“Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
” – Leonard Cohen
The National Board of Review just aimed the race in a slightly different direction with their announcement this morning, naming JC Chandor’s Lumet-esque brooding meditation on American life, A Most Violent Year as their top pick. Like the New York Film Critics choice of Marion Cotillard for Best Actress and Timothy Spall for Best Actor, it seemed as though someone was shaking the tree, going way outside the box. That’s assuming, of course, that these groups are even paying attention to the awards chatter or simply and quietly doing their thing, awarding what they liked best.
There is a collective disgust among film critics towards the way Oscar season corals certain films and shuns others, turning it all into a contest, (they say as they count their ballots and tally the votes). There is also the idea that their choices could influence the awards race, shift it in a different direction. If any year needed shifting, it’s this one.
Awards coverage has swollen to a gigantic proportions. It’s built on its own internal consensus and that consensus is born out of judgments made without the perspective of major film critics. That’s especially true of this year’s NBR winner, A Most Violent Year, a film which so far has nine positive reviews and a score of 86 on Metacritic, compared to Selma’s 5 reviews and a score of 98. Assessment of both films exists only inside the bubble — that is to say, an assessment made by a handful of insiders who saw the two films at festivals. Now they’re being served up to voters by publicity teams whose function is not to evaluate quality but only to secure awards wins by any means.
Unbroken’s reviews, held for as long as possible, have fared even worse, but that wasn’t going to stop the NBR from invited Angelina to their party. Fury is there too, ensuring maximum Brangelina attendance. That is how the game is played, up to and including the Oscar race. Stars are still stars and they can still obliterate everything around them just by showing up. Stars and publicity – if only the awards race could be about that. Audiences and fans come to see the movies, the movies make money, everybody wins, right?
Despite the way things have changed, I still think the reception of films by critics has to matter, despite the changing face of film criticism. It matters because the best film critics are not supposed to be influenced by money or by star power but are there instead to genuinely assess the films. Do they do that anymore? Some of them still do. The lines are increasingly blurred.
The NBR are not critics and they don’t appear to care what critics think. This is also how the Hollywood Foreign Press tends to decide movies because they, too, see them a lot of the time before the films open to critics. And how great for publicists and studios to be able to take critics out of the mix because then they can bring out their big stars and woo the voters without the critics coming along and spoiling all the fun. After all, where is the money supposed to come from if all of the nominees are nobodys?
Why do you suppose there are so many awards leading up to the Oscars now, almost three times more than there were before? An entire industry now exists in this five month contest to the finish. What wins here might get nominated there and if it’s nominated someone might pay to see it. There is much competition to get “awards attention” because it can mean a world of difference at the box office.
But this year it is indeed wide open because the awards bloggers like me were too married to the notion of what makes an Oscar movie, not taking our lead from the critics but from each other. Is it an Oscar movie or isn’t it? In so doing, we select out anything that might not be to “their” taste which, in the end, created such a muted, soft list almost everyone began to think it was a weak year in film.
It wasn’t a weak year so much as it was an Oscar race being decided by people seeing movies at festivals without the very necessary component of critics. That reception of a movie tells you a lot – and you can’t get it at festivals.
Prestige is as prestige does. Even if Unbroken or American Sniper or A Most Violent Year are panned, they still have the prestige of the National Board of Review to put on their ads and that can, often times, silence the critics.
That brings us to those movies, two of which that made it onto the list for ten best of the year, and one that was named the year’s best film. How are their chances looking for the Oscar race?
Let’s take a look at the NBR’s past Best Picture winners going back to the year when Oscar expanded to ten, 2009.
Up in the Air ‡
(500) Days of Summer
An Education ‡
The Hurt Locker †
Inglourious Basterds ‡
A Serious Man ‡
Where the Wild Things Are
2010: (in alphabetical order except for 1)
The Social Network ‡
The Fighter ‡
The King’s Speech †
Toy Story 3 ‡
True Grit ‡
Winter’s Bone ‡
2011: (in alphabetical order except for 1)
The Artist †
The Descendants ‡
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
The Ides of March
The Tree of Life ‡
War Horse ‡
2012: (in alphabetical order except for 1)
Zero Dark Thirty ‡
Beasts of the Southern Wild ‡
Django Unchained ‡
Les Miserables ‡
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Silver Linings Playbook ‡
2013: (in alphabetical order except for 1)
12 Years a Slave †
Inside Llewyn Davis
Saving Mr. Banks
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The Wolf of Wall Street ‡
2014: (in alphabetical order except for 1)
A Most Violent Year
The Imitation Game
The Lego Movie
In the last 20 years, only two films have won the Oscar that weren’t one of the NBR’s top ten, Return of the King and A Beautiful Mind. It happens but it’s rare. That puts Selma in the tough road category and volleys the win back to the earlier favorites, Boyhood, Birdman and The Imitation Game. So the consensus giveth surprises, and it takes away another surprise, and that would be the excitement of Selma coming up from behind and winning.
But the real question here is whether this is enough to get A Most Violent Year into the race. That I’m not so sure about. It stands to reason that, yes, it will find a way in because it just won a major award with a great reputation. On the other hand, it isn’t exactly a movie that inspires passionate love. It is a subtle character study that you will love if you’re into that kind of thing but you’ll be bored by if you aren’t. I don’t know if that’s enough but if I were you I guess I would have to predict it to be one of the nine, given the history of these awards.
The New York Times story a while back that Interstellar was sucking up all of the publicity around Jessica Chastain could have also given the film some sympathy and an urgency to vote for it. But because the film hasn’t really opened yet, it is difficult to tell what we’re dealing with. That’s also true of Selma and American Sniper. One made the list, the other didn’t. But none of these have been reviewed on a major level yet.
Thus, many see this is as an exciting turn in a seemingly bland awards race. If you view the race as entertainment, a saga of suspense where there are winners, losers, frontrunners and underdogs you’ll want to see all kinds of different options to keep the race worth watching. But if you’re not in it for that reason, you will be frustrated by “colorful” choices that take the eye off the ball. So many cheered when Marion Cotillard won Best Actress with the New York Film Critics because they weren’t expecting it. But that also meant that Julianne Moore had to lose.
This was a year that Scott Feinberg and Thelma Adams at Gold Derby did not have Gone Girl in for a Best Picture nod but did have CitizenFour, a documentary. It is the year that the National Board of Review put The Lego Movie in its top ten instead of Whiplash, Selma or The Theory of Everything. David Poland and Kris Tapley have proclaimed on Twitter that the year is wide open for a Best Picture slate. All of this just because two early voting bodies went against the roiling consensus. Act One, Take Two.
Though Unbroken made it in, the NBR threw a polite but very insulting bone to the other film by a female director who is on the rise, Ava DuVernay’s powerful film Selma. Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere will no doubt rejoice in the top prize for a Most Violent Year. Ditto Dave Karger at the Unbroken inclusion. His early and staunch position in the race was that Unbroken would be your year’s winner.
The two best films I thought they chose were David Fincher’s standout Gone Girl, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But if you really look at their list, with the exception of A Most Violent Year, you will still see that same core consensus:
The Imitation Game
Even without the NBR, it still feels like:
The Theory of Everything
Now perhaps you can add:
A Most Violent Year
Maybe you still have:
And don’t be surprised if:
I have never liked the awards race as entertainment mentality. It is that kind of thinking that inevitably makes the awards race seem meaningless — if it isn’t about trying to find the highest achievements in film then it is about something less important. And if it’s about something other than finding the highest achievements then let it be about something MORE important like leveling the power dynamic in Hollywood, for instance.
The exclusion of Selma will indeed make some people very happy – I met a few of those at the AFI screening. No one can say the NBR is not open to stories about African Americans because they named Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave on their top ten last year. Selma is better than both of those. It is among the most vibrant and memorable movie-going experiences of the year — DuVernay captured a pivotal moment in history, in American history, not just the history of the civil rights movement. We are in this together. Our country is divided because we have allowed it to go on.
In the end, people can’t help but pick what and who they like. That is how it can sometimes be confusing when a popular star enters the race, like a Ben Affleck or an Angelina Jolie. It’s better if the film is well received, of course, because that and the star power can drive it home as it has so many times in the past with films like Dances with Wolves and Braveheart. Then again, Barbra Streisand got Prince of Tides into the Best Picture race but was never nominated for Best Director. Her film was mediocre at best and yet her star power jammed it through. The same dynamic could play out for Unbroken. But our consensus out of Telluride as the top three to win has not changed, though for a while there it looked like it had:
The Imitation Game
Or as I like to call it, the Imitation Boyman.
And so it begins.