlad Ivanov for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days). This could bode well for the chances of a Daniel Bruhl (Rush) or a James Gandolfini (Enough Said).
Predictions: NYFCC: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club. LAFCA: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave. NBR: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Assuming Oprah Winfrey's performance in The Butler is more of an industry thing than a critical darling, the field of possible Supporting Actress possibilities gets very small. Lupita Nyong'o for 12 Years a Slave captured raves in the early fall. June Squibb (Nebraska) and Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) are doing so now. This could be the category that yields someone completely off the Oscar radar as a winner. It could also be where some group decides to get daring and gives an award to Scarlett Johansson's voice for Her. Though I would bet that NBR manages to drum up some special-distinction award to give her for that one. They could also circumvent Nyong'o here by giving her a Breakthrough award.
Predictions: NYFCC: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave. LAFCA: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle. NBR: June Squibb, Nebraska.