Film Critics’ Awards: An Early Clue to Oscar Nominations

The reviewers groups favored The Artist, George Clooney and Michelle Williams. Will their preferences be reflected in the Oscar nominations?

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L. to R.: Fox Searchlight; The Weinstein Co.; Dreamworks

Come year’s end — or, this time, from Nov. 29 to last Saturday — movie critics convene in groups and vote for their favorite films and performances of the year. It’s a way of saying thank you to the best of what we’ve seen, as well as a spur to our readers to search out worthy movies they may have missed. For the movie industry, our awards are golden: free publicity for Hollywood’s months-long Oscar campaign. Critics didn’t ask for this job, but we get it because, in years past, we’ve been semi-reliable forecasters of the Academy Awards. We’re the morning line for Oscars.

How do I know? I looked it up.

Back in 2006 I devised a simple little system, called the Oscrit Scale, to determine the extent to which critics awards predicted Oscar wins. I looked at the prizes given by five organizations — the Boston, Los Angeles and New York groups, plus the National Board of Review and the National Society of Film Critics — in the so-called sexy six categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. I assigned two points for each critics’ choice that won an Oscar, one point for each choice that got nominated, and none if the film or person was shut out. It turned out that, in almost all cases, the critics’ groups had anticipated Oscar nominations at least half of the time, and they often foretold the winners.

(MORE: See Corliss’ Do Movie Critics Matter?)

Applying the same formula to the same groups for the five years since 2006, I find that the critics are an even more reliable Oscar barometer than before. Of the 30 awards the New York Film Critics Circle handed out in that period, 16 of the honorees became Oscar winners a few months later, and 27 were nominated. The Boston group was a similarly predictable predictor, with 17 eventual Oscar winners and 26 nominees. Even last year, when the critics honored The Social Network and its director, David Fincher, and the Academy went for The King Speech and its director, Tom Hooper, we aligned in most categories.

To repeat: there’s no right or wrong here. I don’t know a single critic who casts a vote the way Las Vegas sharpies cast a bet. But often enough, what the critics, en masse, like is what the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominate and, eventually, reward with an Oscar.

Using the valuable reference of Kristopher Tapley’s In Contention awards blog, I tabulated this year’s winners in major categories from 28 critics’ groups (*listed at the bottom). Here are the winners, with my guesses as to the favor they will find on Oscar nomination day, Jan. 24, and beyond.

(MORE: See all of TIME’s 2011 Movie Reviews)

Best Picture. The Artist, 12. The Descendants, 6. The Tree of Life, 4. Drive, 2. Hugo, 2. The Help, 1. Melancholia, 1.

This year, the Academy’s Best Picture ballot will comprise from five to 10 films, as determined by the world’s most complicating sorting process. Most Oscar watchers predict seven or eight movies will make the cut, including The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo and The Help — possibly plus Midnight in Paris, Moneyball and War Horse. According to these savants, the most notable snub-ee will be The Tree of Life, which was not one of the 10 finalists chosen by the Producer Guild, typically a reliable harbinger of Academy nominees. (This year’s PGA 10, in alphabetical order: The Artist, Bridesmaids, The Descendants, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Help, Hugo, The Ides of March, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball and War Horse.) If ever a film could be designated For Critics Only, it’s Terrence Malick’s micro- and macrocosmic Tree. Even Brad Pitt’s star presence couldn’t sway the producers.

Best Director. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist, 8. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 6. Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive. 6. Martin Scorsese, Hugo, 5. Steve McQueen, Shame, 1. Alexander Payne, The Descendants, 1. Dee Rees, Pariah, 1.

Do we then scratch Malick from the Directors’ fast five? Not according to Tapley, an obsessive analyst of such matters. Tapley has Malick joining Hazanavicius, Payne, Scorsese and Woody Allen (for Midnight in Paris). Whatever else Tree of Life is, it’s a scrupulously and lusciously directed film. The Directors’ branch, which makes the nominations in this category, can appreciate that accomplishment and may honor it.

Best Actor. George Clooney, The Descendants, 6. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter, 6. Michael Fassbender, Shame (mainly), 5. Brad Pitt, Moneyball and The Tree of Life (includes one for Moneyball only), 3. Jean Dujardin, The Artist, 2. Paul Giamatti, Win Win, 1. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50, 1. Ryan Gosling, Drive, 1. Woody Harrelson, Rampart, 1. Olivier Litondo, The First Grader, 1. Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1.

Three Academy locks in this category: Clooney, Pitt and Dujardin, a superb charmer as the silent-screen star in The Artist. Fassbender, the German-Irish actor who shone in four 2011 films (including Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class and A Dangerous Method), could also be recognized for his bold, prickly performance as the sex addict in Shame. The critics would have the fifth slot filled by Shannon, as the small-town family man with apocalyptic fears. Tapley predicts that Leonard DiCaprio will Hoover up a nomination for J. Edgar.

Best Actress. Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn, 10. Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin, 5. Viola Davis, The Help, 4 (includes one vote for Supporting Actress). Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene, 3. Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady, 3. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia, 1. Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 1. Brit Marling, Another Earth, 1. Yun Jung-hee, Poetry, 1.

Expect four of the critics’ five top vote-getters — Williams, Swinton, Davis and Streep — to score nominations. The performance of the fifth, Elizabeth Olsen, may be insufficiently declamatory for the Academy. Tapley is going with Glenn Close, a five-time Oscar nominee (with no wins), to make the short list with her cross-dressing turn in Albert Nobbs. Close, 64, toiled for nearly three decades to get her movie made; Olsen, 22, has plenty of time to win awards.

Best Supporting Actor. Albert Brooks, Drive, 18. Christopher Plummer, Beginners, 9. Nick Nolte, Warrior, 1.

A two-man race, by the critics’ lights — though we’d guess that the Academy will finally honor Plummer, who plays a dying gay father, with an Oscar that is also a Lifetime Achievement Award, rather than Brooks, a reviewers’ favorite for his own quirky comedy films. The field must be pretty thin: Tapley’s other three choices are Nolte, Jonah Hill for Moneyball and Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn. The Academy also loves actors who do impersonations: cf. Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Pitt as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane. Last year, three of the four performance Oscars went to actors playing real people.

Best Supporting Actress. Jessica Chastain, 8 (3 for The Tree of Life only; 2 for Take Shelter only; 2 for The Help, Take Shelter and The Tree of Life; 1 for all six of her films released in 2011). Shailene Woodley, The Descendants, 6. Octavia Spencer, The Help, 4. Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids, 3. Bérénice Bejo, The Artist, 2. Viola Davis, The Help, 1 (see Best Actress). Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs, 1. Carey Mulligan, Shame, 1. Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus, 1. Amy Ryan, Win Win, 1.

All five actresses who won more than one critics’ award — Chastain, Woodley, Spencer, McCarthy and Bejo — are considered prime contenders for an Oscar nomination. Since the citation is for the performance, not the performer, Chastain is in danger of competing with herself; she appeared in six films released in 2011, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association cited her for the full half-dozen. I think the Academy voters would also be thinking hard about two British veterans, Redgrave and McTeer, who are standouts in their films.

The little categories. I won’t give you the full rundown on four other awards, because the bureaucratic procedures are too darned complicated. But, in brief: Some critics’ groups give only one award for Best Screenplay, while others divide the craft, as the Academy does, into Original and Adapted. For the record, the top vote-getters were The Descendants, Moneyball, Midnight in Paris, the Iranian film A Separation and 50/50. The nominees for best Documentary are chosen by a small group that has already disqualified the critics’ favorite, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (8 wins), and four of the five other docs that took more than one critics’ prize: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Page One: Inside The New York Times, Senna and Tabloid (all with two wins). Only Project Nim (7 wins) was shortlisted by the Academy committee. Five of the 28 critics’ groups gave no prize for the best Animated Feature of 2011; those that did preferred Rango (15 wins) to The Adventures of Tintin (6) and Arthur Christmas (2).

The Foreign Language Feature category is especially gnarly. A committee from each country submits one film for consideration; this year, 63 countries offered candidates. And though A Separation, which dominated the critics’ groups (10 wins), is the official Iranian selection, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (4 wins) wasn’t chosen by the Spanish committee, so is not eligible for the Oscar in this category. Nor are the films that scored two wins apiece from the critics: Raul Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (Portugal), Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins (Japan) and Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (South Korea). The choice of the Boston critics, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (French-speaking Canada), was Oscar-nominated last year. The big question this year is whether the Academy will give an Oscar to A Separation before some Republican candidate for President goes rogue and launches a private, preemptive strike on Iran.

* The 28 critics’ organizations surveyed: local or regional groups from Austin, Boston, Central Ohio, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Indiana, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, New York Online, Oklahoma, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Southeastern, St. Louis, Toronto, Utah and Washington, D.C., plus the African American Film Critics Association, the Black Film Critics Circle, the International Press Academy (Satellite Awards), the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics and the Online Film Critics Society.

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