Critics Say 12 Years a Slave Has Already Swept the Oscars — But Will It?

If critics picked the Academy Awards, the race would be over. Too bad they don't vote for the Oscars.

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Jaap Buitendijk / Fox Searchlight

Last night, when the New York Film Critics Circle held its annual awards dinner, many of the most glamorous people in movies canoodled with the drudges who appraise their work. For 364 days a year, we reviewers mostly keep our distance from the actors and filmmakers we write about — not because of any restraining orders but because it’s best for critics not to fret over hurting the feelings of movie stars we may occasionally feel obliged to chastise. That changed in the Midtown Edison Hotel Ballroom last night, when some of us shouldered our way toward Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto (three winners in the NYFCC’s acting categories for 2013) and Steve McQueen (Best Director for 12 Years a Slave). Now we can again assume our primary function as anonymous scribes — the minor champions and scourges of the movie-famous.

It happens that most of the worthies the NYFCC is honoring have solid shots at being named finalists for the Academy Awards when nominees are announced on Jan. 16. Critics will swear in chorus that their prizes are not meant as predictors of the Oscars; we choose what and whom we think are the year’s best, without regard to the votes of 6,000 members of the Motion Picture Academy. But the films and people chosen by the collective of critics groups in December have a way of showing up on Oscar ballots in January and, some of them, being laureled on Oscar night.

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

So each year TIME tabulates the votes of awards-giving movie societies — 31 this time, listed at the bottom*. (The critics’ groups in Denver, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, North Texas and Oklahoma either haven’t announced their final choices yet or are taking the year off.) Canvassing Kristopher Tapley’s In Contention awards blog, I assign one point to the winner in each category; ties get a half-point. For groups that split Screenplay into Original and Adapted, each winner gets a half-point. No points for runners-up.

If — big if — there’s any connection between the reviewers’ favorites and the eventual Oscar winners, then in many categories the race is over. In the aggregate voting, 12 Years a Slave won Best Film, Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley) — all by more than two to one.

By similar lopsided margins, Best Actress went to Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, Supporting Actor to Leto for Dallas Buyers Club, Original Screenplay to Spike Jonze for her, Cinematography to Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity, Foreign Language Film to Blue Is the Warmest Color and Documentary to The Act of Killing. In fact, the only close contests were for Best Director and Animated Feature.

(READ: Do Film Critics Know Anything?)

We won’t know whether the Academy agrees with the critics until Oscar night, Mar. 2. For now, check out all the winners and contenders in a dozen major categories, plus my speculation on how the members of the Academy might vote.

Best Film12 Years a Slave, 21; her, 4½; Gravity, 2½; Inside Llewyn Davis, 2; American Hustle, 1. This looks like a runaway for Slave, a scalding document that has compiled the same gaudy numbers from the critics groups that The Social Network did three years ago and Zero Dark Thirty last year. In both cases, those fact-based dramas were defeated at the Oscars by less brainy, more agreeable fast-based dramas: The King’s Speech and Argo. When the final choice is between a film the Academy members greatly admire and a movie they truly love, they tend to go with love.

But if Slave is vulnerable, what feel-good movie might fill the Argo slot? Could it be her, a small romantic comedy about a lonely guy (Joaquin Phoenix) and the voice of his operating system (Scarlett Johansson)? Or the fact-based, free-for-all comedy drama American Hustle? Maybe neither of these. The Producers Guild of America, whose nominations are usually smart predictors of the Oscar shortlist for Best Picture, cited Slave, her, Gravity and Hustle — not Inside Llewyn Davis — and added Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks and The Wolf of Wall Street. Of these six films, five won critics’ prizes in the acting categories; Wolf took a couple of screenplay citations.

Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave, 18; Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club, 6; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis, 3; Bruce Dern, Nebraska, 2; Robert Redford, All Is Lost, 1; Forest Whitaker, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 1. The Central Ohio Film Critics Association waffled by naming Ejiofor as Best Actor, McConaughey as “Actor of the Year”; in our tabulation we counted the former, not the latter. If the Academy members figure that 12 Years a Slave will take enough other categories, they may consider two 77-year-olds, Dern and Redford — or Hanks, who won no critics’ awards this year but is widely loved and respected for his career accomplishments and for his roles in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks. The Screen Actors Guild, another inside-Hollywood group whose nominations often coincide with the Academy’s, this year named Ejiofor, McConaughey, Dern, Hanks and Whitaker.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine, 18½; Sandra Bullock, Gravity, 3; Brie Larson, Short Term 12, 3; Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color, 3½; Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks, 2; Meryl Streep, August: Osage County, 1. No suspense here, Oscar-wise: Blanchett can’t lose. Just to fill out their card, the SAG voters named Bullock, Streep, Thompson and, for Philomena, Judi Dench.

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club, 20½; James Franco, Spring Breakers, 3½; Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave, 2; Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips, 1; Bradley Cooper, American Hustle, 1; Will Forte, Nebraska, 1; James Gandolfini, Enough Said, 1; Bill Nighy, About Time, 1. Leto, playing a tender-hearted transsexual, remains the strong Oscar favorite. SAG also cited Fassbender, first-time actor Abdi, last-time actor Gandolfini and Daniel Brühl in Ron Howard’s Formula One drama Rush.

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave, 17; Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle, 8; Scarlett Johansson, her, 2; Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Junction, 1; June Squibb, Nebraska, 1; Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 1; Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now, 1. The Detroit and Utah critics groups named Johansson, who not only is unseen in her but also replaced another voice actress, Samantha Morton, after shooting was completed. The major contenders here are Nyong’o (her first film role) and Lawrence, who at 23 is the brightest light of her generation. That rep may lead Academy voters to think that she’ll be around to get plenty of Oscars later, and that Nyong’o deserves the award for her sanctified endurance in playing the tortured Patsey of 12 Years. SAG’s other nominees are Squibb, Winfrey and Julia Roberts for August: Osage County.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity, 16; Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, 12½; Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, 2; Spike Jonze, her, 1½. The close race here could stoke a debate on traditional and new forms of moviemaking: McQueen’s severe, meticulous representation of realism vs. Cuarón’s masterly juggling of 3-D, visual-effects fantasy. One looks back to a century of old masters, the other forward to the visual possibilities of the digital age. The Academy, a conservative crowd, faced this choice four years ago, and went with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (gritty realism) over James Cameron’s Avatar (a new world of wonder). Bigelow was also the first woman to receive an Oscar for Best Director; McQueen would be the first African American.

CinematographyGravity, 18; Inside Llewyn Davis, 3; To the Wonder, 1; 12 Years a Slave, 1. (Eight groups did not vote for in this category.) The wrangle on old vs. new, and film vs. digital, certainly applies here. Indie filmmaker Jamie Stuart recently proposed that the Academy should award two Cinematography Oscars: one for realistic films, another for fantasy movies, “where a large portion was actually created in a manner pretty much the same [as] a Pixar cartoon.” The last four Oscars in this category have gone to AvatarInceptionHugo and Life of Pi — all movies that merge the cameraman’s craft with visual effects created in computers. That trend is expected to continue this year with Gravity.

Original Screenplayher, 10; American Hustle, 2½; Inside Llewyn Davis, 2½; Enough Said, 1; Nebraska, ½; The World’s End, ½. The critics groups tend to give this award to comedies, a flexible designation that could accommodate all six of these films. Whether they show up on the Oscar shortlist is anyone’s guess. The Writers Guild of America issues nominations, but excludes many films that don’t fit its union criteria; the well-regarded screenplays for Fruitvale Station and Philomena, for example, were ineligible. In this category, the WGA named American Hustle, her and Nebraska, plus Blue Jasmine and Dallas Buyers Club. The Academy, which has no rules for Screenplay other than it be for a movie released last year, will bring clarity on Jan. 16.

Adapted Screenplay12 Years a Slave, 8½; Before Midnight, 4½; The Wolf of Wall Street, 1. Slave was also ineligible for nomination by the WGA voters. Their final five: Before Midnight and The Wolf of Wall Street, plus August: Osage County, Captain Phillips and Lone Survivor. Note that three of these scripts were based on memoirs by men who would be impersonated by Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg.

Best Foreign Language FilmBlue Is the Warmest Color, 17; The Hunt, 3; The Act of Killing, 1; Blancanieves, 1; The Broken Circle Breakdown, 1; Drug War, 1; Mother of George, 1; The Past, 1; Wadjda, 1; The Wind Rises, 1. (Two groups did not vote in this category.) Any overlap between the critics and the Oscars is strictly coincidental, since reviewers must choose films that have been released in theaters over the calendar year while the Academy takes candidates from 70 or so countries, each with one film that played in its country of origin from Oct. 1, 2012 to Sep. 30, 2013, and whittles them down to… Look, it’s really not worth going into. This time, Blue Is the Warmest Color was ineligible for the Oscars because it didn’t open in France before the cutoff date. (But Adèle Exarchopoulos is eligible for Best Actress because — again, never mind.) The Hunt, from Denmark, and Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown are the only two critics’ winners on the Academy’s Foreign Film shortlist. In the final five they could be contending against Italy’s The Great Beauty.

Best DocumentaryThe Act of Killing, 12½; Stories We Tell, 5; 20 Feet from Stardom, 4; Blackfish, 3; At Berkeley, 1½; American Promise, 1. (Four groups did not vote in this category.) The Act of Killing, in which director Joshua Oppenheimer persuaded a group of Indonesian thugs to reenact the crimes they committed against the people nearly 50 years ago, goes up against Stories We Tell, actress Sarah Polley’s search for the truth about her parents. Both merged fact and fiction, movie-style, and made the Academy’s 15-film Doc shortlist, along with Blackfish (a killer whale in captivity) and 20 Feet from Stardom (the backup singers to pop vocalists).

Best Animated FeatureFrozen, 15; The Wind Rises, 9½; Despicable Me 2, ½. (Six groups did not vote in this category.) The Wind Rises is the first film for adults by Hayao Miyazaki, the esteemed Japanese master (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). It is also, he says, his last film as director. That might spur Academy members to give Miyazaki a kind of life-achievement award by honoring him here. More likely is that they will recognize both the ingenuity and the popularity — $640 million at the worldwide box office — of Disney’s Frozen. The Producers Guild, which creates a list of animated features, ignored The Wind Rises. Its five finalists are all American-made: Frozen, Despicable Me 2, The Croods, Epic and Monsters University.

*The 31 organizations surveyed: local or regional critics’ groups from Austin, Boston, Boston Online, Central Ohio, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Indiana, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nevada, New York, New York Online, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Southeastern, St. Louis, Toronto, Utah, Vancouver and Washington, D.C., plus the African American Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Journalists, the Black Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics and the Online Film Critics Society.

2 comments
mintatown
mintatown

Er... I think you'll find that Steve McQueen is not 'African American', but British, English even!

rhesus303
rhesus303

You stated: "...McQueen would be the first African American".

Steve McQueen is not African American or even American, if I remember correctly.