Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oscar 2012: National Board of Review Awards

Traditionally always the first film critics’ group to charge out with the year-end prize-giving, the National Board of Review (“NBR”) was beaten to the punch this year by the New York Film Critics. That doesn’t mean that their awards are any less worthy of attention, they are just one of a series of groups that recognize the year’s best in cinema.

Generally, the NBR gives plenty more prizes in cinema that extend beyond Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects. As they are a juried award-giving body, they have the flexibility to honour films in a list format rather than the standard nominee-and-single-winner scheme, or even just a list of single winners per category. They name a list of the ten best films, and also produce lists for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film, indicating an arguably less competitive and more egalitarian form of award-giving. Here are the winners of this year’s prizes, and a brief analysis of each.

Best Film and Best Director: Hugo and Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s crowd-pleasing new release was an unusual choice, partly because it was not violent (like his The Age of Innocence) and partly because it was a family-oriented picture. It opened to better-than-expected box office over Thanksgiving and was not widely considered major awards bait, but this big prize, combined with steady business and rapturous reviews, should help make the film a contender for Oscar.

Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and The Descendants

They love Clooney at this group: love him. This is his third prize from the NBR within the last five years, having also been named Best Actor for 2007’s Michael Clayton and 2009’s Up in the Air. This should get him notice and solidify his slot in the Oscars. Woodley’s victory should only put her in greater steady for Best Supporting Actress, and the script a shoo-in nominee if not outright winner. Curiously, these three prizes mimic three of the four categories Up in the Air won two years ago, with the exception of the Best Picture prize (although The Descendants was named one of the year’s ten best films).

Best Actress: Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk about Kevin

Swinton has always been a critics’ darling, if not a major critics’ group champion. Her work as the mother who gave birth to a demon child was long considered the one to beat for Oscar and here she just upped her chances at landing a slot in the big race. She’s already won an Oscar, for Michael Clayton, and has an excellent chance at duking it out with the likes of Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Charlize Theron in this year’s competitive Best Actress race.

Caveat: the NBR’s choice for Best Actress last year, Leslie Manville, was completely ignored in the Oscar race and didn’t even land a nomination. This was not helped with category confusion as to whether or not Manville’s role was considered a lead of supporting one. However, Swinton’s higher profile should keep her name in the competition.

Plummer, with Ewan McGregor
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer in Beginners

Plummer has, at age 81, only one previous Oscar nomination to date, for The Last Station in 2009. His role as the father who comes out of the closet at age 75 and lives a full gay life before he dies is a touching, subtle one, and considered by many to be a career capper. Not that he needed critic’s notices to stay in the conversation, but this will help him over the long season.

Best Original Screenplay: 50/50

A little independent film that may not have a big Oscar campaign behind it needs critics’ prizes to lend it momentum, so this portends very well for the film. Keep in mind that one of the most inventive winners of this prize from this group, 2006’s brilliant and underrated Stranger Than Fiction, was left out in the cold when the Oscar nominees were announced. Nevertheless, consider this an alternate to the list of predicted nominees, just in case you run an office pool.

Breakthrough Performance: Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Felicity Jones in Like Crazy

Everyone’s been anxious to see if Mara’s performance as Lisbeth Salander could possibly match Noomi Rapace’s landmark work in the original Swedish production. The win here is a good omen, and she remains in the conversation for Best Actress. Getting a boost here as well is Jones, whose work might have been dismissed as being slight compared to the heavy hitters like Swinton, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, but if the film picks up legs to go with its generally excellent reviews, she might also get a shot at the big prize.

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

You couldn’t have a conversation about great actors this year without throwing Fassbender’s name into the conversation. He’s played an action hero, Sigmund Freud, a sex addict (the latter two being mentioned back-to-back can only be a Freudian slip … sorry, heh) and Mr. Rochester, and if the Academy were to reward a body of work, he would get it. Alas, they don’t work that way, and he can only get recognized for a single performance unless he splits off into supporting (possibly for Jane Eyre?). He will likely get a shot at the leading nomination for the well-received Shame.

Best Foreign Film: A Separation

Again, this film takes the lead and is on its way to becoming only the second Iranian Best Foreign Language Film nominee, and possibly the country's first winner. With such momentum and with the twists and turns in the film’s inventive screenplay, it could possibly pick up a writing nomination as well. Given its intense critical acclaim and its high standing on the IMDB list, combined with its impressively long list of film festival accolades, I'm starting to wonder if it will ultimately sweep the critics' prizes in this category and land a sneak Best Director nomination as well. This happened before with foreign films, including Kieslowski's masterpiece Trois Couleurs: Rouge and Mereille's City of God, so keep A Separation in mind as a dark horse in those categories. 

Special Achievement in Filmmaking: the Harry Potter franchise

See what I mean by the NBR being inventive with categories? They have awarded prizes in similar categories to the likes of future Oscar winners such as Life is Beautiful, showing an inventiveness that the stodgier Academy would not consider. Since the last film was also named one of the NBR’s Best Film finalists, that should alert the Academy that perhaps wide-reaching, commercial fare can still be arty as well and make it into the list of Best Picture nominees? (Full disclosure: I am a complete and total nutter for Harry Potter and if this happens I will do cartwheels at my laptop.)

Best Ensemble Cast: The Help

Curiously, this film received no other mentions and wasn’t named one of the year’s ten best films. But almost every winner in this category at the NBR has seen at least one of its cast members go on to receive an Oscar nomination for the same work. This will undoubtedly help (pun not intended) Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, and especially Jessica Chastain, who just won a New York Film Critics’ award and concentrate the campaigning on this film (which I'm calling for a Best Picture nomination) rather than for her other works, ensuring minimal to no vote-splitting.

Best Debut Director: J.C. Chandor for Margin Call

If there were a film that might sneak into the Oscar nominations undetected, it would be this one. Having also won a similar prize at the NYFCC, a screenplay acknowledgment and possible left-field Best Director nod should not be out of the question, even with the film’s soft box office.

Best Film Finalists:

Mentions should help The Artist, The Descendants, The Tree of Life, War Horse, The Ides of March and Drive stay in the conversation. But the biggest beneficiaries are Harry Potter and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both of which might not have been considered contenders before but whose mentions here, combined with prizes, could land them in the final list. The NBR also mentioned Clint Eastwood’s disappointing star vehicle J. Edgar, which has received mixed reviews and tepid box office, but they also showered him with prizes for 2008’s Gran Torino, which was shut out entirely by the Academy.

Come back on the week of December 11, one of the most exciting in the awards season calendar. I’ll be commenting on the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association awards, as well as the Critics’ Choice, Screen Actors’ Guild and Golden Globe nominations that are to be released that week!