Sunday, December 11, 2011

Oscar 2012: L.A. Film Critics Association Awards & Boston Film Critics Awards

In continuing Academy Awards-season film-critics-prize-giving coverage, here are the winners announced by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Boston Society of Film Critics:

Scorsese's Hugo
Best Film: The Descendants (runner-up: The Tree of Life)
Best Director: Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life (runner-up: Martin Scorsese for Hugo)
Best Actor: Michael Fassbender for Shame, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre and X-Men: First Class (runner-up: Michael Shannon for Take Shelter)
Best Actress: Yoon Jeong-Hee for Poetry (runner-up: Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia)
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer for Beginners (runner-up: Oswalt Patton for Young Adult)
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain for The Help, The Tree of Life, Coriolanus, Take Shelter, The Debt and Texas Killing Field (runner-up: Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs)
Best Screenplay: A Separation (runner-up: The Descendants)
Best Documentary: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Best Animation: Rango (runner-up: The Adventures of Tintin)
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life
Best Production Design: Hugo (runner-up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Best Music: Hanna (runner-up: Drive)

Best Film: The Artist (runners-up: Hugo and Margaret)
Best Director: Martin Scorsese for Hugo (runner-up: Michal Hazanavicius for The Artist)
Best Actor: Brad Pitt for Moneyball (runners-up: George Clooney for The Descendants and Michael Fassbender for Shame)
Best Actress: Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn (runner-up: Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady)
Best Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks for Drive
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids(!!) (runner-up: Jeannie Berlin for Margaret)
Best Screenplay: Moneyball
Best Ensemble: Carnage (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz)
Best New Filmmaker: Sean Durkin for MarthaMarcy May Marlene 
Best Animation: Rango
Best Foreign Film: Incendies (runners-up: A Separation and Poetry)
Best Documentary: Project Nim (runner-up: Bill Cunningham New York)
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life (runner-up: Hugo)
Best Music: (tie) Drive and The Artist
Best Editing: The Clock (runner-up: Hugo)

Supporting Actor: Brooks
Martin Scorsese didn’t set out to make a critical darling when he embarked on Hugo, he just wanted to bring a children’s story to life. Boston has always been appreciative of his efforts, and they were in the first group to cite his work for The Departed, which won him his richly-deserved (and so far only) Oscar in 2006. Across-the-board wins and runner-up citations from both groups in the film, director and technical categories, combined with the big wins at the National Board of Review, will likely forecast a number of nominations for the commercially-underwhelming Hugo.

Supporting Actress: McCarthy!
The Tree of Life picked up more momentum and is making its case for a Best Picture nomination, even if it is extremely divisive, with wins for Malick and Chastain. In other words, major nominations, critical citations and appearances on “best-of” year-end lists is rolling it towards an invitation to the big dance. If nothing else, it will win the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Whatever you think of the film itself and director Terrence Malick’s artistic choices – whether you regard it as a profound meditation on the circle of life or think it’s just a hot mess – it was a great-looking picture. Unless he’s somehow disqualified, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki should start writing his speech now.

We need to consider Moneyball as more than just a box office hit with a good-looking movie star front-and-centre in it. Pitt’s win in Boston, paired with his victory in New York, makes him the distinct frontrunner in Best Actor. The fact that the film has also racked up another screenplay nomination, combined with excellent reviews, makes it a very likely Best Picture nominee, alongside Hugo and The Artist, which appears to be on a roll with its latest win in Boston.

The Descendants hasn’t been doing the same business that director Alexander Payne has had with his previous work, Sideways, but the win in LA gives it leverage in the Best Picture race. Look for the film to land nominations in major categories. The only caveat I will give was that prior to Sideways, Payne’s previous film About Schmidt blew away the LA group’s solar plexus and named it Best Film, but it was left out of the Oscars save for two acting nominations.

Body of work: Fassbender is LA's choice
Fassbender, at last, picks up a major critics’ citation in the Best Actor field. The momentum right now is for Shame, which has garnered attention for its controversial subject matter and NC-17 rating. It appears that the Academy may be privy to more unorthodox choices, even with the formerly dreaded NC-17, given Michelle Williams’s nomination for the similarly-rated Blue Valentine last year. It’s also apparent that they are honouring him for a body of work, and looking at his range in roles this year it wasn’t difficult to justify it. He’s played Sigmund Freud, Mr. Rochester and Magneto all in one year! His ability to move between classic literature, a known historical figure and a fanboy favourite means he’s got wide support. Look for him to lock in for a nomination, but for Shame, the film with the mojo at the moment.

Speaking of Williams, she needed a major boost from a major critics group and she got it. Winning at Boston, on top of her win this week in Washington, is a great shot in the arm for her campaign. The film has received somewhat mixed-to-positive reviews, but universal praise has centered on her performance in particular.

The apple in LA's eye: Best Actress Yoon in Poetry
Yoon’s win in LA for the brilliant Korean drama Poetry is not the first completely-left-field victory in the Best Actress field. Vera Farmiga beat Judi Dench in 2005 for Down to the Bone, Sandrine Bonnaire was the victor for Vagabond in 1986, and Yolande Moreau was the winner for 2009. I saw the film at the Vancouver International Film Festival … last year, the same year it also won Best Screenplay at Cannes. It’s a bit of a strange selection given how obscure the choice is, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. It’s actually an excellent choice, but don’t expect Yoon to factor into the Oscar race given the film’s complete lack of an Oscar campaign at the moment.

Albert Brooks’s citation for Drive has him pulling even with Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor. He’s got New York and Boston, while Plummer calls it a draw by adding the LA win to his victory at the National Board of Review. We officially have a two-man race, each likely to bag their second career nominations in the same category, going after a single win.

Supporting just about everyone: Chastain
Jessica Chastain’s win in LA, coupled with her win in New York, makes her arguably the one to beat this year. It’s rare that the winner of both major critics groups in this category doesn’t go on to win the Oscar in the same year, as evidenced by the precedent set by Meryl Streep, Penélope Cruz, Linda Hunt and Dianne Wiest (who did it twice) in this category. That being said, Chastain is no slam-dunk, as she was cited for no less than six films this year. Her wins so far have cited nearly her entire body of work, but remember that for Oscar she can be nominated for only one role in any particular category. It appears that her work in the crowd-pleasing The Help, a likely Best Picture nominee, is the one that will get her into the final five.

Melissa McCarthy’s shocking win in Boston, coupled with the Best Cast award that Bridesmaids received from the Washington DC Film Critics earlier this week, boosts her in the conversation for best supporting actress. It’s rare that an all-out comic performance gets recognized by Oscar, but it’s not unusual and has happened before in the past. Perhaps rather than honouring it in the lead category, where dramatics might carry a bit more weight to go with the “leading” category label, Oscar has generally preferred more "serious" work. Notable past Oscar nominees that spring to mind in this category include Joan Cusack for the coming-out comedy In & Out in 1997, Teri Garr for Tootsie in 1982, and Amy Adams for Junebug in 2005. All-out wins are much rarer, the most recent example being Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. This category is going to be one of the most competitive this year, and McCarthy’s win makes it that much more exciting.

Boston's Best Ensemble: Carnage
Speaking of ensemble casts, Boston’s decision to award it to the Oscar-winning trifecta of Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, together with previous nominee John C. Reilly, brings their names to the fore in the supporting categories. While supporting actress remains competitive, especially with Chastain, Shailene Woodley, Octavia Spencer, Vanessa Redgrave and now McCarthy and McTeer possibly in the mix, it may have gotten just a shade more competitive with Foster and Winslet joining the conversation. As supporting actor is a bit of a wide-open category once we get beyond Brooks and Plummer, either 2009’s winner Waltz or Reilly may be able to sneak in. Never underestimate the power of a Roman Polanski film if it starts winning prizes. Nearly a decade ago, it was Boston that got the ball rolling on his The Pianist when they named it Best Film. The film went on to snatch three unpredicted wins at the Oscars, including a shock best director trophy for the controversial director.

I declared in my National Board overview that the Iranian foreign-film entry A Separation may roll through the groups and possibly pick up a screenplay nomination come Oscar time. Its rather unexpected writing award in LA over the more obvious choice, Best Film winner The Descendants, may not guarantee it a place in the Best Original Screenplay category, but the critics just made a strong case to recognize it. As for Boston foreign lingo-winner Incendies, the choice is a belated one since it was already nominated last year in Best Foreign Language Film, and will be a non-factor this year.

If you’re thinking of getting a leg up on the documentary nominees, take note that Herzog’s much-admired 3-D Cave of Forgotten Dreams did not make the initial shortlist of films that will eventually get nominated for the Oscar. That being said, runner-up choice Bill Cunningham New York and Boston winner Project Nim did make the cut. Keep an eye out for both films, together with Wim Wenders’s double foreign film/documentary entry Pina in the final five.

What I find exciting about the process with these small but influential critics’ groups is that they can be more "open" than the traditional Oscar voting process. Boston announced their winners via their Twitter feed and peppered their Tweets by stating how some categories were very competitive (“another close one!”), while also sending shout-outs along with the announcements (“Well done, Albert!”). They even announced a pizza break just before they revealed that Brooks won for Drive. Heh. There are also some juicy tidbits about conversations between the voters, including this choice comic Tweet:

“Ty Burr [of The Boston Globe] tells us, in the 1930s, MGM used to keep track of the studio actresses' menstrual cycles...(FYI, men's cycles last 23 days, not 28!)”

In their honesty, they also Tweeted this:

“It's worth noting that many of us couldn't see MARGARET because the studio did not issue screeners and there was only 1 screening.”

As I indicated before, these awards groups are like the New Hampshire primaries in elections. If you don’t get your candidate out there and gauge interest, you’ll lose momentum and potentially not get into the list of nominees for the big race. With certain film distributors, they just don’t have the resources to get a bunch of screeners out there and it can be a tough slog to get people to see a certain film. In 1994, awards groups declared Little Women “over” when Sony Pictures didn’t get screener tapes out in time for the Hollywood Foreign Press and it blanked at the Golden Globes, yet it picked up three Oscar noms including Best Actress for then “it girl” Winona Ryder. The same fate almost befell this year’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and there was an “emergency” screening of the film the day before the New York Film Critics announced their awards. It all just goes to show that the annual Oscar race can be seen – albeit very loosely analogously – as a fun microcosm of an actual election for political office.

It’s also refreshing to know that in an era of disposable culture, the LA group actually re-Tweeted this from @AmyBoxOffice:

“While the morning vote went fast, LAFCA awards now bogged down by fighting. No fisticuffs yet, but I did just yell "Chaos!"” 

If people can argue this lustily about art (without resorting to violence of course), then the world and our culture are a better place.