Critics Awards: Defying Gravity, Slighting Slave

The New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review shake up the Oscar race with awards for 'American Hustle' and 'her'

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Jaap Buitendijk

It’s an old movie tradition: jump the gun. As Hollywood officially launches its “summer” blockbuster season the first weekend of May, and an animated feature about Thanksgiving (Free Birds) opens in October, so do some critics groups vote for their “year-end” awards in early December. We hand out our Christmas presents three weeks early.

Industry swamis often scrutinize the critics’ choices for their potential impact on the only vote that matters in Hollywood, the Oscars. This is both premature — like reaching to read tea leaves while the hot water is still in the cup — and pointless, since the constituencies of critics’ groups and Academy members don’t overlap by a single person. But as with football pools, predicting movie awards is a sporting endeavor, a competition before the games begin, and an amusing time-waster that doesn’t oblige the player to see the lofty films on the shortlist.

This year, it was first-est for the oldest. The New York Film Critics Circle, founded in 1935, voted this past Tuesday on the year’s movies, including a half dozen they had been shown a only few days previously. Comprising 38 journalists for Gotham-based print and online publications, the NYFCC (of which I am a member) chose American Hustle for best film, screenplay and supporting actress (Jennifer Lawrence). No other film earned more than one award — the first time that’s happened since 2006, when The Queen was the only multiple winner; and 2004, with Sideways, that the multiple winner also took best film.

(READ: Corliss’s review of American Hustle)

A day later came the voting of an even more venerable organization, the 104-year-old National Board of Review, whose membership comprises film scholars and other worthy citizens; they’re sort of the Red Hat Society of movie groups. The NBR selected Spike Jonze’s her in the film and director categories, and honored Nebraska with awards for Bruce Dern (best actor) and Will Forte (supporting actor).

Notably slighted were two movies that Oscar handicappers had thought would battle for Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. The critics stiffed Gravity and gave Slave only a Best Director nod for Steve McQueen. The NBR shut out Slave and, at the bottom of its list, acknowledged Gravity for “Creative Innovation in Filmmaking” — which translates as “We didn’t like your picture enough to give it a competitive prize, but we’d love George Clooney, Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuarón to come to our awards party.”

(READ: Corliss on Spike Jonze’s her)

Many moviegoers will wonder what’s all the tumult about American Hustle and her, two films that won’t be seen by the public until their theatrical release in a week or two. But in the biz, these prizes matter. One awards website, Gold Derby, has its experts predict the NYFCC winners. (Last year, they went one-for-six in the top categories; this year, they improved to one-and-a-third, hedging their bets on best actor among Matthew McConaughey, Chiwetel Ejiofor and the winner, Robert Redford.) The NYFCC vote, which will be followed this Sunday by the Los Angeles Film Critics confab, instantly become a bedrock of studios’ publicity campaigns for movie that have eyes for Oscar. Along with individual critics’ top-10 lists, the acclaim gives free promotion to the movies — and the critics.

What do these choices reveal about the coming Academy Award season and the power year-end awards? We won’t know for sure until March 2, Oscar night. But we can always offer uninformed speculation: that’s a critic’s job. First, take a look at this year’s prizes from the two groups.

The New York Film Critics Circle

Best Film: American Hustle
Best Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Best Actor: Robert Redford, All Is Lost
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Animated Film: The Wind Rises
Best Screenplay: Eric Waren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle
Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Best First Film: Fruitvale Station
Best Foreign Language Film: Blue Is the Warmest Color
Best Non-Fiction Film: Stories We Tell
Special Award: Frederick Wiseman


The National Board of Review

Best Film: her
Best Director: Spike Jonze, her
Best Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte, Nebraska
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises
Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Breakthrough Performance: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
Best Foreign Language Film: The Past
Best Documentary: Stories We Tell
William K. Everson Film History Award: George Stevens, Jr.
Best Ensemble: Prisoners
Spotlight Award: Career Collaboration of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio
NBR Freedom of Expression Award: Wadjda
Creative Innovation in Filmmaking Award: Gravity

*      *     *     *     *

Observe that the two groups disagreed on the winners of what might be called the top seven categories: film, director, screenplay, actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress. American Hustle, the only multiple-winner in the NYFCC voting, copped no awards from the NBR; and her, which the NBR had a serious jonze for, was ignored by the NYFCC. So were Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street and Saving Mr. Banks, all laureates at the NBR (which, granted, has more competitive categories, thus more prizes).

(READ: Corliss’ 10 Best Movies of 2013)

There’s a nuance here, in that the NYFCC’s announced films and people may have won by only a point or two on a fourth or fifth rounds of balloting. (That’s why our meeting took five exhausting hours.) Members are sworn to secrecy on pain of an angry glance from genial Chairman Joshua Rothkopf —but since the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick spilled the big dish on his blog, we can point out that, for best supporting actress, Lawrence defeated Lupita Nyongo of 12 Years a Slave by one point, 40 to 39. Slave finished second in the best-actor category (Ejiofor), third in supporting actor (Michael Fassbender). The vote on best film went to five official ballots, when American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave tied with 38 points in the fourth round. If one or two members hadn’t been obliged to leave before the end, the story might have been about the triumph of 12 Years a Slave.

(READ: Corliss’ 10 Best Movie Performances of 2013)

And some angry outsiders — “White power,” tweeted Sasha Stone of the Awards Daily blog when the American Hustle win was announced — would have to have been angry at something else. My guess is that Hustle nosed out Slave for a few reasons. Critics saw it either a week or a day before the voting, so its impact was fresh in their minds. I suspect also that some members thought voting for Slave would be a critics’ solemn obligation, whereas voting for Hustle was a ratification of the joy the movie gave them. They played hooky from social uplift and chose a film that expressed the vitality of American movies. They voted not as film critics but as movie fans. Sorry to Sasha Stone, and to the Academy voters, for confounding expectations.

And really, what influence do we or should we have? As Guy Lodge sagely notes on the In Contention blog, “critics’ awards — valuable ones, at any rate — reflect little more than what a sizable (or sufficiently sizable) faction within that group either liked most, or liked more than the other options available to them. (It’s as misleading to speak of any critics’ group as a ‘they’ as it is the Academy; chances are no two voters’ ballots look exactly the same.) That’s not to diminish their significance; rather, that’s what makes them meaningful, to the recipients and their admirers, if not to the future of the Oscar race.”

Our job as critics is not to predict what Oscar will do but to register our own choices, in a contentious, antiphonal chorus. We mean to be irrelevant to the Academy Awards process, and I believe we achieve that. If Gravity, my favorite film of the year, wins the Best Picture Oscar, I’ll be happy. And one precedent suggests that it might. Remember that National Board of Review award it received for “Creative Innovation in Filmmaking”? Last year, the NBR gave a similar also-ran prize, “Special Achievement in Filmmaking,” to another movie star: Ben Affleck for Argo. That movie did O.K. on Oscar night.