Like them or not, the National Board of Review is first out of the gate with the top ten films of the year. Even though they have been criticized over the years for being “not real critics” and a “bought and paid for” critics groups — none of that has seemed to matter. In the Oscar race, perception is everything. Well, it’s almost everything. The bottom line is that you can’t really make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear — if the film is truly crappy it won’t get very far no matter how much money is backing it.
But before we do, let’s take a look at the general philosophies around potential Best Pic nominees — generated off the top of my head, though I know if I spent the time I could back them up with facts. So in typical blog form, just accept what you read without facts.
1. The director is the star of the Best Picture race, and heat around him or her can mean the difference between a film that gets nominated and a film that should have been nominated. Occasionally an unknown with little or no buzz can sneak in there but generally that’s someone who is being towed along by friends in high places. It helps if that friend is George Clooney or Jack Nicholson. It is no wonder that many are predicting Peter Jackson, Jim Cameron and Clint Eastwood to be in contention this year just on name and reputation alone.
2. A strong lead acting performance that has a chance of being nominated. Usually one out of the five doesn’t feature a central performance but generally speaking, films like The Queen and A Beautiful Mind were pulled along by the combination of the director doing their best work and, more importantly, a bravura star performance at the center. If voters like and sympathize with the central character it seems they tend to like the movie as a whole as well. Ensembles can also work but they aren’t as popular, it would seem, as one strong central figure with whom voters can identify and/or pity and/or fall in love with (Gwyneth Paltrow).
3. Good reviews, or in lieu of that, a strong emotional tug. Even if a film has mediocre reviews it can overcome those provided it is sappy and redemptive enough — The Reader is a good example of this. However, the better the reviews, the better the chance for a NOMINATION. Winning films can sometimes benefit from great reviews, but history has shown us that it isn’t always the best reviewed film that wins. Being an all-around crowdpleaser (your grandmother, child, mother, boss, exchange student, guy who works at the 7-11 will get it if not love it) coupled with great reviews is usually your winning formula.
4. A motivated and Academy-friendly publicity team. I’ve seen publicists work miracles with films that had no business anywhere near the Best Pic race.¬† It starts with their media contacts but it also has to do with TV spots (60 Minutes is always a good get, maybe Oprah) and their ad campaign. Check out our archival site for how campaigns were run in the past five years or so.¬† Making “friends” with Academy members doesn’t really help because voters usually are motivated either by loyalty to their studio or buddies or else voting with their heart – they don’t usually care about a publicist, although it helps if that publicist IS an Academy member.
The truth here is that William Goldman’s statement is still true: nobody knows anything. It is a publicist’s job to work from that basic premise.
5.¬† Timing. A little movie needs to be out front early — An Education is a good example. It gets buried otherwise, but not so late that there isn’t time to see the film’s impact on the public. Back in the day, a film would be shown to the public BEFORE the Academy decided whether it was a worthy Best Picture – so Best Picture nominees tended to be films everyone would agree were the best. Once they pushed back the date, with good intentions, there just wasn’t time for this to occur. So now you have movies that are Best Pic frontrunners long before they hit theaters (Up in the Air). Sometimes the public can make the difference. Gran Torino last year did so well with the public it could have gotten a Best Pic nomination despite the lukewarm reviews.
6. Too much hype makes people instinctively hate it. The psychology of the voter, and maybe the critic, is that they don’t much like sloppy seconds – mounting the beast after someone else has been there first can be a repulsive experience. One prefers to be the original. If everyone is saying how great a film is before audiences or voters get to see it, they are probably going to try their best to hate it. That was Dreamgirls’ problem and ultimately, Benjamin Button’s problem (even though nominated), and maybe even The Dark Knight’s problem. The movie has to be flawless to pass this test, a film that is so moving and involving it surpasses any petty indulgence — like Slumdog Millionaire. Or else so monumental no one can deny its importance – Schindler’s List, Titanic.
7.¬† Know the film’s strengths and weaknesses. If you can’t sell it on A, you sell it on C. If you try to sell the one thing that’s wrong about the movie, you will remind voters again and again why they shouldn’t vote for it. If the writing is the weak point, don’t continually quote the thing.¬† Sometimes the campaigns don’t matter because other factors are going to make a film the winner. The Departed, for instance, probably didn’t win Best Pic because of its print ad campaign. It won because voters liked it best. Which brings us to number 8.
8. You really can’t make people like something they don’t like. You certainly can’t do it by saying they SHOULD like it. Generally if people are divided up into hate it/love its you are probably looking at an uphill climb towards a nomination (though it can happen) but not a winner. You can get a film nominated that they haven’t yet seen but suspect it might be a masterpiece because of the print campaign and a few early reviews (Gangs of New York, which I actually liked) but you can’t get a winner that way, no way, no how.
9. Have something “important” about the movie that is beyond the ordinary. This doesn’t always hold true but these days it seems more true than ever. Every good story has a strong theme. Depth of story is important because, trust me, the older you get in life (and many Academy members are senior citizens) the more you’ve been there, done that. You crave depth of story, a good amount of humanity, otherwise it seems like, to quote Woody Allen, mental masturbation. In other words, make sure it’s “about something.” Biopics, historic war battles, sinking ships, civil war. Stories about real people in history seem to work well. If you don’t have any of that, an adaptation of a classic novel comes pre-packaged with depth and complexity; it is that rare film with an original screenplay that can make the cut if the writing is good enough.¬†¬† The bottom line is that too many films fail in the Oscar race because they are about unimportant people doing unimportant things. When you’ve seen enough of these you feel like you are watching the same movie over and over again.
10. A good movie is a good movie is a good movie. You don’t have to be Einstein to know a Best Picture winner when you see one if it’s the kind of movie people like. It can be vacant, semi-poorly reviewed, but if it’s a money maker without even trying (zooming to $100 mil without breaking a sweat), and it’s got one extra thing about it that elevates it from the norm, you are looking at a surefire nominee and possibly a winner.¬†¬†¬†How do you manage to create such a thing? “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
Now, on to the National Board of Review. This isn’t a group that necessarily follows the rules of Best Picture nominees because they sort of set the tone for which films are going to be let in to the club and which films aren’t. No one takes them so seriously that they hold their picks up as the gold standard but a good start with them can lend a good amount of respectability, whether it is real or not: perception is almost everything.
The National Board of Review contest at Awards Daily will be underway later this week. In time for it, though, what are your top ten choices for them? Will they include an animated film and if so, Up? Or The Fantastic Mr. Fox?¬† I think there will be a hodge podge of types of films. For the Bucket List slot, will it be Julie & Julia or It’s Complicated? Hm. Here are the films I know will be on it:
The Hurt Locker (maybe for the win)
Up in the Air
A Serious Man
Invictus (if they see it in time, which they should)
Films I think might be on there but I’m not sure:
500 Days of Summer
Julie & Julia
A Single Man
Where the Wild Things Are
Films I would love to see on there but probably have a slim chance:
In the Loop
Definitely NOT their thing: Avatar
Won NBR*, Won Oscar+
Top Ten of 2008
Burn After Reading
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
MISSING: The Reader
Top ten of 2007
No Country for Old Men* +
The Assassination of Jesse James
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Bucket List
Into the Wild
The Kite Runner
Lars and the Real Girl
MISSING: There Will Be Blood
Top ten of 2006
Letters From Iwo Jima *
The Devil Wears Prada
Flags Of Our Fathers
The History Boys
Little Miss Sunshine
Notes On A Scandal
The Painted Veil
Missing: The Queen
Top ten films in 2005
Good Night, And Good Luck‚Ä®*
A History of Violence
Memoirs of a Geisha
Walk the Line
Top ten in 2004
1. Finding Neverland*
2. The Aviator
4. Million Dollar Baby+
7. Vera Drake
10. Hotel Rwanda
Top ten films in 2003
The Last Samurai
The Station Agent
House of Sand and Fog
Lost in Translation
Master and Commander
Missing: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Best Picture winner absent from NBR’s radar, for shame!)+