Critics’ Awards: An Early Clue to the Oscars?

The nationwide film critics' associations have named their best films and actors of 2010, with 'The Social Network,' Colin Firth, Natalie Portman and Christian Bale taking an early lead for the Academy Awards

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Merrick Morton / Columbia

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

For much of the year, we movie critics shout “Bah, humbug!” at mainstream movies. Then, come awards time, we bleat “Baaaa!” Sheeplike is the word for the near unanimity in the annual best-of awards that have been recently announced by the 27 critics’ associations I keep tabs on. If their citations are harbingers of the winners at the Academy Awards, to be held on Feb. 27, then you can lock up most of your Oscar ballot now.

Twenty-one of the critics’ groups voted The Social Network as best film, with two more groups splitting the award between the Facebook movie and another picture. Sixteen chose The Social Network‘s David Fincher as best director, again with two other ties. Fourteen picked Colin Firth, of The King’s Speech, as best actor; 17 said Natalie Portman was best actress for Black Swan; and 18 selected Christian Bale, in The Fighter, as best supporting actor. Toy Story 3 was deemed best animated feature by 21 of the 24 groups voting in that category. Some of the associations split the screenplay category in two — original and adapted — but The Social Network still won 23 of the 25 awards it was eligible for.

(See TIME’s Person of the Year 2010: Mark Zuckerberg.)

Critics are, by job description if not by nature, argumentative types. Eager to pick fights over films, if only to lend a distinctive tone to their reviews, they rarely convene on organizational matters. Indeed, critics’ groups do little but bestow prizes and, perhaps, throw a party for themselves and the winners. So it’s unusual that these unlikely colleagues should be so like-minded in their choice of the year’s best. Unusual but understandable — since any group of 10 or more people tends to converge in the middle. Each of the critics’ prizes is a consensus judgment; many first-place finishers beat the runners-up by slim margins.

No one but the critics themselves, a few of their readers and the families of the chosen artists would care about these prizes if they weren’t seen as early harbingers of the Really Important Awards handed out on Oscar night. The groups’ announcements, beginning in early December, are the starting gun for three months of movie-industry politicking and handicapping. Sometimes the awards are duplicated by the Academy membership; last year’s Oscar triumph for The Hurt Locker, with its Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay statuettes, was attributed in part to the flurry of critics’ awards the film received. The winners for Supporting Actor and Actress, Christoph Waltz and Mo’Nique, were also nearly unanimous favorites of critics’ groups.

But reviewers chose George Clooney (Up in the Air) 2-to-1 over any other candidate for Best Actor, and Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) won that Oscar. Carey Mulligan (An Education) was the critics’ consensus for Best Actress, and that Oscar went to Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), who did not win a single critics’ award. One thing to remember: almost no critics are voting members of the Academy, whose choices often vary wildly (as we’ll see below).

So who won this time, according to critics? And what are the odds that the Academy will agree? Here are the votes in 10 major categories from the 27 critics’ associations; I’ve given one point to each group’s winner and a half-point in case of a tie or multiple awards.

BEST PICTURE

The Social Network, 22 (including two ties); Black Swan, 1; Inception, 1; The King’s Speech, 1; Winter’s Bone, 1; 127 Hours, 0.5; Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 0.5

Seems like a landslide for The Social Network is a lock. But hold on: some industry (and critical) favorites are missing from this list. Have a look at the finalists for best film as selected by the Producers Guild of America (PGA): Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, The Town, Toy Story 3 and True Grit. Last year, eight of the Academy’s 10 nominees for Best Picture were also chosen by the PGA. The King’s Speech was an Oscar front runner after its early-September debuts at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, but it may have peaked too soon. Inception is regarded as the year’s one blockbuster with a brain; and the Academy could still feel guilty about denying director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight a Best Picture nomination two years ago. Some insiders are making the case for True Grit as a well-liked film (from the Oscar-winning Coen brothers) that’s doing robust business at the box office; on Wednesday, in its 15th day of release, it passed The Social Network‘s 14-week domestic gross. Note also the choice of The Kids Are All Right over Winter’s Bone for the PGA’s indie slot.

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