Year-End Awards: National Board of Review Says ‘We Go with Hugo

America's most venerable movie group also cites The Descendants, Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter and virtually every other film but Your Highness

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Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz

What did Martin Scorsese have to do to win the top award from the National Board of Review? Make a kid’s picture. The NBR, a group of academics and cinephiles based in New York, gave its Best Film prize to Scorsese’s Hugo, the tale of a French orphan whose dreams intertwine with those of pioneer movie magician Georges Méliès. The group also named Scorsese as Best Director. George Clooney won Best Actor for Alexander Payne’s Hawaii dramedy The Descendants, and Tilda Swinton was cited as Best Actress for her role as the harried mom with a monster kid in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

On Tuesday the New York Film Critics Circle gave its top prizes to The Artist and director Michael Hazanavicius, with Scorsese finishing second on the director ballot and Hugo third for best film. So the major awards of the first organizations to bestow them have gone to an American tribute to silent French films and a French tribute to silent Hollywood films. That’s either connoisseurship or inbreeding.

(READ about the New York Film Critics choice of The Artist)

At the advanced age of 102, the NBR is like a thoughtful centenarian who doesn’t want to disappoint any of her grandchildren. The group hands out lots of awards—19 this year—as well as providing Best lists, not including the top winners, in four categories. (You’ll find the full honors list at the end of this story.) Everyone in the movie-watching business knows that the Board gives out early Christmas presents. But what else is it? And who is it?

“National Board of Review of Motion Pictures”: it sounds like a government agency—the Fed of movies. In fact, it’s a citizen’s group of film-lovers, founded in 1909 to protest the closing of movie houses by the Mayor of New York. Soon, the movie watchers turned into movie watchdogs. Calling itself the New York Board of Motion Picture Censorship before modifying its name and going national, the NBR rated pictures throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age, occasionally demanding cuts before approving them with the phrase, which appeared on thousands of films, “Passed by National Board of Review.”

(SEE: the all-TIME 100 Movies)

The Board’s official film-rating function ended in 1950, the same year it launched Films in Review, a pocket-size magazine full of enthusiastic studies of Hollywood stars and directors. (The magazine is no longer published.) The NBR website defines its membership as “a select group of knowledgeable film enthusiasts, filmmakers, academics, and students.” (Who selects them? Don’t know.) Though it gives filmmaking grants and does other cinematic social work, the NBR is known almost exclusively for the year-end awards it has voted since 1932, three years before the NYFCC began.

Sometimes the winners coincide with those of the Motion Picture Academy’s, more often not. In the past dozen years, only two NBR Best Film selections, No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire, were named the Academy’s Best Picture. Over the past quarter-century, the membership has given its top prize to films by Merchant-Ivory (A Room With a View, Howards End), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, Letters from Iwo Jima) and Geoffrey Rush (Shine and, whoa!, Quills). One auteur they never warmed up to was Scorsese. For Best Film, they choose The Sting over Mean Streets in 1973, All the President’s Men over Taxi Driver in 1976, Ordinary People over Raging Bull in 1980, Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas in 1990 and Letters from Iwo Jima over Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed in 2006.

(READ: Richard Corliss on Hugo—a Masterpiece?) 

With no frontline critics among the membership, the NBR’s provenance is murky. What do they do? Some cinematic social work—but mainly the bestowing of prizes at the swellest of all movie-award parties, with stars galore among the 500 or so guests at the cathedralish Cipriani restaurant across from Grand Central Terminal. The group’s other cachet was to be first to say what the year’s best movie work was. With the New York Film Critics pushing their usual voting date up by two weeks and announcing their winners Tuesday, the import of today’s NBR awards is different: it will expand the early field, putting more names in the conversation of critics and Academy members yet to vote.

So who profits from the NBR vote? The Descendants, with Screenplay and Supporting Actress as well as the one for Clooney, can now boast it won three awards, the most of any film. Swinton gets an official accolade on her way to an Oscar nomination. Christopher Plummer certifies his front-runner standing in the Supporting Actor category (though isn’t his performance as the gay, dying dad in Beginners a lead role?) Rango gets some cred in the Animated Feature category. The Iranian drama A Separation, having won both the NYFCC and the NBR honors, becomes the foreign film to beat at other critics groups. The Help is helped by the ensemble citation, though that didn’t clarify which of the film’s actresses might be Oscar-nominated, or in which categories. Same with Michael Fassbender: the actor won the Spotlight Award for four films, the most prominent being the NC-17, let-it-all-hang-out Shame. Other critics’ groups will have to cite Fassbender for Shame if the Academy is to go down that gnarly road.

And who’s pissed? Harvey Weinstein. His company is distributing both The Artist and The Iron Lady, for which Meryl Streep snagged a first-ballot victory from the New York critics. The Weinsteins got nary an NBR award for either of those films, or for My Week With Marilyn, whose lead performance by Michelle Williams is guaranteed an Oscar nomination.

(READ: Mary Pols on My Week With Marilyn)

Oscar Oscar OSCAR—the event is nearly three months away, and some of us are sick of it already. The primacy of the Academy Awards as both a standard of quality and a sporting endeavor shouldn’t extend to the rating of critics’ groups by how often their prejudices coincide with Hollywood’s. There’s nothing wrong with a certain defiant independence. As a 35-year member of the NYFCC, I’d say we each are just small voices in the dark—voices that should be taken as gospel by our readers, but not necessarily by the craftspeople who choose the Oscars.

So let the Academy choose Extremely Loud and Incredible Close—a film not screened for either the NBR or the NYFCC—as Best Picture. We in the New York awards-giving fraternity can still cherish the artful film-loving movies we said were the year’s best.

The list of NBR honors:

Best Film: Hugo

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Best Original Screenplay: Will Reiser, 50/50

Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, The Descendants

Best Animated Feature: Rango

Breakthrough Performance: Felicity Jones, Like Crazy

Breakthrough Performance: Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Debut Director: J.C. Chandor, Margin Call

Best Ensemble: The Help

Spotlight Award: Michael Fassbender, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Shame, X-Men: First Class

NBR Freedom of Expression: Crime After Crime

NBR Freedom of Expression: Pariah

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation

Best Documentary: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Special Achievement in Filmmaking: The Harry Potter Franchise – “a distinguished translation from book to film”

Top Films: The Artist, The Descendants, Drive, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Ides of March, J. Edgar, Tree of Life and War Horse

Top 5 Foreign Language Films: 13 Assassins, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Footnote, Le Havre and Point Blank

Top 5 Documentaries: Born to be Wild, Buck, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Project NIM and Senna

Top 10 Independent Films: Another Earth, Beginners, A Better Life, Cedar Rapids, 50/50, Margin Call, Shame, Take Shelter, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Win Win.