Yesterday’s announcement, that The Social Network won an unprecedented number of National Board of Review awards – Pic, Actor, Director and Screenplay is unusual indeed. You have to go all the way back to Sense and Sensibility, Howards End, The Silence of the Lambs and Mississippi Burning to find to a similar sweep, but no screenplay awards were given out (although in 95 there was a “screenwriting distinction” award which did not go to Sense and Sensibility). Of those three examples, only Silence of the Lambs won the Best Picture Oscar. It, like The Social Network, is a crowdpleaser. It, like The Social Network, was being discussed as “not an Oscar movie” at the time.
Another big winner of the NBR was David Lean’s A Passage to India, which won four. Amadeus won the Best Picture Oscar that year. There is no direct line between the NBR and Oscar’s Best Picture, just as there is no direct line from the Hollywood Foreign Press or any other critics group, particularly. Every movement in the race alters perception in one direction or another. Some might compare this win to 1997’s LA Confidential, which also then won the LAFCA and the NYFCC. But Jim Cameron’s Titanic was waiting in the wings and it wouldn’t be IGNORED, Dan. This argument was also trotted out last year with Avatar vs. Titanic. I think, as with all things Oscar related, it matters how the movie plays and what it is up against.
The NBR, despite the criticisms the group gets, have had traditionally great taste. Taste, I might say, that holds up better under scrutiny than the Oscars. The same might be said about the HFPA, come to that. The best thing the NBR has done is give a boost to Lesley Manville for Another Year, and to Jesse Eisenberg, who gives a spot on, layered and compelling performance in The Social Network. It helps The Social Network, too, but the film doesn’t really need any help. One only needs to watch it, preferably a couple of times.
Many assumed The King’s Speech would walk away with this award, so it is a bit surprising that The Social Network not only took the top spot, but took so many other awards with it. We don’t know, though, if we’re headed into a No Country year, or if there will be many different choices for Best Picture. It is simply too early to tell.
We can, however, talk about who got bumped up from yesterday’s announcement. Let’s start with Lesley Manville. Manville has been hovering in the fringes, quietly having given one of the best performances of the year. I say quietly because she hasn’t gotten much in the way of major publicity yet. She isn’t as big a star as Annette Bening, nor is she all the talk, like Natalie Portman, nor is she the latest “it” girl like Jennifer Lawrence. But what she is, Oscar watchers, is down to the bone good. She is, in fact, brilliant.
What Lesley Manville does in Another Year is nothing short of astonishing, to start tripping over my hyperbole already. You can’t take your eyes off her face because you search there for a roadmap that will clue you into how she might be feeling. She is complex emotionally – half child, half old woman — falling to pieces while also pulling everyone and everything into her like a black hole. She is held together by her friend Gerry (the wonderful Ruth Sheen) and only just barely. When she betrays that trust, it threatens to send her on a Blanche DuBois-like downward spiral. Manville gets a big boost from the NBoR.
Best Actress maybe?
Jesse Eisenberg — while it’s still a bit of a question if Eisenberg can make the Best Actor five, there is no question that Eisenberg’s performance is one of the most memorable of the year. It isn’t just that he nails Sorkin’s dialogue perfectly (“I didn’t know that. Tell me more.”) And it isn’t just that he is such a vital part of The Social Network. It’s that his own emotional life as that character comes through in such a subtle way. The flickers of vulnerability, like when Erica touches his hand to break up with him in the beginning, or the startled look on his face when Eduardo smashes his computer at the end (“He’s wired in.”) Eisenberg nails it but more than that, he elevates it.
It’s a tough year, and as Scott Feinberg points out to me on Twitter, there are really seven names for the five slots:
Whom do you dump? It’s an incredibly hard year for Actor and Director. The NBR didn’t bump up a director who already wasn’t at the top of his game, but let me just say about David Fincher — you all think I’ve been over-praising the Social Network this year, but let me tell you that I have been, the way I see it, a lot quieter about it than I want to be. Much of the Fincher praise I’ve held my tongue on. But I’ve now seen The Social Network going on eight times and I can say fairly easily that it is a perfect film. Not only is it perfect because it flows, is entertaining and watchable and all of the other relevant points it makes about our nature and our culture, but because it is a lean piece of meat. Every tiny bit of fat has been trimmed away. If you watch it from start to finish you will never see Fincher stumble.¬† Moreover, you will see how he works WITH Aaron Sorkin and not against him. Sorkin doesn’t work as well with a director who is inclined towards sap. Sorkin is sappy and melodramatic enough on his own. What he needs is someone ice cold like Fincher — and together they make this film the perfect temperature. In my opinion, of course.
So then, Best Director remains incredibly hard to call. But let’s look at the strongest contenders:
1. David Fincher
2. Christopher Nolan
3. Danny Boyle
4. Tom Hooper
5. Joel and Ethan Coen
6. Darren Aronofsky
7. Debra Granik
8. Lisa Cholodenko
9. David O’Russell
10. Ben Affleck
11. Martin Scorsese
12. Clint Eastwood
I don’t think you can count out Eastwood and Scorsese completely. But I also see the fifth slot as being between the Coens and Aronofsky. Before the reviews came in for Black Swan, with the male critics kind of not getting as excited about it as one might think, and still before the True Grit reviews start pouring in – it looks like both are in a battle for that fifth slot. But we don’t really know, do we. We’re pretty sure about the first four names. After that, it still feels murky to me for that fifth slot. I could see one of the women making it in, like Debra Granik or Lisa Cholodenko. I could see Scorsese making it in. I could see David O’Russell making it in if The Fighter continues to be so well received. Hell, I could even see Mike Leigh making the cut. So, director is a gray area.
Things might shift in one or the other direction in the coming weeks, as the LAFCA and the NYFCC and the NYFCO and the OFCS start to announce. But for now, we wait. We wait.