Film Critics Awards: Early Clues to the Oscars

The critics' faves 'Argo,' 'Lincoln' and 'Zero Dark Thirty' will be Academy front-runners; so will the reviewers' bete noire, 'Les Miz'

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No movie critic is a member of the Motion Picture Academy. None votes for the Academy Awards. And few if any reviewers think of themselves as handicappers in the Oscar race. Yet when they convene in their local, regional or national groups, and voted for the best films, filmmakers and actors, they frequently coalesce around movies and people who will be favored in the Academy nominations, and sometimes when the winners are named on Oscar Night. Without wanting to, they offer a kind of morning line for the Oscars.

This year, with the Academy’s calendar pushed forward, it’s a tomorrow-morning line. The nominees will be announced Thurs., though the ceremony doesn’t occur for another six-and-a-half weeks: Sun., Feb. 24. The critics groups took nearly as long to string out their own awards, from the New York Film Critics on Dec. 3 to the Denver Film Critics Society yesterday. So we now have a collective portrait of the reviewers’ favorite movies and people of 2012.

(READ: How the critics and the Academy aligned last year)

Will they forecast the Academy’s choices? For the umpteenth time, we critics don’t care if we do. But, inadvertently, we often do it. And this year’s top honorees from the scriveners’ clan look to be reflected in the Academy’s nominations, with one major caveat in many categories: remove The Master, insert Les Misérables.

Consulting the valuable research in Peter Knegt’s Awards Guide at Indiewire and Kristopher Tapley’s In Contention awards blog, I tabulated this year’s winners in major categories from 34 critics’ groups, listed at the bottom*. (The small print: one point for each winner in each category; ties get a half-point. For groups that split Screenplay into Original and Adapted, each winner gets a half-point; ties get a quarter-point! Some groups cited documentaries and foreign films in other categories; those films are also designated by plus signs.) Here are the winners, with my guesses as to the favor they will find Thurs., when the Oscar nominations are announced.

Best FilmZero Dark Thirty, 11. Argo, 10. The Master, 3. Amour, 2. Lincoln, 2. Silver Linings Playbook, 2. Life of Pi, 1. Moonrise Kingdom, 1. Safety Not Guaranteed, 1.

The critics were almost evenly split between Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, two movies that provide glowing, more-or-less-true-life portraits of heroic CIA officers. Both will find Oscar favor, at least in the nominations, though they may ultimately bow to another wartime docudrama, Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln. Silver Linings Playbook and Life of Pi should also make the Academy’s Best Picture shortlist. Moonrise Kingdom is iffier; Safety Not Guaranteed is no-iest. Les Misérables, which got little love from the critics except for Anne Hathaway’s supporting performance, will be among the five to 10 films nominated by the Academy. The French-language Amour could be the rare foreign-language title to receive a Best Picture nomination, though it did not receive a nod from the Producers Guild of America, whose nominations are often a reliable predictor of the Oscar finalists. This year’s 10 PGA nominees: Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Moonrise Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Director. Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty, 12½. Ben Affleck, Argo, 8½. Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master, 4. Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom, 2. Ang Lee, Life of Pi, 2. David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook, 2. Michael Haneke, Amour, 1. Steven Spielberg, Lincoln, 1. Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained, 1.

Bigelow, Affleck and Spielberg are dead certs for Oscar nominations, and any of those could be the winner. The Master earned passionate support from many critics but not from movie audiences or, apparently, the industry solons who populate the Academy; so Paul Thomas Anderson is a long shot. Les Misérables could be the Academy’s The Master: hated by many but loved by the voters and thus likely to be nominated. Les Miz’s Tom Hooper was one of the five finalists announced this week by the Directors Guild. The other four: Affleck, Bigelow, Lee and Spielberg.

Best Actor. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln, 23½. Joaquin Phoenix, The Master, 5. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook, 2½. John Hawkes, The Sessions, 1. Denis Lavant, Holy Motors, 1. Denzel Washington, Flight, 1.

Day-Lewis, with 70% of the wins from critics groups, is also a prohibitive favorite to win his third Best Actor Oscar (after the 1989 My left Foot and the 2007 There Will Be Blood). Cooper, Hawkes and Washington are also expected to be nominated. Again, the Academy may ignore someone from The Master (Phoenix) and reward someone from Les Misérables (Hugh Jackman). This year’s five nominees in the Screen Actors Guild, whose membership overlaps significantly with the Academy’s: Cooper, Day-Lewis, Hawkes, Jackman and Washington.

Best Actress. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, 13½. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook, 11½. Emmanuel Riva, Amour, 4½. Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea, 2. Emayatzy Corinealdi, Middle of Nowhere, 1. Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz, 1. Helen Hunt, The Sessions, ½.

Chastain and Lawrence are locks to receive Oscar nominations, with Chastain the early favorite to win. After that, it’s chaos. Riva, the 85-year-old French acting legend who plays an invalid wife in Michael Haneke’s deathwatch drama, could win the empathy of elderly Academy voters. Weisz, already an Oscar winner (Supporting Actress for The Constant Gardener), would also be a lovely choice. But neither Riva not Weisz was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award. The five SAG nominees: Chastain, Lawrence, Marion Cotillard for Rust & Bone, Helen Mirren for Hitchcock and Naomi Watts for The Impossible. (Helen Hunt got a half-point for sharing the Actress award given by the Nevada critics, but she is being promoted in the Supporting Actress category.)

Best Supporting Actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, 11. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln, 9. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained, 5. Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike and Bernie, 2 (+ 3 honorary awards). Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2. Javier Bardem, Skyfall, 1. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook, 1. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained, 1. Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 1. Nate Parker, Arbitrage, 1.

In this category, as in Best Picture, the critics may forecast a close Oscar race: Hoffman and Jones are seen as the front runners. And for once, maybe only once, The Master has a shot at an Academy Award. The well-liked McConaughey benefitted in critics’ groups by appearing in four indie movies last year and receiving multiple votes for different roles; the Academy rewards the performance, not the performer. SAG nominated Bardem, De Niro, Hoffman, Jones and Alan Arkin for Argo.

Best Supporting Actress. Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables, 20. Sally Field, Lincoln, 5. Amy Adams, The Master, 4. Helen Hunt, The Sessions, 1½. Ann Dowd, Compliance, 1½. Gina Gershon, Killer Joe, 1. Emma Watson, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 1.

As Tapley observed, long before Les Miz was released, Hathaway will win an Oscar for a single shot: the long take of her aria “I Dreamed a Dream.” Two-time Oscar-winner Field (for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart) cries but does not sing. Gershon, who was naughty and nifty in support of McConaughey in Killer Joe, stands no chance. Adams could rack up one more citation for The Master, but she wasn’t among the five SAG nominees: Field, Hathaway, Hunt, Nicole Kidman for the little-seen yet widely reviled The Paperboy (yet another McConaughey movie) and Maggie Smith for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Best Screenplay. Some critics’ groups give only one Screenplay award, while others divide the craft, as the Academy does, into Original and Adapted. Using a complex metrics that is not entirely clear even to me, I determined the critics’ preferred scripts in each category. Original Screenplay: Zero Dark Thirty, 5; Looper, 3½; Moonrise Kingdom, 3; The Master, 2; Middle of Nowhere, 1; Django Unchained, ½; Safety Not Guaranteed, ½. The first four could well be Oscar-nominated — they were among the nominees by the Writers Guild, which also named Flight. The critics’ winners for Adapted Screenplay: Lincoln, 5¾; Argo, 5½; Silver Linings Playbook, 2½; The Perks of Being a Wallfower, 1; Life of Pi, ½. These were the same five nominated by the WGA.

Best Animated Feature. The critical consensus and the Academy always come close to coinciding in this category, because so few animated features are made. The critics’ choices — ParaNorman, 13; Wreck-It Ralph, 7; Frankenweenie, 6; Rise of the Guardians, 4 and Chico & Rita, 1 — should be duplicated by the Academy, with one substitution: Pixar’s Brave (whose girl-power theme might make it an Oscar favorite) for Chico & Rita (which the Academy nominated last year but was released in 2012).

Best Documentary Feature. Some critics’ faves, including The Central Park Five (three winning votes), Jiro Dreams of Sushi and The Queen of Versailles (two wins each), did not get shortlisted by the Academy’s Doc branch. Of those still eligible for the Gang of Five announced Thurs., the critics’ choices were: Searching for Sugar Man, 7; How to Survive a Plague, 4; The Imposter, 4; Bully, 3; The Gatekeepers, 2; The Invisible War, 2; This Is Not a Film, 2; Chasing Ice, 1; and The Waiting Room, 1. The PGA, which presents an award in this category, chose as finalists The Gatekeepers, Searching for Sugar Man and three films — The Island President, A People Uncounted and The Other Dream Team — that won no critics prizes.

Best Foreign Language Feature. Critics choose a foreign-language film released that year in the city or region they represent. The Academy sifts through movies nominated by their home country, whether or not they have played in North America theaters. Hence only two of the critics’ favorites — Amour, which won prizes from 13 groups, and the fact-based buddy comedy The Intouchables, with 6½ wins — could, and probably will, be nominated tomorrow. Both are strong works, and both have French stars and settings, though Amour is the submission of Austria, home country of its director Michael Haneke. Barring a fraud in the vote-counting, Amour will win.

*The 34 critics’ organizations surveyed: local or regional groups from Austin, Boston, Boston Online, Central Ohio, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Indiana, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nevada, New York, New York Online, North Texas, Oklahoma, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Southeastern, St. Louis, Toronto, Utah, Vancouver 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 Association.

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