Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Oscar 2012: New York Film Critics Circle Awards

It’s that time right after Thanksgiving and before Christmas when magazines and other media outlets start naming their “best of the year” selections. That also extends to film critics groups, and their opinions on which films and performances were the most worthy of attention all year. It is also, for less sophisticated or mainstream audiences not privy to artier fare, an opportunity to see what the tastemakers consider the greatest.

Award-winner prognostication is not an exact science, nor is it really an art. It’s more inexact alchemy concocted in a crystal ball and subject to the votes of a group of about 5,000 film industry professionals and the marketing and PR departments hired to influence their choices. In presidential election terms, consider this part of the annual Oscar race the equivalent of the New Hampshire primaries: they may not decide the final outcome, but they at least identify the major players and alert those not named that they have to get their name out there and step up the campaign.

I love awards shows and I love watching and handicapping the races, which produce inevitably and alternatively sensible and baffling choices (I’m still angry that Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain, but let’s debate that another time).

Today, the New York Film Critics Circle (the “NYFCC”) announced their winners. In this piece, I will attempt to analyze the winners and determine if they should clear off the final weekend of February so that they can be in L.A. and, more precisely, at the Kodak Theater.

Best Film: The Artist
Best Film and Best Director: The Artist by Michael Hazanavicius

This silent comedy opened to rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and immediately picked up a distribution with The Weinstein Company for the United States. Famed for his impeccable choices in Oscar vehicles, Harvey Weinstein undoubtedly has great plans for making this crowd-pleaser one of the Best Picture nominees, if not the outright winner. Perhaps the big win here might forecast the biggest win of all. Considering that the film also received the most nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, the film has become, as of this moment (always a key operating term in the next few months as momentum is continually gauged), the movie to beat. What’s strange, however, is that NYFCC did not choose its star, Cannes prize winner Jean Dujardin, for Best Actor, which went to …

Best Actor: Brad Pitt in Moneyball and The Tree of Life

There’s an old story circulating somewhere on the Internet (that’s why you should take it with a pinch of salt) that the NYFCC allegedly chose Cameron Diaz as Best Actress of 1998 for There’s Something About Mary just because the group wanted to invite Diaz to their awards banquet to pick up her prize. That story is an insult not only to the group, but also to Diaz’s expert comic skill (she is, in my opinion, still one of the most underrated actors to this day: Being John Malkovich, anyone?). Does this explain why Brad Pitt was chosen as Best Actor? Again: insulting to both the group and the actor, so let's not go there, and move on.

Never quite a critics’ darling, Pitt’s big win here with the toniest of film critics’ groups is a sign that he’s finally recognized by the pundits and not just audiences as a serious actor. It helps that his role in the crowd-pleasing Moneyball includes plenty of big speeches and wordplay in a Best Picture frontrunner. Actors like big showy speeches and he’s got that in spades in Moneyball, which means he’ll have a wealth of scenes to choose from as his Oscar clip. It also helps that by contrasting this with a dramatic but less verbal role in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, he demonstrates how easily he shifts between more commercial fare and artier offerings. When it comes to getting an Oscar nomination, unless he splits his own ballot (actors cannot be nominated against themselves in any one category and shared-film nominations are not allowed), he’ll likely get called for at least a nomination with Moneyball.

Best Actress: Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady

Best Actress: Streep
With her winning turn as Margaret Thatcher, Streep becomes the most-decorated female actor in NYFCC history. There has been much buzz about her potentially winning a third Oscar, but be reminded that such buzz has been brewing in ebbs and flows since Reagan was still president. Affecting a British accent for the first time since that era, this much-anticipated film will now open at year’s end with more fanfare and the tantalizing possibility of at least a nomination for its star. That being said, remember that Streep’s been tapped as a sure-fire winner in the past decade for Julie & Julia, Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada and Adaptation, not counting her other extraordinary performances in A Cry in the Dark, Ironweed, The Bridges of Madison County, etc. Streep will likely lock in another nomination – which would make this the seventeenth(!!) in her stellar career – but forecasting a win is something to seriously consider in about two months’ time.

Best Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks in Drive

In 1987, Broadcast News swept the NYFCC. It won all five top categories. Brooks was one of the stars of that film but he was not recognized for giving one of its key performances. He was feted for his script for the underrated comic masterpiece Mother in 1996, but had little to no recognition before or after. One of the finest American comic talents in the last quarter-century, he never reached the fame or notoriety as Woody Allen, but his work was never less than splendid. The perpetual nice guy, his against-type performance in Drive is scarily out-of-character for him. It’s this challenge to his typecasting that made the performance such a thrill. He received an Oscar nomination for Broadcast News, his only one to date. Look for him to get his second for Drive.

Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain for The Help, The Tree of Life and Take Shelter

The Tree of Life:  winner of Best Actor, Best Supporting
Actress and Best Cinematography
Clearly a breakout year for the lovely and talented Chastain, the fact that she was named for three such disparate films of varying commercial fortunes (one a runaway smash, one an art-house favourite and one that outright tanked) demonstrates her versatility and status as one of our most exciting up-and-coming actors. Oscar likes to honour ingénues in this category, so look for her to land a nomination for the most accessible of the three films, The Help, with a strong possibility that she may compete against cast mate Octavia Spencer in this category.

Best Screenplay: Moneyball, by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin

The Oscar-winning writer of Schindler’s List delivers an Aaron Sorkin-style script with plenty of speeches and much intelligence. Since Oscar loved Sorkin’s work on The Social Network last year, consider his latest work a lock for a nomination.

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation

The major prize winner at this year’s Berlin Film Festival also earned audience awards around the world (most recently in Vancouver) and is Iran’s official entry for in this category for the Oscars. This will only help its cause. Even without a wide commercial release, the film has already been listed as one of IMDB's Top 250 best films of all time

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life

No contest. Even if you hated the film, you likely thought “hey, that was pretty gorgeously photographed”. All but one of Malick’s films has been Oscar-nominated in this category, even his reviled The New World, so expect Lubezki to land a nomination, if not a win.

Zachary Quinto in Margin Call
Best First Work: Margin Call

Although not a major financial success, this is a film of our times and reflects today’s economy. I’m not sure if it will hit too close to home for Academy voters to get too uncomfortable, this win will at least make them pay attention and possibly get it a writing nod.

Again: Oscar prognostication is not an exact science. The NYFCC may have chosen Schindler’s List and The Lord of the Rings as Best Film, forecasting Oscar sweeps, but there is also a long list of films which topped at NYFCC and did not take home the big prize or even get nominated for it. These include Sideways, Far From Heaven, Brokeback Mountain and Broadcast News. However, if you have an Oscar pool where you guess the nominations and not the winners, you will want to start building your ballots now.

Also take note that the following critically acclaimed performers and films were left out of NYFCC: The Descendants, Glenn Close and Albert Nobbs, Michael Fassbender and Shame, Martha Marcy May Marlene, My Week with Marilyn, and forthcoming works such as Spielberg’s War Horse and Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon TattooMelancholia did collect a runner-up citation for Best Film and came in third for Best Actress and Best Director, but it needed big wins to make a splash in the race. And who knows? Maybe The Muppets will top the Golden Globes and elbow its way into the Best Picture race. And just because a film, director, writer or actor hasn’t been chosen here, it doesn’t mean it won’t win the Oscar.

I’ll write again on the next critics’ group with an awards announcement, the National Board of Review, this Thursday.