What really matters, as far as critics are concerned, these four groups, New York, LA, and the NBR (we’ll deal with the Golden Globes in a separate post). They matter for various reasons. First, why do any awards matter at all, from critics, to industry, to Oscar? They matter to studios for two reasons, leaving off gratification of earned career high. 1) they lend prestige, and 2) they can make the difference between someone deciding to buy a ticket or not. The Oscar brand is, right now, the most expensive of these because it’s by far the most valuable. This is why the Academy works so hard not to dilute that brand, especially where Best Picture is concerned.
In order to address the changing face of the film industry they could, for example, have a separate category for Best Effects Driven Film. But that almost always leads to diluting the brand. Look at the Broadcast Film Critics that birthed so many new categories (to ensure more stars attended their shows and perhaps to make it easier to pick winners across the board). Is anyone going to care if a film wins Best Action Movie by the BFCA? Similarly, who is going to care if a film wins Best Effects Driven Picture? One award, Best Picture, means everything.
The first Academy Awards in 1928 had a marvelous division of “best production overall” and “artistic achievement.” That is how Sunrise and Wings both won. What a marvelous idea that is. It addresses the continual conflict between popular entertainment/money makers and artistic daring. For instance, this year, you could give Best Production to, say, Interstellar and artistic achievement to Boyhood. But that isn’t happening any time soon, so we have to deal with what is, not what should be.
December 1st is fast approaching. The New York Film Critics deliberately pushed their awards back to be “first” in the awards race and indeed, they have taken back power from the National Board of Review in a rushed season. Before Oscar pushed their own date back a month, the National Board of Review came out so early, too early. They could push a film into the race but they were considered too early to matter. Later, the New York and Los Angeles Critics would take center stage and really drive the race (most of the time). But the date change smushed everything together, so that Telluride became the most important film festival (over Toronto, for instance) and the NBR had the cat bird’s seat with early critics awards. The New York Film Critics then pushed their own date back to be first. And so it goes.
Los Angeles doesn’t seem to care to be first but they like to be different, especially these days. They seem to want to vote against what New York and the Oscar pundits have decided. In other words, they don’t feel like wasting their time merely confirming what everyone else has to say. Rather, they seem eager to be different, more challenging, to go against the grain a bit. One of the strange side effects from an abundance of supply without corresponding demand is that writers, bloggers, critics and journalists are desperate for any sort of drama in the race and often concoct their own to keep things humming along.
The National Board of Review names a Best Picture and ten more best films. The Best Picture matters, and it’s nice to see some titles on their top ten, but their top ten matters less than, say, the AFI’s top ten. Their Best Picture DOES matter, it seems. The New York and LA Film critics also have power to influence the acting and directing categories, perhaps more than any other group in the early part of the race. Which director is named best by New York and LA really does count for something.
These announcements will come just before the DGA, PGA, SAG and Oscar voters fill out their nominees. Human nature dictates that most of us, except the most confident and assured among us, don’t know what is really the best, or what is thought of as the best. We like what we like but we also like to get along with our fellow humans. While some of us delight in being “different,” generally speaking human beings are inclined towards harmonious agreement, a sense of belonging to something. This is often how consensus votes are formed: what unites, rather than divides, voters?
So when the early awards come down, many humans feel inclined to agree, in order to get along and find harmonious sense of belonging. This consensus builds and becomes hard to shake. That was why 2010 was so odd, with the entire film critic community backing the Social Network while the industry rejected it outright — they didn’t want t belong to a group that admired such cold and calculating characters. They’d much rather belong to the group that admired a sweet, cuddly, stuttering King with his cute little family and a while bunch of cute British people uniting against Hitler. It remains the most interesting Best Picture race that I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of the year 2000, when Gladiator, Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were headed for the big prize. There was division in the ranks for various reasons, most of them good.
When you think about what New York is going to do, you have to think: big statement. The past two years they’ve picked movies most people hadn’t seen. How dramatic that they named American Hustle Best Picture when everyone already knew that the two movies that could win were either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave (both films divided the consensus, uniting them over separate issues and objectives). That prize launched American Hustle squarely in the race at a time when no one knew if the movie would land or not. When I saw it at a SAG screening I thought it went down badly. I thought: what a sloppy mess of a movie – while “fun” and entertaining, it is not going to have a shot against the other two films. Boy was I wrong. All it took was the anointing of “best” from the New York Film Critics OVER Gravity and 12 Years a Slave for that movie to suddenly become a powerful player. The Emperor’s New Clothes look mighty pretty today. But here’s the question, did those critics really think American Hustle was better than Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, two films they reviewed as best of the year? Or did they merely want to stand out in a season that stuffs the turkey to the point of bursting?
12 Years a Slave Metacritic rating: 97
Gravity’s Metacritic rating: 96
American Hustle’s Metacritic rating: 90
90 is still very respectable. To me, that movie is about a 70, or a 75 to be charitable. But that just shows how little I know about what critics like.
Did they think it was best or did they want to stand out? Hard to say. The National Board of Review then named Her Best Picture. They like to pick movies that no one else has chosen, thus making sure they also stand apart. That film was launched into the race in a big way.
Los Angeles then went for a tie between Gravity and Her, eliminating any big city critic’s approval of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The film had been declared the Best Picture winner by Kyle Buchanan early in the race, which put a giant target on its back. Though it won, it was touch and go for a while there, with even the BAFTA awarding it their top prize but not screenplay, actor, etc.
In predicting these major awards, one has to factor in the desire to be different, not just from other critics but from what the predicted Oscar winner. That’s a tough one. In the old days, before the awards-as-overstuffed-turkey days, they would merely pick “best” of the year.
They sometimes unite, as they did in 2012 with Zero Dark Thirty. Named “best picture and director” early, by the New York Film Critics, the film went on to be named best by the National Board of Review. But remember, the Los Angeles Film Critics mostly like to set themselves apart, so they went with Amour instead, which likely pushed Amour into the race, which also then gave Michael Haneke a Best Director nod instead of Kathryn Bigelow. It wouldn’t matter in the end because people like Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan would help lead a charge that demolished Zero Dark Thirty’s chances and pit film critics against political journalists until the movie was destroyed, perception wise. I remember one Los Angeles Film Critic member saying on Twitter, “we’re not going to vote for Zero Dark Thirty, I can tell you that.” It wasn’t because they thought the film celebrated torture or admitted Americans got information from torturing (that is exactly what the movie says and exactly what really happened) but because the movie was winning everything and LA likes to stand apart.
The last time they were united in holy matrimony was – say it with me now:
2010 – The Social Network
But let’s do a quick chart of the last ten years since the date for Oscar changed to see how the three groups align for Best Picture:
Two things should be immediately apparent. 1) The Social Network is the only film in the last ten years to win all three critics groups, and the only film in their entire history to win all three groups and not win Best Picture other than LA Confidential (if you factor in the Golden Globes for Best Film Social Network is the only one to manage that).
2) since the Academy expanded their Best Picture category from 5 to 10, and then from 10 to a number between 5 and 10, all of their winners have gone on to be nominees.
Now, let’s get on to predictions. We’ll be putting up our contest in the coming days but let’s start with a preliminary cheat sheet.
New York Film Critics
Top choices: Birdman, Boyhood or Foxcatcher
Would drastically change the race: Unbroken
Would really shift things: Selma
Los Angeles Film Critics
Top choices: Birdman, Boyhood or Foxcatcher
Depending on what New York decides, but we’re probably still looking at these.
The Scott Feinberg/Jeff Wells dream come true: CitizenFour
Big shocker that would change the race: A Most Violent Year
National Board of Review
Top choices: American Sniper, Selma, Unbroken
But would not surprise me if: Birdman, Boyhood or Foxcatcher
As you can see by the chart, it’s extremely rare to have the critics determine WHAT WILL WIN Best Picture but they are crucial in deciding which films start the proper race on top. They generally pick films that are well reviewed, so you have to start there. So many films this year are surprisingly not that well reviewed as you’d think but Boyhood, Birdman and Foxcatcher seem to be the critics’ darlings thus far.
Unbroken is really the big question mark – if the New York Film Critics wanted to pull a third rabbit out of their hat they might pick that movie, which would then give the pundits further ammo to keep predicting a film they haven’t seen to win. That still doesn’t mean it wins Best Picture at the Oscars, but it would sure help.
What they probably will shy away from overall? Gone Girl (except maybe the NBR that might name it as one of their top ten). It earned mixed reviews from the critics and after the Social Network he’ll have to make a movie critics, not the ticket buying public, approve of. If it were me voting, it would be a toss up between the films I think are the best of the year: Gone Girl, Selma, Boyhood, Inherent Vice.
How about you? How do you think they’re going to go?