And they’re off in the annual Critics’ Cup sweepstakes. American Hustle, ridden by Jennifer Lawrence, sprints to a surprising early lead, challenged by the filly her. Who? her! And here comes the favorite, 12 Years a Slave, racing past the contenders, with Gravity keeping pace on the inside rail. But don’t get too excited yet, folks. The contenders haven’t even reached the backstretch.
In early December, groups of movie critics from various cities start announcing their awards for the year’s best films and filmmakers. Their choices are simply the consensus preferences of opinionated professionals, none of whom is a member of the motion picture Academy. Yet Hollywood and the burgeoning community of awards analysts see these lists of laureates as predictors of Oscar nominees and winners. Why? Why not? At this point in the race, the awards-stats mavens have nothing else to count.
(READ: Surprise wins for American Hustle and her in two New York movie groups)
So far, five critics groups — two from New York City, two from Boston and one from Los Angeles — have declared their choices, as has the National Board of Review, a collection of cinephiles who aren’t reviewers but do count, because the NBR is more than 100 years old and it throws a great awards dinner each January. So we’ll say six groups.
And we’ll torture one more metaphor. If the months-long Oscar campaign were likened to a single Presidential election day, these first few awards would be the “early returns.” And we of the New York Film Critics Circle, which launched the awards season on Dec. 3, would be Dixville Notch, the tiny New Hampshire town whose dozen or so inhabitants have the media-friendly habit of voting first, at midnight. (Their record in “predicting” the Presidential winner since 1960: 8 to 6. They almost always vote Republican.)
In last year’s early critics’ voting, the top two candidates for Best Picture were Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. That tandem held throughout the awards season, with the Ben Affleck’s film triumphing on Oscar night. This year’s selections are all over the place, with the six groups citing four movies — 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, her and Gravity — as Best Film.
The NYFCC, of which I am a member, provided the initial jolt. We bypassed 12 Years a Slave, the expected favorite, for David O. Russell’s vivacious Abscam comedy American Hustle, awarding Slave only a Best Director prize for Steve McQueen. Next day, the NBR chose her, Spike Jonze’s futurist romance, as Best Film. McQueen’s scorched document of antebellum slavery was nowhere to be found on the NBR’s lengthy awards list. People began wondering whether reviewers were revolting against the film they were expected to champion.
With this past weekend’s votes of the four other groups — The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Boston Online Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Online — some order was restored, some clarity emerged. Three of the groups gave Best Film to 12 Years a Slave; and the L.A. Critics, an endearingly quirky bunch, split the award between her and Alfonso Cuarón’s out-of-this-world Gravity.
(SEE: Corliss’s “Top 10 Best Movies” list for 2013)
So far, each of what are thought of as the six major categories has a front runner with at least 50% of the votes. And in four of those categories, the pacesetter is 12 Years a Slave for Film, Director, Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o). Cate Blanchett has taken a dominant preliminary lead as Best Actress for her role as the suddenly impoverished one-percenter in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. And Jared Leto, most poignant as an AIDS-ravaged drag queen in Dallas Buyers Club, is ahead for the moment as Best Supporting Actor.
Tomorrow the Screen Actors Guild — whose winners are a smart predictor of the Oscar vote in the performance categories — unveils its nominations. And on Thu., the Hollywood Foreign Press Association reveals its Golden Globes shortlist. Come back then for an analysis of those selections.
(SEE: Mary Pols’ “Top 10 Worst Movies” list for 2013)
Here’s a rundown of the six sets of awards announced so far, in some of the more prominent categories, with speculation on how they will play with other critics and with Oscar voters. We give one point to each winner and a half-point for ties or split categories (like Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay).
12 Years a Slave 3
American Hustle 1
I can’t complain about the choice of these films, since I selected all four among my 10 best of the year. The same quartet can be expected to appear on the long list of five to 10 finalists for the Academy’s Best Picture award, with Gravity winning in many technical categories and Slave a slim favorite to take the top prize. The year’s most eagerly anticipated film, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, was late coming out of the editing room and was shown to critics only a day or so before they voted. A distant finisher in most groups, WoWS finished second in five categories — Film, Actor, Screenplay, Editing and Use of Music — at the Boston Film Critics Society. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe noted that some critics had not been able to see the Scorsese, and that if they had, WoWS might have won. Show up to screenings, people. It’s your job.
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave 3
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity 2
Spike Jonze, her 1
Three disparate kinds of films display three different directorial skills: epic storytelling (McQueen), the expert integrating of actors within innovative digital technology (Cuarón) and the creation of romantic intimacy (Jonze). I expect the Academy will be torn between the impressive achievements of Cuarón and McQueen, and tilt toward the latter for the privilege of making him the first black to win Best Director. Other possible nominees in a crowded field: Scorsese, Jonze, Russell, Alexander Payne for Nebraska, Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips and Joel and Ethan Coen for Inside Llewyn Davis.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave 3
Bruce Dern, Nebraska 2
Robert Redford, All Is Lost 1
Except for Dern’s portrait of a cranky crackpot, Oscar’s Best Actor list should be filled with men who endure the worst. Ejiofor gets kidnapped into unimaginable servitude; Redford battles the elements alone on a disabled yacht. The two other top contenders on Oscar-watcher Anne Thompson’s actors list are Tom Hanks, also a kidnap victim (by Somali pirates) in Captain Phillips, and Matthew McConaughey, the Texas homophobe who gets AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club. An Academy prize for Redford would be in the nature of a Life Achievement Award, and he got one of those in 2002. We’d guess Ejiofor.
(READ: Mary Corliss’s tribute to Robert Redford and All Is Lost)
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine 4.5
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr, Banks 1
Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color 0.5
Blanchett has been the presumptive winner since her movie opened in July, and time has not dulled the luster of her primacy. Other strong candidates would be Sandra Bullock for Gravity, Judi Dench as an elderly woman searching for her lost son in Philomena and Amy Adams, who’s great as a faux-British con woman in the Russell Hustle.
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club 3.5
Will Forte, Nebraska 1
James Gandolfini, Enough Said 1
James Franco, Spring Breakers 0.5
That was a nice gesture by the Boston Film Critics Society, naming the late Gandolfini for his gentle performance. And bravo to L.A. for citing Franco’s nutsy-cagey turn as the drug-dealing dude in the sort of artsy exploitation movie that rarely gets recognized by critics and, we have to say, almost never by the Academy. But Leto, who’s a sensitive charmer in Dallas Buyers Club, looks a lock for more critics’ awards and perhaps an Oscar.
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave 3
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle 1
Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station 1
June Squibb, Nebraska 1
Nyong’o, a Yale Drama School grad making her feature-film debut, shows beatific strength as she undergoes a physical and spiritual flogging by sadistic slave-master Michael Fassbender. That’s a parlay that Oscar voters love. They also adore the whitest girl you know, Jennifer Lawrence, who’s dumb-smart and crass-sexy as Christian Bale’s neglected wife. But Lawrence won Best Actress earlier this year for Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. And at 23, she’ll be around for ages, fingers crossed, to contend for many more Oscars.
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight 2
Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said 1
Spike Jonze, her 1
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle 1
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis 0.5
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street 0.5
No, you’re right. Who cares?
In other categories chosen by all six groups, the sensual French drama Blue Is the Warmest Color scored four wins for Best Foreign Language Feature, the other votes going to The Past and Wadjda. Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises took 5½ of six points for Animated Feature (Frozen grabbing the other half-point). And The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell split Documentary Feature, with three votes each.