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.


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.


David Fincher, The Social Network, 17 (including two ties); Christopher Nolan, Inception, 6; Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan, 2.5, Danny Boyle, 127 Hours, 1; Olivier Assayas, Carlos, 0.5

The Academy won’t nominate Assayas; his 5½-hour biopic of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal was first shown as a French TV miniseries, making it ineligible. The other four directors should get nominations. The five nominees for the Directors Guild of America, which usually presages at least four of the five Academy nominees, are Fincher, Nolan, Aronofsky, Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech and David O. Russell for The Fighter. The Academy may cite either Boyle or Joel and Ethan Coen, for True Grit.


Colin Firth, The King’s Speech, 14; James Franco, 127 Hours, 6; Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network, 5; Colin Farrell, Ondine, 1; Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter, 1

Firth is still in front, but True Grit, ignored by the critics in every category but supporting actress, is getting traction from the movie craft unions. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) nominees for best actor: Jeff Bridges, True Grit, and Robert Duvall, Get Low; plus Eisenberg, Firth and Franco. Could the actors, the largest branch of the Academy, skip Bridges, last year’s winner, and go for his Crazy Heart co-star Duvall, who turned 80 this week? Duvall’s old-coot performance is that crafty-juicy kind the membership loves to reward. By the way, bless the San Diego critics for picking Farrell, in a film few people saw, along with Winter’s Bone for best film and two of its stars in the acting categories. Not that any of these awards are unarguably deserved, but the contrarian choices relieved the other groups’ lockstep ennui.


Natalie Portman, Black Swan, 17; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone, 4; Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right, 1; Halle Berry, Frankie and Alice, 1; Kim Hye-ja, Mother, 1; Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Vincere, 1; Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine, 1; Anne Hathaway, Love & Other Drugs, 0.5; Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 0.5

For a change, the best-actress category is overstocked — though almost exclusively by white women. In its category of Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role, SAG chose Portman, Bening and Lawrence, plus Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole and Hilary Swank for Conviction. It’s only natural: Kidman has won one Best Actress Oscar, Swank two. We’d like to see Tilda Swinton become an Oscar finalist, as her turn in I Am Love was a luscious performance by our GREATEST FILM ACTRESS (forgive the shouting). But Portman would surprise the world by not winning both the SAG award and the Oscar.

(See pictures of Oscar’s youngest Best Actress nominees.)


Christian Bale, The Fighter, 18; Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech, 3; John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone, 2; Niels Arestrup, A Prophet, 1; Michael Ealy, For Colored Girls, 1; Armie Hammer, The Social Network, 1; Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right, 1; Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech, 1

SAG’s finalists in this category are Bale, Hawkes, Ruffalo, Rush and, for The Town, Jeremy Renner, who received SAG and Oscar nominations last year for The Hurt Locker. Rush, a Best Actor Oscar winner for Shine in 1997, will give stiff competition to the critics’ chosen one. It’s still Bale’s to lose — which, given his explosive, abusive turns on YouTube, is always a possibility. But it’d be nice for the Academy to cite Hammer, for playing the double role of Mark Zuckerberg’s twin antagonists, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss; or Arestrup, who’s so commanding as A Prophet‘s prisoner in chief. (Fun fact: Niels Arestrup anagrams into Super Latrines.)


Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit, 9; Melissa Leo, The Fighter, 7; Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom, 4; Amy Adams, The Fighter, 2; Kimberly Elise, For Colored Girls, 1; Mila Kunis, Black Swan, 1; Juliette Lewis, Conviction, 1; Lesley Manville, Another Year, 1; Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer, 1

Another strong field: Steinfeld, Leo, Adams and Weaver would all be exemplary winners. SAG’s top five are Adams, Kunis, Leo, Steinfeld and Helena Bonham-Carter for The King’s Speech. (She’s good too.) Substitute Weaver for Kunis, and you have a fabulous Oscar quintet. Steinfeld is gaining momentum (and she’s the best thing in True Grit), but it’s ludicrous to put someone playing a movie’s most important character in a supporting category. The 14-year-old should be fighting it out for Best Actress.


(Note that some critics’ groups give one award, while some give two, for original and adapted screenplay)

Original: Inception, 8; The King’s Speech, 4; Black Swan, 1; Four Lions, 1
Adapted: The Social Network, 14
Original or Adapted: The Social Network, 10; Night Catches Us, 1; The Kids Are All Right, 1

The Writers Guild of America nominations are not applicable to Oscar predictions, since the WGA has strict eligibility rules that, this year, excluded The King’s Speech and other Academy inevitables. Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network will win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, with David Seidler’s The King’s Speech a favorite over Christopher Nolan’s Inception for Best Original Screenplay. Chris Morris’ crazy-great script for the Brit-Islamo-terror comedy Four Lions is the longest of long shots.

(See Three Questions for Jesse Eisenberg.)


Mother, 6; A Prophet, 3.5; Biutiful, 3; Carlos, 3; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 3; I Am Love, 3; Micmacs, 1.5; Lebanon, 1; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 1

Now here we have critics behaving like the ornery creatures they really are: the laurels are spread among nine pictures, most of which premiered at film festivals in 2009, and just one of which you may know. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo earned more at the North American box office ($10.1 million) than all the others combined. As tips to adventurous moviegoers, this list is useful; as indications of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it is irrelevant. Mother and A Prophet were submitted for the 2010 Academy Awards; both lost. Of the critics’ favorites, only the Cannes prizewinner Uncle Boonmee is among the 65 films proposed by their home countries this time, and it is likely to finish far behind, say, the South African AIDS drama Life, Above All or France’s Of Gods and Men, or the Danish In a Better World or the French-Canadian Incendies. All those films open this year.


Exit Through the Gift Shop, 11; Inside Job, 3; Restrepo, 3; The Tillman Story, 3; Waiting for “Superman,” 2; Catfish, 1; Last Train Home, 1; Marwencol, 1

The mysterious British artist Banksy wowed critics’ groups with his (if it is his) documentary (if it is one) about the L.A. graffiti scene. Exit Through the Gift Shop also made the 15-film short list for the Academy doc award. Its chief competitors are probably Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, an exposé of the U.S. government’s collusion in the financial meltdown, and Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman,” which details inequities in the public-school system. The Oscar in this category usually goes to political films, not elaborate pranks.


Toy Story 3, 21; How to Train Your Dragon, 2; The Illusionist, 1

These three films may well be the three that are nominated for an Oscar. If the Pixar threequel doesn’t take the Academy Award in this category, call the cops.

The 27 critics’ groups: Austin, Boston, Central Ohio, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Indiana, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Oklahoma, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Southeastern, St. Louis, Toronto, Utah and Washington, D.C., plus the African-American Film Critics, the International Press Academy (voters of the Satellite Awards), the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Online and the (national) Online Film Critics.

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