Critics and Oscars: It’s Zero Dark Thirty or Bust

The Osama bin Laden manhunt movie snags the cream of the early critics awards

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OK, folks, you can plan something else for Oscar Night 2013. Sure, the Motion Picture Academy doesn’t start its nomination process until next Monday; and the finalists aren’t announced for another month; and the awards ceremony itself isn’t until Feb. 24. But never mind. Most of the big prizes have already been determined.

Zero Dark Thirty will win Best Picture and Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow). Two-time Academy Award-winner Daniel Day-Lewis will be named Best Actor for Lincoln, which will also earn Tommy Lee Jones his second Supporting Actor Oscar. Best Actress will go to either Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty or Emmanuelle Riva for Amour. As for Supporting Actress, it could be Anne Hathaway or Sally Field or Amy Adams or Ann Dowd — that’s still uncertain. We’ll get back to you when the votes come in from Central Ohio.

(SEE: Corliss’ Top 10 Best Movies list)

How do we know? We don’t. In William Goldman’s never-too-often quoted maxim about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” Oh, and who’s Ann Dowd? (Stick around and find out.) But in early December, various groups of film critics begin announcing their year’s best. As of today, six groups have spoken: The New York Film Critics Circle and The New York Film Critics Online, the Boston Society of Film Critics and their online siblings, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review. The movies and movie folks they’ve chosen give Oscar handicappers — a burgeoning industry in print, on TV and online — early clues that can be spun into a full season of speculation, intuition and gossip.

(READ: Zero Dark Thirty Scores With the New York Film Critics)

Over the next few weeks, more than two dozen circles, societies and associations of professional movie watchers — from Boston to Austin, and Utah to, yes, Central Ohio —  will declare their preferences. These will be catalogued and collated as if they mean something beyond what their voters intended: a collective statement of principles and prejudices as applied to this year’s movies. Critics aren’t members of the Academy; they produce, we opine. We don’t care whether our choices become Oscar winners.

(READ: Are Critics Awards Early Clues to the Oscars?)

Two years ago, for example, 22 of the 27 critics groups chose The Social Network as best film; only one group picked the eventual Academy winner, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. That’s not our failure, it’s their opinion. So far this time, the critics have shown only moderate love for Hooper’s new film, Les Misérables, which may well win the hearts of the Academy members over the high journalism of Zero Dark Thirty. The Academy often goes wet while critics go dry. So be it.

(READ: Corliss on Les Misérables and The King’s Speech)

Speaking as a member of the New York Film Critics Circle (which announced its selections last week) and the National Society of Film Critics (which votes just after New Year’s), I can say that the winners are often compromise selections. In the voting process, awards often collapse toward the center; a film that is passionately loved by a minority doesn’t get extra points. This year, more critics may believe that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was the very best film; yet Zero Dark Thirty had broad support as a widely admired work. That’s how Presidents, American Idol winners and “Year’s Best Films” are chosen.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Master)

So we’re agreed: nothing matters. But since this is the time of year when people make lists of their favorite things — TIME.com just produced 55 of them, and the magazine will feature many of them in the issue out Friday — we offer a rundown of the prizes given so far by the six critics groups. Completed data on the awards, updated as new ones come in, can be found in The Circuit section on Kristopher Tapley’s In Contention blog. What follows is the current six groups’ choices in six categories — a consensus of the consensus.

(SEE: TIME’s Top 10 Everything in Arts & Entertainment)

BEST FILM. Zero Dark Thirty, 5; Amour, 1. The blessedly willful L.A. critics chose Michael Haneke’s French-language end-of-life drama Amour. I can’t complain because Amour is at the top of my own 10-best list; and, again, these votes are not a predictor of Academy preferences. What’s weird about the LAFCA voters is that they chose a different French-language movie — Leos Carax’s Holy Motors — as “Best Foreign Film.” An admirable selection but a redundant one.

BEST DIRECTOR. Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, 5; Paul Thomas Anderson, 1 (L.A.). Three years ago, Bigelow and her film The Hurt Locker won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture; it could happen again. The Master, a critics’ fave and an audience flop, has no Oscar shot in these categories. But that’s just another reason we love LAFCA.

ACTOR. Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, 4; Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, 1; Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, 1. The L.A. critics gave The Master four awards, including director and two actors, but, curiously, not best film. Day-Lewis should continue to score critics’ wins, plus an Oscar, as if that matters.

ACTRESS. Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, 2½; Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, 2; Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, 1½. Lawrence and Riva tied for first place in the L.A. critics vote, so each get a half-point in our tabulation. An 85-year-old French actress and a 22-year-old American, giving very different but quite strong performances: may they share the Oscar too.

SUPPORTING ACTOR. Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln, 2; Leonardo DiCaprio for Django Unchained, 1; Dwight Henry for Beasts of the Southern Wild, 1; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike and Bernie, 1; Ezra Miller for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 1. What a nifty list: Jones buttressed by a teenager (Miller), a nonactor (Henry) and two stars (DiCaprio and McConaughey) having fun in smaller roles.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS. Sally Field for Lincoln, 2; Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables, 2; Amy Adams for The Master, 1; Ann Dowd for Compliance, 1. As Tapley has said, Hathaway could score an Oscar win for a single shot: her long-take warbling of “I Dreamed a Dream.” The cool choice here is Dowd, a veteran actress who plays a fast-food-store manager coping with crisis in the meta-creepy drama Compliance. One function of the critics votes is to alert moviegoers, including Academy voters, to excellent work they might have missed. The Dowd award, from the National Board of Review, fulfills that mission.

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